Understanding Cannabinoids and Terpenes: A Comprehensive 2023 Guide

Cannabinoids and Terpenes

Table of Contents

Cannabis stands as a labyrinth of complexities, with its inherent properties marking it as a unique species among the world of flora. Its exceptional characteristics comprise an intriguing concoction of exclusive and widespread compounds.

The enigmatic nature of the cannabis plant has always piqued our interest, and the exploration of its various elements is still ongoing. Particularly compelling are the intricate interplays between cannabinoids and terpenes, elements exclusively co-present in Cannabis sativa.

This guide aims not to provoke a rivalry between these components but to elucidate how harmoniously cannabinoids and terpenes intertwine. Unraveling the chemical intricacies of the cannabis plant can be time-consuming, but the reward lies in gaining a deeper comprehension of why our preferred products yield effective results.

Summary of Cannabis Flower’s Chemical Composition 

Let’s kick off with a quick rundown of the key points this article will explore:

  • Cannabis sativa uniquely hosts both terpenes and cannabinoids in the plant world.
  • Terpenes also populate other natural sources in abundance.
  • Only cannabis and hemp harbor cannabinoids.
  • Terpenes and cannabinoids share many similar characteristics.
  • They seem to interact synergistically.
  • Cannabinoids and terpenes appear to be designed to work together by nature.
  • High-quality cannabinoid products also incorporate terpenes.
  • Quality can significantly vary among terpene products.
  • To decipher the secrets of cannabis, one needs to understand the interplay between cannabinoids and terpenes.

What are cannabinoids? 

Cannabinoids are distinct lipid-based compounds found solely in Cannabis sativa. While claims challenging this have emerged, it’s undeniable that some cannabimimetic (cannabinoid-mimicking) compounds exist in other plants.

However, the precise chemical structures of cannabinoids, like CBD or CBG, haven’t been identified in non-cannabis plants. Cannabinoids’ unique nature has propelled international research into cannabis over the last century. Generally, only the THC family of cannabinoids are psychoactive — the rest do not produce significant intoxicating effects.

Cannabinoid Functionality 

THC and some other cannabinoids stimulate the endocannabinoid system spread throughout our body. This system primarily consists of neural receptors known as CB1 and CB2.

Activation of CB1 receptors triggers a potent dopamine response, which contributes to the addictive potential of THC. This neuroreceptor activation also induces a unique and strong sense of intoxication, often compared to hallucinogenic effects.

CB2 receptor activation primarily induces an anti-inflammatory response without any significant intoxicating effects. Furthermore, many cannabinoids do not activate either of these receptors, and some even impede their activation.

CBD, for example, doesn’t exhibit any notable activation response at CB1 or CB2 receptors. In fact, it seems to inhibit the activation of CB1 receptors in the brain, potentially reducing THC’s effects.

Are Cannabinoids Found in Other Plants? 

Cannabinoids are unique to cannabis. This statement acknowledges the existence of cannabimimetic compounds in certain other plants, like flax and Boswellia serrata.

None of these compounds perfectly mirror the structure of cannabinoids, affirming Cannabis sativa as the singular source of cannabinoid compounds in nature. While it’s possible to synthesize cannabinoids in lab conditions using non-cannabis materials, the prohibitive costs generally discourage commercial exploitation.

Top 5 Cannabinoids 

Here’s a concise overview of the five most commonly used cannabinoids in hemp products:

  1. Cannabidiol (CBD): Known for its potential anti-inflammatory and anxiety-alleviating properties, CBD has skyrocketed in popularity over the last decade, paving the way for more cannabinoids.

  2. Cannabigerol (CBG): Following CBD’s footsteps, CBG gained recognition for its potential applications in pain relief, digestive health, and antibacterial properties.

  3. Cannabinol (CBN): Even though CBN is a THC metabolite, it doesn’t exhibit significant psychoactive effects, but it may aid sleep for some users.

  4. Cannabichromene (CBC): CBC might activate a critical neuroreceptor more strongly than CBD, potentially making it a powerful tool against pain.

  5. Cannabidiolic acid (CBDa): The chemical precursor to CBD, CBDa, could activate certain neural receptors more powerfully than CBD, setting it apart from its decarboxylated form.

