What are Terpenes and Terpenoids?
Terpenes and terpenoids make up the largest and most diverse class of natural chemicals found in plants. Some complex terpenes can even be found in animals. But what exactly are these elements? And why is everyone so interested in them?
What is a Terpene?
Terpenes occur naturally and are found in all plants. Chemically, terpenes are made up of isoprene units. The chemical structure of a terpene includes 5n carbon atoms that are subdivided into two isoprene units of monoterpenes, three isoprene units of sesquiterpenes, four isoprene units of diterpenes, five isoprene unities sesterterpenes, and six isoprene units of triterpenes. An isoprene unit is basically a carbon skeleton on the atomic level. Many chemical compounds have carbon skeletons because carbon is capable of making four chemical bonds at the atomic level, giving it the unique ability to act as a backbone for multiple compounds. This is the reason that life on earth is referred to as carbon-based.
What About Terpenoids?
The terms terpene and terpenoid tend to be used interchangeably, but terpenes actually become terpenoids when oxidized (such as drying or curing flowers and leaves). In other words, terpenoids are terpenes that have been modified naturally (not genetically) in some way. Terpenoids have a wide variety of functions as antioxidants and other agents.
Functions of Terpenoids and Terpenes
Terpenes are basically the oils that give plants their specific scents. Terpenes and terpenoids are the main ingredients of essential oils used as fragrances for perfumes, as well as in alternative medicine such as aromatherapy. They interact with our endocannabinoid system much as cannabinoids do, and can actually influence neurotransmitters including dopamine and serotonin, slowing or increasing production depending on the specific terpene. This is the why terpenes (smells) can affect your mood. Limonene, for example, a common terpene found in the cannabis plant, causes some marijuana strains to smell citrusy, and it also increases seratonin production, increasing its positive effects.
Terpenes and Cannabis Plants
More than 200 terpenoids have been identified in the cannabis sativa plant alone. Terpenes are similar to cannabinoids in many ways. Like them, they increase when a plant is exposed to light but decrease in more fertile soil, as is also true for cannabinoids. They have an array of applications, interacting with a number of the body’s natural systems including neurotransmitter receptors, G-protein coupled receptors, and enzymes. Terpenes are primarily found in essential oil made from cannabis rather than in the seed oil. Whole cannabis extracts include a much more diverse list of terpenes and terpenoids in higher doses and concentrations, depending on the strain.
Beta-myrcene is the most common terpene in cannabis. It has the ability to penetrate the blood-brain barrier. This allows it and other chemicals to affect the brain directly and can attenuate the speed with which other chemicals affect you. Beta-myrcene is not psychotropic and is also found in oils from hops, bay leaves, eucalyptus, wild thyme, lemongrass and mangoes. Beta-myrcene is responsible lemongrass’s analgesic effects.
Another anti-inflammatory terpene with no psychotropic effect found in natural cannabis extracts is beta-caryophyllene, which acts via the PGE-1 pathway and is also a selective agonist at CB2.
What About Hemp?
Hemp also offers many naturally-occurring terpenes that are beneficial to your health – without any psychotropic effects. Some of the terpenes found in hemp oil include b-myrcene, b-caryophyllene, d-limonene, linalool, humulene, and alpha-pinene. They provide numerous antioxidant, analgesic and antimicrobial benefits.