The synergy of terpenes in cannabis

By Richard S. Gubbe

The key to better health may be found in a mixture of oils

Grandmothers of old told of natural healing remedies and used them without knowing what the actual content was or how it worked. Grandma said plants and trees produced a cure for almost any ailment, and we believed on faith. Much of what grandma said would work actually does and now we are getting proof by identifying each compound involved.

Ask 100 educated people what a terpene is and you may find one or two who knows that 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 ask about terpenes to hear how healing they are. From pine and citrus and other distinct flavors, we smell terpenes every day. Ingesting the ones found in a cannabis plant can ease the most challenging of conditions from seizures to PTSD.

There isn’t much research collected into what this natural collection of molecules does for the human body. And what research there has been is not readily shared.

We know strains of cannabis have different organic compound mixtures of terpenes and cannabinoids that attach to receptors in the body, particularly the brain, and can be healing. But in what delivery method, what dosage, what mixtures?

Compare finding your ideal strain to the pharmaceutical business where a doctor tells you what you need, how much and at what 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 info can vary. And yet, each individual can now make and educated guess on their own as to what is needed to reduce or relieve symptoms.

The botany of it all

The interaction of terpenes and cannabinoids create a new science to be explored in medicine and a pathway to healing for patients once without hope.

Terpenes, advocates say, create a synergy of effects that have had amazing results. The cannabinoid THC has long been known for 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 of patients.

Think of the synergy of as if you are making a 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 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 other terpenes, 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 pathogens, including MRSA. They can also prevent fungus or act as an antibiotic. Terpenes and CBD can buffer THC’s tricky psychoactivity.

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. The name “terpene” is derived from the word “turpentine.” The mixing of terpenes can be found legally in retail and online markets, as long as THC is not present. Quality can be an issue.

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, 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 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 all-inclusive facility of Boulder Highway in Las Vegas. As a corporation, Shango has experience in Oregon and Washington and created a grow house here 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 through to the dispensary. Shango supplies their dispensary and others in the area with expansion looming.

Gardiner says extraction of terpenes quickly is crucial, as he holds up a vial of a golden mixture from a Shango strain. The staff also mixes terpenes with CBD and THC to create vaping cartridges while every day they gain knowledge of their interaction.

“We are gathering data all the time,” Gardiner said.

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 other grower about data and the response is “That’s proprietary.”

The only thing not present yet 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 at Ace Analytical Laboratory in Las Vegas and has a Ph.D. in bioanalytical chemistry from the University of Georgia. Johnson had a Research Chemist Fellowship position at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, to gain credibility before entering the medical cannabis field. As 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 only get the good stuff, the clean stuff. As far as data goes, Nevada, with its stringent testing regulations, is in the forefront of research.

“We’re just scratching the surface,” he says. “But we have more data than anyone else has ever done. A year from now we’re going to laugh at how much we learned.”

There is no typical profile. Tropicana, for instance, had a state-tested percentage in one batch of more than 10 milligrams per gram of myrcene as well as generous amounts on limonene and pinene and a lot of THC. Anything more than two to four percent of a terpene in the 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 only small amounts of terpenes and other cannabinoids. Concentrates come directly from the extraction of the plant of one strain. For the Tropicana bud sample, the THC level tested above 26 percent but had a low CBD count. Small amounts of terpenes and CBD can dip to as low as .01 or lower.

“Those miniscule amounts may have more of an impact than you know,” Johnson says. Johnson, 33, believes that as much as 75 percent of terpenes can be lost after the plant is cut down.

“Rosin press preserves terpenes pretty well,” Johnson says. “But the concentrates are missing something,” Johnson added. “I prefer the flower. I’ll always prefer flower.”

Many concentrates are extracted by butane as well as Co2 or in a distillate form.

“We don’t see high levels of butane very often,” Johnson says.

Hugo Alonso, 42, chemist at New Heights Laboratory in Nevada, says different testing results can come from testing different parts of the bud.

“Parts of the plant are even stronger than others,” Alonso said. “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.”

There won’t be a problem finding a profile, just the right one. For instance, Leafly offers countless strains used to treat anxiety. Greenflowerm Steep Hill, Terpene Botanicals, Herb and other sites offer information about strains, but opinions vary on effects. Greenflower recommends: use of a journal to record how the profile made you feel; how long for effects lasted; using glass jars for preserving the bud; storage in a cool place of 59 to 63 degrees; regulating the humidity with newly invented packs; and never freezing it.

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 in the state of Washington for medicinal purposes and taught him how to grow, and how to stay healthy.

Crozier is a 46-year-old, off-the-grid grower. He remembers grandma telling him of a Native American Indica tincture in the 1930s made illegal in 1941.

“I never got sick,” he said. “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 said. 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 said.

Crozier warns that synthetic terpenes are dangerous. “They need to be banned,” he said. “Freshly pressed rosin is solvent free and just pressed from the flower. And live resin distillates they’re great, too.”

Crozier is not a fan of butane extracted concentrates. “There’s still 1 percent left in there regardless and that’s still toxic,” he said.

Making Grandma’s anti-seizure pie

The British Journal of Pharmacology discussed in 2011 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 at 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 with CBD while slowly increasing dosage to see what works in children to end epileptic seizures.

“I really believe that that’s one of the compounds that’s very important for a child who has seizures,” she told Project CBD in California. She believes nuroinflammation 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.

“The terpene profile is more important,” Lee says.” Find a strain that has what you are looking for.”

Finding the right mix, he says, is like “a painter with a palate. Profiles offer a kaleidoscope of shifting colors. Terpenes and cannabinoids are chemically related like cousins with medicinal effects. 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.”

He also believes terpenes help facilitate transmembrane absorption and that there is not “activation” of compounds when cannabis is heated because the ingredients already are active.

Lee also believes myrcene is basically a sedative and follows the group who say Indica and Sativa are 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 therapists can control the ratio of such when recommending a strain or method to their patients.

“We are finding out exciting new things every week,” he said.

Educating young and old

Sheldon Gates of Inyo agrees that the perception of bud needs to change.

“We need to get people away from focusing on THC and shift to the importance of terpenes or the uneducated will stay uneducated,” he says.

A veteran and a former extreme sport enthusiast, he uses an Indica strain when he needs to be less hyperactive, He warns that the wrong choice could enhance symptoms such as anxiety and paranoia.

“If you have anxiety, I’m going to recommend a really high myrcene Indica,” he says.

He then studies the lab results of other terpene mixtures.

“The regulatory system is working for us,” he said. “My people are certified as far as I can take them.”

He prefers concentrates, and says “smoking is killing it; vaping terpenes is the way to go. That works for me. What works for you is different and not getting discouraged that this or that product doesn’t work is key. How they work is an ongoing mission.”

Gates believes the smell of terpenes is therapeutic and the plant energy itself makes people happy. “We rarely see people who are bummed out,” he says.” It’s intoxicating to be around it. Our employees are on a natural high.”

The future is …

Shared research will mean more accurate profiles and patients will 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.

Kiosks will adorn each dispensary to supply credible, uniform information and will tailor client profiles to preserve privacy.

Dispensary workers will undergo uniformed training to know 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 adorn dispensaries and enable more patients to utilize terpenes in healing.

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