By Richard S. Gubbe
Grandmothers of old promoted natural healing remedies and used them without knowing what the actual content was or how they worked. Grandma said plants and trees produced a cure for almost any ailment, and out of faith we believed. Much of what granny said would work actually does and we are finally getting proof by identifying each of the compounds involved.
Ask 100 educated people what a terpene is and you may find one or two who knows they are part of our daily lives and have been since the first plant popped up. Enter any cannabis dispensary, take a big whiff and you will smell everything from pine to citrus. Ingesting the terpenes found in cannabis plants can ease the most challenging of conditions ranging from seizures to PTSD.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much research available about what this natural collection of molecules does for the human body. We know strains of cannabis have different organic compound mixtures of terpenes and cannabinoids that attach to receptors in the body, particularly in the brain, and can be healing. But lesser known are delivery methods, dosages, and mixtures.
Compare finding your ideal strain to the business of taking pharmaceuticals where a doctor tells you what you need, how much, and the delivery method. The doctor makes a calculated, educated guess as to what may help you and how much to give you. For medical cannabis, that is now the role of the dispensary worker to know. But buyer beware, the information can vary. And yet, patients can now make an educated guess on their own as to what is needed to reduce or relieve symptoms with a little bit of research.
The Botany of it All
The discovery of terpenes and their interaction with cannabinoids has created a new science that is in need of exploring. Terpenes, advocates say, create a synergy of effects that have healing results. The cannabinoid THC has long been known to help with pain and anxiety relief to name a few, but how it interacts with other cannabinoids and terpenes when received by receptors in the body is the key to better servicing patients.
Think of the synergy as if you are making an angel food cake. If you leave out the vanilla, does it change the taste, the outcome? Absolutely. But we won’t die from a change in the recipe.
Approximately 200 terpenes have been found in cannabis. Among them are monoterpenes, diterpenes and sesquiterpenes, which are characterized by the number of repeating units of a 5-carbon molecule called isoprene, the structural hallmark of all terpenoid compounds. Terpenes, or isoprenoids, provide cannabis with its inviting aroma.
Terpenes deter insect predation, protect plants from environmental stresses, and act as building blocks for more complex molecules such as cannabinoids. Many terpenes act synergistically with one another, and some either catalyze or inhibit formation of different compounds within a plant. Understanding how terpenes function can allow scientists and doctors to manipulate cannabinoids to desired ratios.
Terpenoids and cannabinoids are said to increase blood flow, enhance cortical activity, and kill respiratory infections, including MRSA. They can also prevent fungus or act as an antibiotic. Terpenes and CBD can also buffer THC’s tricky psycho-activity.
Terpenes are active aromatic molecules that evaporate easily. Various researchers have emphasized the pharmacological importance of terpenes, or terpenoids, which form the basis of aromatherapy, a popular holistic healing modality.
What Grandma Didn’t Know
Marijuana’s compelling fragrance and particular psychoactive flavor are born from predominate terpenes in a strain. Terpenes work the same as cannabinoids by attaching to cannabinoid receptors.
The delivery of terpenes in tinctures, oils and concentrates is where the debate begins as to which is better for the patient. Smoking it, purists claim, is the best form of unleashing these healing compounds.
Most cannabis varieties have been bred and crossbred to contain high levels of THC while other cannabinoids like CBD become miniscule. Different harvests may demonstrate different terpenoid profiles due to variances in growing and curing techniques. Lab testing is the only way of knowing a strain’s terpene potency. Matching the terpene profile and cannabinoid profiles to fit a patient’s needs is the best way to achieve the synergistic effects desired.
The bad news is they dissipate, just like a room deodorizer. The challenge is to keep the bud fresh or, when extracting terpenes from the bud, to capture them quickly, keep them cool and turn them into a concentrate or mix them in a cartridge or syringe.
Now that’s a Nice Profile
Matthew Gardiner, the VP at Shango, beams when giving tours of his vertical facility on Boulder Highway. As a corporation, Shango has experience in Oregon and Washington and created a grow house in Las Vegas of at least 3,000 plants that cycle through the curing process to the bud packaging or extraction rooms. Each room is full of busy, gowned employees who take cannabis from the cultivation through production to the dispensary.
Gardiner says extracting terpenes quickly is crucial, as he holds up a vial of a golden mixture made from a Shango strain. The staff also mixes terpenes with CBD and THC to create vaping cartridges while every day gaining more knowledge of their interaction, notes Gardiner.
Shango and other growers are learning how to enhance terpene content by altering grow techniques that include stressing the plant or using different food. When you ask Gardiner or any other grower about data, the response is generally: “That’s proprietary.”
The only thing not present at Shango is a testing lab. Labs are primarily regulatory, but they also are gold mines for data collection.
Darryl Johnson is the scientific director of Ace Analytical Laboratory in Las Vegas and has a Ph.D. in bioanalytical chemistry from the University of Georgia. As a former Research Chemist Fellow at Atlanta’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the author of eight peer-reviewed scientific journal articles, he’s far more than a lab tech.
Testing the profile is Johnson’s way to assure Nevada patients that they only get the good stuff, the clean stuff. As far as data goes, Nevada, with its stringent testing regulations, is at the forefront of research.
