Terpenes are the essential oil molecules of plants. Their role is to produce scents that attract pollinators and repel pests. And we’re learning more all the time about those essential oil molecules that also have similar effects on us humans. Many of today’s cannabis consumers are familiar with the idea of inhaling terpenes when smoking or vaporizing cannabis, and anyone who’s heard of the Entourage Effects knows how smelling terpenes can affect our bodies.
But terpenes aren’t JUST about their scent. In fact, some terpenes seem to have specific effects on our digestion and internal processes when they’re eaten that are quite different from their effects when they’re inhaled. What’s even more exciting is that most of these terpenes are commonly found in foods and in medicinal herbs that we eat every day. Knowing this leads us to wonder if terpenes can create effects when we consume them in edibles, not just by inhaling them, and if they’re the reason that some edibles are classified as Sativa or Indica. Read on to discover more about dietary terpenes, how they work, and how they interact with our bodies.
How do inhaled terpenes work?
When we inhale cannabis smoke or vapor, we breath in terpene molecules along with heated cannabinoids. Those molecules immediately interact with our olfactory system, or the part of our body that smells things.
Once this system registers the scents, they connect with the limbic system—the part of your brain that deals with emotions, memory, and physical responses like breathing patterns and heart rate. The olfactory and limbic systems are located right next to each other in the brain, which is why smells sometimes trigger distant memories before we can consciously remember the experiences.
These two systems also work together when we inhale terpenes, and the scents we breathe in can change our emotional state and our physical response.
Terpenes aren’t JUST scent molecules, and they are also delivered to the bloodstream through the lungs. When we inhale, alveoli (the small sacs that line our lungs) fill with air and the compounds we’ve inhaled. The lungs send those compounds to the heart, where they enter the bloodstream, and the heart pumps them to the brain and around the body. In this way, our lungs deliver inhaled terpenes to the rest of our body through heart and blood.
What about terpenes you eat instead of inhaling?
Ok, that covers inhaled terpenes, but what about dietary terpenes? Do terpenes in edibles cause effects, just like inhaled terpenes?
The answer is “yes”! People have been eating terpene-rich foods for most of recorded history, and dietary terpenes form the basis for entire holistic medical systems, like Traditional Chinese Medicine, or Ayuveda from India. We can look to these medical systems to understand how they ingest terpenes in a way that is beneficial to our bodies.
Dietary terpenes have long been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine
The concept of “Food is medicine” is not a new one, and systems like Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) have long recognized that plants have many therapeutic properties, some of which can be accessed through knowledge of terpenes.
One common terpene in TCM is pinene. It’s often used for its anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, anticancer, and antibiotic properties. This pinene generally comes from the essential oils of Eucalyptus and other related coniferous trees. In the past, the juice from the bark of Eucalyptus trees was collected and mixed in water, milk or wine to be used as a drug. Nowadays, the oils is extracted and sold as a syrup or in a lozenge.
Indigenous Brazilians also use Eucalyptus to treat several human diseases such as cancer, and the Australian Aboriginal cultures used the pinene-rich resin of the Melaleuca plant to treat fungal infections, open wounds, and prevent further infection.
The ancient system of Ayurveda is partially based on terpene use
Another way terpenes have been used therapeutically is via the system of Ayurveda, a popular medicine system that started in India around 3000 years ago. It’s based on herbs and minerals, along with specific diets, such as vegetarianism, and has been proven to cure chronic disorders that could not be treated by western medicine.
Many medicinal plants used by Ayurvedic practitioners owe their therapeutic properties to terpenes. One good example is turmeric, a member of the ginger family with a peppery aroma and strong, slightly bitter flavor. Its orange roots have numerous therapeutic applications based on its anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anticancer, antiseptic, antiplasmodial, astringent, digestive, diuretic (and many more) properties. Researchers have discovered that most of the turmeric’s properties come from curcumin—a yellow-colored terpene found abundantly in the root.
