What are Terpenes?

February 14, 2020
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Terpenes are all around us! You peel an orange, walk past a rose bush, add a sprig of rosemary to your favorite cocktail, or run your finger through some lavender, and you experience an aroma that permeates the senses; yes, friends, this is all because of terpenes.

Terpenes are the aromatic organic hydrocarbons found in plants and even a few insects. They can also be called terpenoids and are nature’s way of attracting pollinators and warding off herbivores that may want to consume them. Terpenes are the essential and aromatic life force made up of isoprene units. Dr. David Stewart, in his book, “The Chemistry of Essential Oils” (pg 258) states;

“The isoprene unit is the most fundamental and frequently found functional group consisting of living tissues of all plants and animals on planet earth. Molecules built of isoprenes are called “terpenoids.” More than 20,000 have been isolated and identified in laborites. The number of terpenoids far exceeds that of any other class of natural compounds.” *

The hemp and cannabis plants have naturally high levels of terpenes, and these natural compounds are found in the same secretory structure within or on the surface of the plant as cannabinoids like CBD are. They are also found in the Copaifera tree that we harvest Copaiba oil from, or what we like to call, CBA.

The Cannabis plant is said to have over one hundred different terpenes, and each one is unique in type and composition. They are what brings the compound variety to the many types of cannabis plants, with much research still unfolding as each terpene is studied.

There are six primary terpenes found in hemp plants, from Myrcene, at the calming end of the spectrum to Terpinolene at the energizing end. Caryophyllene is a terpene that sits right in the middle and is the only terpene known to also act as a cannabinoid. An interesting piece with this terpene is how it interacts with the endocannabinoid system in our bodies, which research claims help with symptom relief.

Many cannabis labs now test for terpene content, and this is wildly important as it is suggested that terpenes can make all the difference when it comes to how cannabinoids bind to receptors in the body. More on this another time though.*

As Dr. David Stewart describes, terpenoids exceed any other class of natural compound, which means CBA (Copaiba oil) is also rich in these energetic molecules. Terpene molecules contain isoprene, and monoterpenes are the smallest of them. Terpenes can be distinguished as open-chain and ring terpenes and divide into groups determined by their size. Monoterpenes, sesquiterpenes, and triterpenes are just some of the groups that terpenes are categorized by.

Beta-Caryophyllene is a sesquiterpene, and research shows that there is a higher percentage of this dietary cannabinoid in CBA than CBD, although it is present in both. Jane Buckle PhD, RN, in her book, Clinical Aromatherapy, describes sesquiterpenes as being less volatile than terpenes, and therefore they have more potential stereochemical diversity. This branch of chemistry focuses hugely on the spatial arrangement of atoms in molecules! It’s all pretty fascinating. Sesquiterpenes are inflammatory fighting and are a natural antibacterial agent.

So, what are terpenes? And what role do they play when taking CBD and CBA supplements? Put simply, terpenes are throughout every plant on the planet and are not there to work alone. When terpenes or terpenoids are combined with cannabinoids found in the likes of CBD and CBA, they create what is called the “entourage effect”. These molecules become a mighty army working together, which are said to bring relief to mind and body.

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