“We’re just scratching the surface,” Johnson says. “But we have more data than anyone else has ever compiled. A year from now we’re going to laugh at how much we learned.”
There is no typical terpene profile. For instance, in one batch, the strain Tropicanna had a state-tested percentage of more than 10 milligrams per gram of myrcene as well as generous amounts of limonene and pinene and a lot of THC. Anything more than two to four percent of a terpene in a profile is a lot.
The profile comes in samplings taken from the bud. For concentrates, the profile contains everything in the oil. Concentrates and cartridges can now boast 75 to 90 percent THC with small amounts of terpenes and other cannabinoids. Concentrates come directly from the extraction of the plant of one strain. For the Tropicanna bud sample, the THC level tested above 26 percent with a low CBD count. Small amounts of terpenes and CBD can dip as low as .01 or lower.
“Those miniscule amounts may have more of an impact than you know,” says Johnson, who believes that as much as 75 percent of terpenes can be lost after the plant is cut down. “Rosin press preserves terpenes pretty well,” he continues, “but the concentrates are missing something. I prefer the flower. I’ll always prefer flower.”
Hugo Alonso, a chemist at New Heights Laboratory, says different testing results can come from testing different parts of the bud. “Parts of the plant are even stronger than others,” Alonso says. “Concentrate would be more accurate to measure terpenes.”
He also believes terpenes are fleeting and he simplifies the process to “just keep it cold, heat it fast, and cool it down again.”
Just Like Grandma Used to Grow
When Jay Crozier was a little boy, his grandma gave him a marijuana tincture if he ever started to get sick. She was growing pot in the 1940s for medicinal purposes and taught him how to grow, and how to stay healthy.
A 46-year-old, off-the-grid grower, Crozier remembers grandma telling him of a Native American Indica tincture in the 1930s made illegal in 1941. “I never got sick,” he says of using it. “When I was young we used to get pepper bud out of Canada that smelled like black pepper.”
He’s spent his life learning how to grow cannabis to get the most out of it. “I’m just into the medical aspect of it,” he says. “I make sure the medicine is grown right, otherwise, you’re not getting the full benefit.”
Growers can accomplish that by not cutting down plants early and curing them properly, he says, “It’s taken me 30 years to know what I know.”
He’s been extracting since 1998 but never knew there were multiple substances involved. “We knew terpenes added flavor but we thought they were part of THC because they were oily,” he explains.
Crozier warns that synthetic terpenes are dangerous. “They need to be banned,” he relays. “Freshly pressed rosin is solvent-free and just pressed from the flower. And live resin distillates — they’re great, too.”
Making a Terpene Pie
In 2011 the British Journal of Pharmacology discussed the wide-ranging therapeutic attributes of terpenoids, which are typically lacking in CBD-only products. The article reported that cannabinoid-terpenoid interactions “could produce synergy with respect to treatment of pain, inflammation, depression, anxiety, addiction, epilepsy, cancer, fungal and bacterial infections.”
Dr. Bonni Goldstein puts that into practice combining terpenes with CBD. She is the medical director of Canna-Centers, a group of medical practices throughout California that educate patients on the use of cannabis therapy. The terpenoid called beta-caryophyllene has been shown to be anti-inflammatory and she uses that in combination with CBD to see what works in children to end epileptic seizures.
“I really believe that that’s one of the compounds that is very important for a child who has seizures,” she told Project CBD in California. She believes neuro-inflammation causes seizures and has had numerous success stories taking them away. One of her small clients went from 60 seizures a day to zero by using a CBD-terpene mix.
Martin A. Lee of Project CBD believes the synergy of CBD and terpenes is a key to many afflictions he’s seen Dr. Goldstein treat. Finding the right mix, he says, is like “a painter with a palette. Profiles offer a kaleidoscope of shifting colors. Terpenes and cannabinoids are chemically related like cousins with medicinal affects. But receptor pathways are different in everyone. When you put it all together with this holistic entourage, the impact of the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
Lee also believes myrcene is basically a sedative and follows the line of thinking that indica and sativa is not a valid measuring tool as each can have generous amounts of myrcene and other terpenes that alter the effects in every strain. He added that therapists can control the ratio of such when recommending a strain or method to their patients.
The Future Is…
Shared research will mean more accurate profiles and, in turn, the ability for patients to find accurate recommendations for precise mixtures of terpenes and CBD. Delivery methods will need to be studied further as missing terpenes in profiles could create adverse or nonproductive situations.
In the future kiosks will adorn each dispensary to supply credible, uniform information and will tailor client profiles to preserve privacy. Dispensary workers will undergo continued training to better understand the science, delivery, and strains.
Edibles will include the actual baking of cannabis itself to maintain the synergy of the plant through baking, much as it is now through vaping. Terpene bars and flavor testing rooms will inhabit dispensaries and enable more patients to utilize terpenes for healing.
Until then, budtender Sheldon Gates of Inyo Fine Cannabis dispensary sums it up simply: “the smell of terpenes is therapeutic and the plant energy itself makes people happy. We rarely see people who are bummed out. It’s intoxicating to be around it. Our employees are on a natural high.”
Looks like grandma was on to something.