Clove oil gives us another example of herbal remedies that feature terpenes. In this case, clove’s essential oil is mostly composed of eugenol, a ingestible terpene that is also responsible for the spice’s aroma. Clove is used by both Ayurveda an TCM as a topical painkiller for dental cases and as an ingested oil to treat digestive problems.
Another terpene-rich application from plant medicine comes from the perennial herb, Valerian. Valerian extract contains three major terpenes: maaliol, patchouli alcohol, and 8-acetoxypatchouli alcohol. The extract is used to reduce stress and anxiety levels, and has been shown to improve the symptoms of depression in humans. And in fact, when the terpenes were removed from the extract, it was no longer useful as an antidepressant.
Here’s what we know about dietary terpenes
While we still need a lot more research to draw specific conclusions about the way dietary terpenes affect us, we do have evidence of terpenes’ effects on our digestive tracts and internal organs.
Linalool, a major aromatic terpene in cannabis, teas, and essential oils, has been traditionally used as an ingested medicine for its potent antioxidative properties. It has been shown to protect against liver damage, and a recent study showed that ingesting essential oils containing linalool, including Asian Plantain and Lemon Balm essential oils, helped reduced high cholesterol levels and high levels of fat in the blood.
Myrcene is the most common terpene in cannabis flower, and is also highly bioavailable when ingested. When eaten, myrcene appears in the bloodstream within 30 minutes. Recent research into myrcene indicates that in addition to its analgesic, sedative, antidiabetic, antifungal and antibacterial properties, it provides significant digestive effects to the consumer. In a 2014 study, researchers showed that it helped prevent the formation of ulcers in the stomach and upper intestine, while protecting the digestive tract from the damage caused by free radicals, AND increasing the production of protective mucus in the gut!
Also, keep in mind that myrcene acts a bit like THC in the body: in small doses, it can be quite energizing, but high doses of myrcene can feel sedating and very relaxing.
Limonene is another common terpene that has been historically used as medicine. Essential Lemon Oil has long been used to alleviate upset stomachs, an application that comes mostly from the limonene found abundantly in the lemon peels used to create the tincture. In fact, limonene has been shown to provide gastroprotective benefits that are similar to myrcene, including preventing damage from free radicals, reducing gallstones, and relieving heartburn.
One very cool feature of limonene is that it makes it easier for the body to absorb compounds through mucous membranes in our skin, mouth, and digestive tract. This means that consuming an edible that contains limonene speeds up the absorption of cannabinoids like THC and CBD, as well as other terpenes that are absorbed into the body through the mouth, the stomach lining, and your intestines.
While research on terpenes is still early, we do see that some terpenes work synergistically with cannabinoids to increase their absorption, provide anti-inflammatory benefits, and reduce swelling. For instance, Beta-Caryophyllene synergizes with THC to protect the digestive system lining, in addition to providing antidepressant effects. Beta-Caryophyllene is found abundantly in black pepper, which is where we find the origin of the folk remedy of eating peppercorns if you get too high. When used as a remedy for intoxication, beta-caryophyllene acts a bit like CBD and works to block our internal cannabinoid receptors from interacting with THC.
So, what’s the bottom line on terpenes in edibles?
They can definitely have an effect on our bodies, but many of the benefits they provide are related to our internal functions rather than our experience of being intoxicated, or altered. When we smell terpenes, their scents interact with our Limbic System to affect our mood and emotions, an experience that doesn’t really translate to ingesting terpenes without smelling them. You’ll still get some smell with a terpene infused edible, but any effects on your mood or emotions will likely be more subtle than with a terpy dried flower.
There is the possibility of dietary terpenes changing your cannabis experience to an extent. High levels of beta-caryophyllene can reduce how high you feel. You might experience a faster onset of effects with an edible that contains limonene. Eat something high in myrcene, and you may feel more sedated than if you ate an edible without it. There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to cannabis or terpenes, so use this as a guide to experimenting with your body, with cannabis, and the terpenes you choose to ingest.