There’s been a lot of talk lately about the positive effects of the hemp plant on everything from insomnia to pain relief to inflammation- and the list keeps growing. People everywhere are curious to learn as much as they can about the healing properties of this plant, and in turn, eager to go back and share what they know. As new research emerges about this plant, its individual components, and how they interact with each other, so too does our own understanding and knowledge on how best to treat, medicate and heal ourselves with it.
Two cannabinoids in particular – THC and CBD – get the most air time but within this complex plant exists other chemicals and compounds that are beneficial and play a unique and integral role.
Bottom line: they all interact synergistically to heal the body and mind.
Let’s start with terpenes (pronounced tur-peens)
What are terpenes?
Imagine for a moment the whiff of freshness that meets the nose when one peels an orange or the sweet, floral scent that announces itself in a tub filled with lavender. What you are smelling are terpenes, a bouquet of oils secreted in the same glands that produce cannabinoids. They lend their impressive aromaticity, taste and color to a countless number of plant species—but that’s just part of their charm.
The development of terpenes, from an evolutionary perspective, began for adaptive reasons—to repel insects and other predators and to lure pollinators. The plant’s medicinal properties can be traced to this enduring evolutionary feature- the pungency that prevented fungus long ago is still fighting bacteria and respiratory pathogens in people today.
Like cannabinoids, terpenes bind to receptors in the brain and give rise to various medicinal properties. When cannabinoids and terpenes interact synergistically, they create what scientists refer to as an “entourage effect” – which is to say, they work in concert to abate symptoms of pain, inflammation, depression, anxiety, addiction, epilepsy, cancer and bacteria.
The most commonly studied terponoids are limonene, myrcene and alpha-pinene but there are over 200 that have been identified in cannabis. For instance, the combination of CBD with terpenes-driven compounds like mint and capsaicin provide targeted relief from joint and muscle pain and soreness. They also work well on tension headaches and migraines.
Terpenes have also been shown to act on neurotransmitters – dissolving in lipids or fats and relieving anxiety as serotonin uptake inhibitors (if that term sounds familiar it’s because you’ve heard it in commercials about antidepressants like Prozac). They also enhance norepinephrine and dopamine activity in the brain.
While many of the flavors and aromas of cannabis can be attributed to terpenes flavonoids also play an important role.
Let’s move on to flavonoids: (pronounced flavo-noids)
What are flavonoids?
Flavonoids account for roughly 10% of the compounds produced by cannabis and are known for their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory health benefits. Many plants including fruits and vegetables owe their bright colors in part to flavonoids. The 20 or so varieties known to exist in cannabis are called cannaflavins and they don’t just help contribute to the vibrant color we see on the many foods we eat, they also smell good and are pharmacologically active (beneficial). Similar to CBD, flavonoids interact on many different sites in the body through complex biochemical mechanisms, some interacting with estrogen receptors others as potent antioxidants. For instance, the flavonoid quercetin, found in many fruits and vegetables is known for its anti-fungal and antioxidant properties. Catechins, a highly active flavonoid found in cannabis (as well as cocoa, teas and pome fruits) is also known to be an effective antioxidant with cardiovascular health benefits. Cannaflavin A has been found to reduce inflammation by inhibiting the inflammatory molecules PGE-2 and it does this 30 times more effectively than aspirin.
Flavonoids are yet another member of the ‘entourage’, binding to CB receptors and interacting synergistically with cannabinoids. In fact, CB receptors bind to all of the cannabinoids, terpenes and flavonoids that are ingested. These compounds trigger a chemical cascade throughout the body. They also bind to opioid receptors- the same sites that activate after binding with painkillers like Vicodin, Percocet or morphine. Flavonoids provide painkilling properties that aren’t available from just terpenes and cannabinoids alone and best of all, they are non-addictive.
The general understanding of this miracle plant can sometimes be overly simplistic. THC and CBD seem to get the most mention but in reality, hundreds of chemical components are working in tandem; the two biggest groups being flavonoids and terpenes. The entourage effect suggests that any one chemical or compound, taken on its own, will have a far less reaching effect than the combined efforts of all its parts. So, while THC and CBD may seem like the show stoppers, especially where this plant is concerned, the whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts. Terpenes and flavonoids are two perfect examples.