Of the many active ingredients in marijuana, cannabinoids — the miracle molecules that deliver most of the plant’s medical efficacy — 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 cousins the cannabinoids.
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; more than 200 have been identified in cannabis (compared to 111 cannabinoids).
Like amino acids (or possibly even nootropics for memory and focus), 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.
There are actually two types of pinene, alpha and beta. The alpha variety carries a scent of pine needles or rosemary; the beta type smells like dill, parsley, rosemary, basil, or hops. Like its terpene cousins myrcene and limonene, pinene is found in many non-cannabis plants. In fact, it is the most common terpene found in the plant world.
Pinene’s medical efficacy includes increased mental focus and energy. It also acts as a bronchodilator, making it helpful for people with asthma and other respiratory ailments. In addition, it can be used as a topical antiseptic. Probably the most promising application of this terpene, however, is its power to reduce the size of cancerous tumors.
Pinene’s magical power is derived from its ability to cross the blood-brain barrier. Once in the brain, it affects existing neurotransmitters in such a manner that it results in better memory. Pinene has also shown to inhibit the influence of THC, an example of the entourage effect that may result in a decrease in paranoia or adverse psychological reactions from this cannabinoid when consumed in large quantities.
The power of pinene is nothing new. For literally thousands of years, many cultures around the world have used plants containing large quantities of pinene, like rosemary and sage, for the preservation and enhancement of memory. It’s only today that researchers have a minor understanding of how pinene accomplishes this in the brain.
A 2002 study published in the journal Inhalation Toxicology revealed that alpha-pinene is an effective bronchodilator, meaning it opens the airways of the upper respiratory system. This makes strains of cannabis high in pinene valid treatments for diseases like asthma.
A 2011 study conducted by at Northeast Forestry University in China revealed that the anti-microbial qualities of pinene allow it to treat bacterial and viral infections. It concluded that pinene may be a valid treatment for the virus bronchitis, a condition that is much harder to treat than conventional bacterial infections.
A study published in the British Journal of Pharmacology in 2011 and conducted by Ethan Russo found that alpha-pinene has anti-inflammatory properties that may result it efficacy for inflammation-related diseases, including cancer, arthritis, Crohn’s, and multiple sclerosis. The study concluded that alpha-pinene and all terpenes present in cannabis work together synergistically to deliver therapeutic value:
“[Terpenes] display unique therapeutic effects that may contribute meaningfully to the entourage effects of cannabis-based medicinal extracts…phytocannabinoid-terpenoid interactions…could produce synergy with respect to treatment of pain, inflammation, depression, anxiety, addiction, epilepsy, cancer, [and] fungal and bacterial infection.”
A 2013 study revealed that pinene reduced cancer tumor size and that it acts as a antioxidative and anti-cancer agent. A 2014 study of alpha-pinene derived from pine needle oil found that it was an effective anti-cancer medication. The study concluded:
“Taken together, these findings indicate that α-pinene may be useful as a potential anti-tumor drug.”
Probably the most significant result of the limited research conducted to date is that pinene — and all terpenes — act in a synergistic manner with other terpenes, as well as cannabinoids like THC, to provide medicinal efficacy for those suffering from a wide range of diseases, especially cancer. Of course, more studies are necessary before doctors and budtenders can begin recommending cannabis strains high in pinene for such ailments.