Terpenoids and The Benefits Of Sniffing Your Cannabis
I headed up to Vashon Island this Tuesday, to check out a lecture on the medicinal benefits of cannabis use. Two of my favorite things: cannabis, and lectures. Oh, and door prizes! If there had been pizza, I may never have come home. This *free* talk was hosted by the Vashon Island Marijuana Entrepreneurs Alliance (VIMEA), and it was a packed house.
Dr. Ethan Russo was the guest speaker, a board certified neurologist, and a longtime researcher of the medicinal benefits of cannabis. It’s not every day that we’re able to hear directly from the people behind the science we use to push forward marijuana normalization, so I made the 3 hour journey from Portland up to Vashon Island. After a quick stop on the way at Clear Choice Cannabis, one of Tacoma’s recreational stores, for a little circa ’97 Dutch Treat, and some Jack Frost meant my usual road trip complaints of aching knees and hips were hardly an issue. After all 135 attendees were maneuvered into the meeting hall, Dr. Russo proceeded to explain how the compounds in cannabis bind to natural receptors in our body, and what he calls the “entourage effect” of these compounds.
Now, although I never got into the HBO show Entourage, this term kept bringing me back to a mental picture of what I thought it was like: several badass dudes, all slow motion walking, hair blowing in the wind with one of them in the lead. I was picturing the lead dude as Mark Wahlberg (I did a little research, and realized this was incorrect, but I love me some Marky Mark, so I’m sticking with my analogy) who would be THC, the popular, big-name compound that is the most charismatic and well known. Maybe the next most famous dude would be CBD, which is becoming more well known for it’s pain management effects, but the other background guys, like the manager, would be terpenes. Receiving little attention, these lesser known, and perhaps unappreciated dudes have their own careers, and also play a crucial role in the popularity and success of the lead actor. In a similar way, terpenes are what give cannabis plants their pungent aromas, many have their own significant medicinal benefits, and they also help shape the effects of THC on the user. But until recently, terpenes have been overshadowed by the popularity of the cannabinoids.
For Dr. Russo, it’s all about the ways the organic compounds in the cannabis plant interact with each other and with our bodies to create their effect. However, the compounds that interest Russo most are not the cannabinoids (Marky Mark), but the terpenes (his manager). There are over 200 terpenoids that have been identified in cannabis, but most of them still need to be studied for their medicinal effects. After the cannabis plant is dried and cured, oxidation alters the terpene compounds and they are referred to as terpenoids, but we’re still basically talking about the same thing. As dry marijuana ages, and loses some of it’s aroma, the terpenoids are breaking down even more. Terpenes are one of the main building blocks in essential oils that many people use for aromatherapy, which is something that I’m familiar with using in my career as a licensed massage therapist. These therapeutic effects can be felt just from being exposed to the scent, you don’t even have to consume the oils, or the plant. For example, citrus essential oils are often used to refresh and uplift, while woodsy, earthy scents will calm and center the mind.
Not only do terpenes provide a treat for the nose, many of these terpenoids are found in plants that have been deemed safe for consumption by the FDA. Limonene is a terpene that is found in cannabis, and other citrus smelling plants, and has been shown to have anti-depressant, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-carcinogenic properties when consumed. This terpenoid is thought to aid in protecting marijuana smokers from the fungi and carcinogens that can be present in cannabis smoke. Myrcene is another terpene found in cannabis, and other earthy smelling plants. Along with facilitating the absorption of cannabinoids by brain cells, it is a muscle relaxer, anti-inflammatory and a pain reliever. Some terpenes work to mitigate the intoxicating effects of THC, which Dr. Russo has proven in his studies. Alpha-pinene is found in pine trees and abundant in cannabis strains with a piney smell, increases mental focus, and has also been shown to help in memory storage and retention, which all oppose the effects of THC. To sum it up, while you are going to absorb a certain amount of THC with any cannabis consumption, the way it affects you will change according to the terpenes and other cannabinoid compounds present in that strain.
It is essential for scientists like Dr. Russo to study these intricate chemical interactions in order to maximize the benefits that we can all get from using cannabis. Various forms of marijuana use have been shown to help relieve chronic pain, anxiety, depression, inflammation, helped in fighting addiction, led to drastic reduction of seizures in patients with epilepsy, and been effective in fighting fungal and bacterial infections. The CBD compound has been shown to be toxic to certain cancer cells. The research Russo is doing on terpenes will contribute to finding the most effective way to create cannabis derived medications to treat all these ailments. Understanding the basics of the entourage effect will help us medicinal tokers choose the proper strain for our needs on a daily basis. If you’re interested, you can keep this info in mind next time you head into the medical dispensary. Or, if you’re in it purely for the recreation you can look for a high THC strain with a specific aroma, and you’ll get all the fringe benefits of the terpenoids while you’re toking. Basically, it’s not all about the THC, even if you are just trying to have a good time; remember, even Marky Mark wouldn’t be the same without his entourage. Or whoever that dude is… The CO2 oil laced joint that I won as a door prize at the end of the night may have screwed with my analogy a bit.
I thank the Vashon Island Marijuana Entrepreneurs for making this event happen, and I highly recommend supporting their organization. There were also 50 or more awesome door prizes given away by various sponsors, which you can find on their Facebook page. The Mary Grange meeting hall provided a cozy atmosphere, and you can take the ferry from West Seattle and walk to the venue. It seemed like there was a tight knit community of cannabis supporters in attendance, but I still felt very welcome. It’s exciting to see such a diverse and large group of people who are working toward a better understanding of the ways we can use cannabis. And even more, it’s crucial to have researchers like Dr. Ethan Russo who are willing to spend their time in the community to help us better understand the choices we are making. There was a large amount of knowledge to gather in this short lecture, and the information given was fairly technical in some cases, so this is just a brief outline of the highlights.
If you want more you can read Dr. Russo’s 2011 paper, “Taming THC” which was published in the British Journal of Pharmacology:
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