The Same Compounds Behind Marijuana's Distinctive Stinky Smells Give Clues About the Kinds of High You'll Experience
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Around 200 terpenes have been found in cannabis, but only a few of these odiferous oily substances appear in amounts substantial enough to be noteworthy (or nose-worthy, as it were). Also, the terpenoid profile can vary considerably from strain to strain. “The range of flavors expressed by the genusCannabis is extraordinary – no other plant on the planet can equal the cacophony of smells and tastes available from cannabis,” says DJ Short, the breeder-artisan who conjured True Blueberry from several heritage landrace strains.
The terpenes in marijuana have given the plant an enduring evolutionary advantage. Some of these essential oils are pungent enough to repel insects and animal grazers; others prevent fungus. To combat plant disease and infestation, organic pot growers spray the terpene-rich essential oils of neem and rosemary onto their crops. And terpenes, it turns out, are healthy for people as well, according to a September 2011 report by Dr. Ethan Russo in the British Journal of Pharmacology that discussed the wide-ranging therapeutic attributes of terpenoids, including several aromatic compounds that figure prominently in cannabis strains.
Alpha-pinene (essential pine oil), the most common terpene in the plant world and one often found in cannabis, is a bronchodilator potentially helpful for asthmatics. Pinene also promotes alertness and memory retention by inhibiting the metabolic breakdown of acetylcholinesterase, a neurotransmitter in the brain that stimulates these cognitive effects.
Linalool, a terpenoid prominent in lavender as well as in some cannabis strains, is an anxiolytic compound that counters anxiety and mediates stress. In addition, linalool is a strong anticonvulsant, and it also amplifies serotonin-receptor transmission, conferring an antidepressant effect. Applied topically, linalool can heal acne and skin burns without scarring.
Beta-caryophyllene is a sesquiterpene found in the essential oils of black pepper, oregano and other edible herbs, as well as in cannabis and many green, leafy vegetables. It is gastro-protective, good for treating certain ulcers, and shows great promise as a therapeutic compound for inflammatory conditions and autoimmune disorders because of its ability to bind directly to the peripheral cannabinoid receptor known as CB2.
THC also activates the CB2 receptor, which regulates immune function and the peripheral nervous system. But this is not the reason people feel stoned when they smoke marijuana; instead, what causes the high is THC binding to the CB1 receptor, which is concentrated in the brain and the central nervous system.
Stimulating the CB2 receptor doesn’t have a psychoactive effect because CB2 receptors are localized predominantly outside the brain and central nervous system. CB2 receptors are present in the gut, spleen, liver, heart, kidneys, bones, blood vessels, lymph cells, endocrine glands, and reproductive organs. Marijuana is such a versatile medicinal substance because it acts everywhere, not just in the brain.
In 2008, the Swiss scientist Jürg Gertsch documented beta-caryophyllene’s binding affinity for the CB2 receptor and described it as “a dietary cannabinoid.” It is the only terpenoid known to directly activate a cannabinoid receptor (which is one of the reasons why green, leafy vegetables are very healthy for people to eat). The dual status of beta-caryophyllene as a terpenoid and a CB2 activator underscores the synergistic interplay between various components of the cannabis plant. There are over 400 chemical compounds in marijuana, including cannabinoids, terpenoids and flavonoids (which give fruit skin its color). Each has specific medicinal attributes, which combine to create a holistic “entourage effect,” so that the therapeutic impact of the whole plant is greater than the sum of its parts.