Of the many active ingredients in marijuana, cannabinoids — the miracle molecules that deliver most of the medical efficacy of marijuana — are not the whole picture. Some cannabis consumers may be aware of terpenes, the cannabinoid-like chemicals that give herb such a pungent aroma.
What most do not know is that terpenes also deliver therapeutic relief, just like their cannabinoid cousins.
Terpenes are produced in special secretory cells within the trichomes of the plant, the nearly microscopic resinous stalks that cover the flowers and sometimes leaves. This is also where all cannabinoids, like THC and CBD, are created. About 20,000 terpenes exist in nature; around 200 have been identified in cannabis (compared to 111 cannabinoids).
Like amino acids, terpenes are powerful building blocks within the plant’s physiology that aid in the production of vitamins, hormones, pigments, resins, and — yes, that most cherished part of the herb — cannabinoids. Cannabis plants release more terpenes when temperatures are higher.
Beyond odor, terpenes play several roles, including protecting the cannabis plant against predators like insects and animals. These special molecules constitute roughly 10 to 20 percent of the total pre-smoked resin in the trichome. It is estimated that 10 to 30 percent of smoke resin produced by marijuana comes from terpenes.
Beta-caryophyllene, also known as BCP, is a terpene that contributes to the spiciness of black pepper and is also present in oregano, cloves, hops, rosemary, and cannabis. It was first synthesized in 1964, but it wasn’t until 2008 that European scientists discovered that it has cannabinoid-like properties. Like many other cannabinoids and terpenes, BCP targets the body’s CB2 receptors, ignoring the CB1 receptors that are involved in delivering the euphoric high associated with cannabis and, more specifically, the THC cannabinoid.
BCP is often categorized as a cannabinoid, not a terpene, because of how it binds to CB2 cannabinoid receptors. It is not only found in several legal herbs and spices, but is even an FDA-approved food additive. For this reason, some sources label BCP the “first dietary cannabinoid.”
Because it targets CB2 receptors and delivers no high, BCP is an effective way to medicate while avoiding any alteration in perception or motor skills. It can be used to treat several inflammatory disorders, including arthritis and multiple sclerosis. Like its cousins pinene and limonene, BCP has also been shown to fight cancer, reduce anxiety and depression, and has even been found to be gastroprotective — meaning it can be used to treat ulcers.
BCP also is helpful for those suffering from atherosclerosis and osteoporosis and can even increases bone mass and blocks pain signals, all while avoiding any interference with the nervous system. Because so many other cannabinoids and terpenes act as analgesics (pain killers), BCP is more evidence of the entourage effect, a theory explaining how a variety of terpenes and cannabinoids work synergistically to improve health or fight disease.
A Tool to Fight Alcoholism?
A study published in 2014 in the journal Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior revealed that a variety of cannabinoids bind to CB2 receptors and may help in the treatment of alcoholism. In the study, researchers injected BCP into animal models and found that activating CB2 receptors resulted in decreased ethanol (alcohol) consumption and preference.
Because BCP is not exclusive to cannabis and has been approved by the FDA as a food additive, it is fully legal. There is tremendous opportunity for food manufacturers, pharmaceutical companies, and herbal remedies to utilize BCP as a tool in the fight against a long list of ailments, including cancer, depression, ulcers, pain, and even osteoporosis.
However, until cannabis is reclassified from Schedule I, little will be known about how BCP interacts with other terpenes and cannabinoids to produce an overall therapeutic effect.
This post was originally published on August 14, 2015, it was updated on October 5, 2017.