More than 20,000 terpenes appear throughout nature, in every plant, every flower, and even some insects. They are highly aromatic and may protect the plants that produce them. In some plants, terpenes attract pollinators, while in other plants, they cause a strong reaction to repel predators, such as insects or foraging animals. Some terpenes play a protective role in the plant, helping it to recover from damage; others act as a part of the plant’s immune system to keep away infectious germs.
Terpenes determine the unique smells of plants and herbs, such as rosemary, eucalyptus and lavender. Terpenes and terpenoids (the oxidized, or dried and cured byproduct of terpenes) are the primary constituents of the essential oils of many types of plants and flowers. Essential oils are used widely as fragrances in perfumery and traditional medicine, such as aromatherapy. Once thought responsible only for the aroma of plants, terpenes are now known to possess serious medicinal value. Additionally, our sense of smell is linked to the brain’s memory and emotion centers. This means terpenes can hold a significant influence over our greater psyche.
As a result, there is a probable link between the scent of a terpene and its effect.
Although relatively few of these aromatic hydrocarbons – about 200 – are found in cannabis, terpenes are highly associated with Cannabis and its many different strains. Studies on the therapeutic effects of different terpenes are increasing in the medical community as more and more states legalize cannabis. With a wide variety of therapeutic effects, terpenes can help the body destroy bacteria, detoxify, fungus, combat inflammation, relax and more.
Terpenes have been shown to act on receptors and neurotransmitters; they can act as serotonin uptake inhibitors (similar to antidepressants like Prozac); they can enhance norepinephrine activity (similar to tricyclic antidepressants like Elavil); they can increase dopamine activity; and they can augment GABA (the “downer” neurotransmitter that counters glutamate, the “upper”). However, more specific research is needed for improved accuracy in describing and predicting how terpenes in cannabis can be used medicinally to help treat specific ailments and health conditions.