Terpenes Defined Structurally, terpenes resemble cannabinoids so much that they seem to be derived from the same core blueprint. While both compound classes are renowned for their anti-inflammatory properties, cannabinoids do not possess any notable aroma.

In contrast, terpenes’ aroma has historically been their main attraction. They infuse essential oils with their scents and contribute to the fine balance of the most sophisticated perfumes. More recently, terpenes have garnered attention for their targeted therapeutic benefits just as much as cannabinoids.

Terpenes’ Function 

There are approximately 400 different terpenes, and like cannabinoids, the effects vary considerably among different terpenes. With just a few dozen cannabinoids to deal with, mapping out their effects is relatively straightforward.

With terpenes, however, the diversity of effect profiles necessitates individual research to predict their effects. For instance, limonene is known for its stimulating effects, while linalool elicits the exact opposite. On a general note, almost all terpenes are known to exert anti-inflammatory effects throughout the body.

Terpenes in Other Plants 

A significant difference between cannabinoids and terpenes lies in their distribution across other plants. While cannabinoids are exclusive to cannabis, terpenes are spread widely throughout nature. From the aroma of lavender to the zest of orange peel, terpenes populate the plant kingdom and underpin both ancient remedies and modern therapies.

Cannabis, with its diverse matrix of terpenes, has long fascinated botanists. Most plants only contain a few terpenes in relatively low concentrations. However, each strain of cannabis contains dozens of different cannabinoids and terpenes in the oil sacs that form on the surface of cannabis buds during flowering. The intoxicating fragrances of cannabis flowers are primarily due to terpenes.

In the contemporary hemp market, cannabis-derived terpenes are generally considered higher quality than those derived from other plants. However, when expertly mixed, it can be challenging to differentiate between botanical and cannabis-derived terpenes.

Top 5 Terpenes 

While a full list of terpenes could fill an entire book, here’s a brief on five of the most abundant terpenes found in cannabis:

  1. Myrcene: The herbaceous, hoppy aroma of myrcene is also found in mangoes. It’s one of the most common cannabinoids in nearly every cannabis strain and is believed to have antioxidant properties.

  2. Caryophyllene: Identified by its peppery aroma, caryophyllene gives black pepper its zing and cannabis its spicy smell. It’s one of the only terpenes known to act as a cannabinoid by activating CB2 receptors.

  3. Limonene: Responsible for the citrusy smell of citrus fruits, limonene is believed to have energizing properties and appears to fight oxidative stress, like other terpenes.

  4. Linalool: The soothing aroma of lavender is due to linalool. Scientists believe this terpene might possess genuine sleep-inducing properties.

  5. Pinene: As the name suggests, pinene gives pine needles their piney smell. In addition to exhibiting antioxidant properties, pinene might also help open your airways.


Combining Terpenes and Cannabinoids in Products 

Creating a stand-out cannabinoid product often necessitates incorporating terpenes. However, this isn’t simply about mixing the two types of ingredients. Combining terpenes and cannabinoids is an art that, if mastered, results in high-quality, effective products.

The Entourage Effect 

The scientific community increasingly agrees that without terpenes, the entourage effect is only a partial phenomenon. A recent peer-reviewed study supports Dr. Ethan Russo’s long-held view that terpenes are as essential to the efficacy of the entourage effect as cannabinoids.

Quality of Terpenes 

Unlike cannabinoids, which are relatively chemically stable once they’ve achieved their decarboxylated forms, terpenes degrade rapidly in effectiveness when exposed to oxidative stress. Terpenes added to cannabinoid products must therefore be treated with the utmost care during the extraction and distillation process. Terpene manufacturers should be able to provide assurance that their products are undamaged and offer full efficacy.

Synergy Between Terpenes and Cannabinoids 

Terpenes and cannabinoids are very different compounds, but these differences lend both types of compounds their strength. Independently, a cannabinoid (or even multiple cannabinoids) cannot fully deliver the therapeutic potential of cannabis. The same is true for terpenes, which without cannabinoids lack potency. However, when both types of compounds are correctly combined, the diverse benefits of cannabinoids and terpenes achieve an unmatched strength.

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