The Fascinating Link Between Cannabis & Essential Oils
One of the most intriguing things about cannabis and essential oils is the effect that they both have on your mind through the power of scent. For cannabis lovers and aromatherapist enthusiasts alike, it’s the smell that gets us. This may be experienced with the crack of a fresh bud, or opening up a bottle of your favorite essential oil and bringing it to your nose. Now, what do these two materials have in common? For one, they both feature quite an important group of compounds known as terpenes.
Terpenes are the largest group of phytochemicals, with over 15-20,000 fully characterized. (Langenheim, 1994). Terpenes exist in abundance in nature; for example, the monoterpene limonene is highly responsible for the aroma that fills the air when a fresh citrus fruit is being peeled. Alpha-pinene, the most abundant terpene in nature, is behind that amazing feeling that humans feel when walking through the fresh, green, piney woods, as the lungs expand and the mind becomes at ease.
Unique terpene profiles are responsible for the flavor & aroma of cannabis. Additionally, research and anecdotal evidence shows that they may also be part of the reason for the plants wide range of effects. Within the cannabis space, marketing and literature is loaded with the term “entourage effect”- the theory that cannabinoids & phytochemicals work together in synergy, and are more powerful than isolated components like CBD & THC. This is also an accepted theory in the aromatherapy world- that compounds in essential oils and full plant extracts act in synergy, to produce a greater effect than the sum of their parts (including isolated, or synthetically derived molecules). Could the cannabis “entourage effect” be even deeper than cannabinoids? Terpenes seem to point to yes.
Doing my best to keep this as an informative yet easily digested passage, I will talk a bit about a few common essential oil terpenes that also show up frequently in cannabis and hemp (See note). Author and scientist Ethan Russo has published an incredible amount of information and research papers that has greatly increased general understanding of this theory, all while relating the two worlds which I love most. I will leave links below to several papers, websites and podcasts which dive deeper into terpenes & cannabis than we will discuss here today, if you would like to explore more!
A few terpenes that are present in both essential oils & cannabis include limonene, pinene, myrcene, & linalool. B-caryophyllene is a sesquiterpene (present in copaiba balsam, clove, & black pepper, to name a few) that can actually bind to cannabinoid receptors- which is the first and only terpenoid known to act on these receptors (typically, only cannabinoids bind here). Linalool (technically a monoterpene-alcohol), one of the major active components of lavender essential oil, impacts the plant's sedative & soothing effects which have been long known. Limonene, on the other hand, is a bright and cheery terpene which puts a smile on your face and uplifts the spirits. When present in cannabis even at minute concentrations, these compounds produce notable differences.
It is a generally accepted statement that specific cannabis strains have certain “effects” which can be expected upon their consumption. For example, the common, robust smelling cannabis strain called “tangie” is known to produce uplifting, euphoric, and energetic effects. The name tangie didn’t come from out of nowhere; this strain’s aromatic profile intensely resembles that of citrus, its limonene content making itself known not only in its scent profile, but also its distinct effects. “Grandaddy purple” on the other hand, is known for its deep purple hue, sweet, grape-like aroma, and heavy relaxation effects. Myrcene is the dominant terpene in Grandaddy purple cannabis strain, as well as in hops (which are also quite sedative). Could it be that while cannabinoids are the “vehicle,” terpenes are what “drives'' of each cannabis experience uniquely?
Unfortunately, we don't have quite a solid scientific answer for that yet. What we do know is that cannabis strains vary in their phytochemical levels and also their effects, which can sometimes be predicted based on anecdotal and researched-based evidence. We also know that everybody's experience with cannabis and cannabis strains is still very unique and individual. One great way to start to gain an idea about which strains & terpenes work best for you, is through keeping a cannabis journal. This could include strain documentation, dominant aromas of cannabis, the effects desired & the effects felt. This is a simple, yet effective way to check and see if you are searching out the right cannabis for you as well as allowing you to record your personal journey with cannabis and terpenes. Leafly is also a great website where you can search for a specific cannabis strain, and learn more about its lineage, terpene profile, and general effects.
For a detailed model of cannabis terpenes and their pharmacological actions, please click here.
Additional References & Helpful Links:
Purchase a cannabis journal here, or use this as a template to make your own!
Russo EB. The Case for the Entourage Effect and Conventional Breeding of Clinical Cannabis: No "Strain," No Gain. Front Plant Sci. 2019;9:1969. Published 2019 Jan 9. doi:10.3389/fpls.2018.01969
Higher plant terpenoids: A phytocentric overview of their ecological roles.
J Chem Ecol. 1994 Jun; 20(6):1223-80.
Noma Y, Asakawa Y. Biotransformation of monoterpenoids by microorganisms, insects, and mammals. In: Baser KHC, Buchbauer G, editors. Handbook of Essential Oils: Science, Technology, and Applications. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press; 2010. pp. 585–736.
Beta-caryophyllene is a dietary cannabinoid.
Gertsch J, Leonti M, Raduner S, Racz I, Chen JZ, Xie XQ, Altmann KH, Karsak M, Zimmer A
Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2008 Jul 1; 105(26):9099-104.