Cannabinoids and Terpenes

Cannabinoids and Terpenes

On the See-Saw of Cannabis, Balance is the Key

Learning to medicate with cannabis can be a very confusing landscape to try to navigate.  Cannabis has been found to contain hundreds of different chemical compounds all with different potential health effects. 

What are cannabinoids?

As previously noted, cannabinoids come from three sources.  Our bodies naturally produce endocannabinoids such as anandamide and 2-AG that naturally interact with our body’s own endocannabinoid system (ECS).  This system plays an important role in all body systems by helping to keep them balanced, known as homeostasis.  Man-made (or laboratory made) cannabinoids are those that are artificially created to mimic natural cannabinoids and interact with this body system.  An example of this is the pharmaceutical drug Marinol which is an artificial form of THC.  Cannabis contains plant-based cannabinoids called phytocannabinoids.  Examples include THCA, CBDA, THC, CBD, CBC, etc.  These man-made and plant-based cannabinoids interact with our endocannabinoid system as well. 

What are terpenes?

Terpenes are found in most living organisms, specifically plants and edible herbs.  Essential oils contain many of these as their active ingredients.  Scientists have discovered over 20,000 known existing terpenes.  The cannabis plant has been found to contain around 200 of them within the various strain types.  Levels of myrcene, limonene, pinene, linalool, caryophyllene, and humulene are among the more commonly found terpene types.  These terpenes are created in the plant to help defend itself from insects, fungus, predators, and too much UV light.  These benefits have the potential to carry over to us when consumed in cannabis or other plants and herbs.  The differing combinations of terpenes give each cannabis strain its distinctive smell and flavor and contribute to its effects.

The cannabis plant is made up of leaves (sugar leaves and fan leaves), stems, flowers (buds), and roots.  Structures known as trichomes are found on the plant’s surfaces and are responsible for producing the plant’s therapeutic properties.  Certain trichomes on the plant contain resin glands where terpenes and cannabinoids are formed.  These resinous trichomes are easily seen and found primarily on the plant flower but can rarely be seen on the sugar leaves, fan leaves and stems.  All cannabinoids and terpenes are formed by a series of chemical reactions where plant enzymes make large molecules out of simple ones.  The cannabis plant makes all cannabinoids by combining geranyl pyrophosphate and olivetolic acid.  An enzyme called GOT binds these two chemicals together creating the “mother of all cannabinoids” known as cannabigerolic acid (CBGA).  See simplified illustration. 

Geranyl Pyrophosphate + Olivetolic Acid —<GOT enzyme>—  à  CBGA

From this point CBGA can be turned into CBG or cyclized into other cannabinoids such as THCA, CBDA, or CBCA with other enzymes.  CBGA is converted into THCA with the THCA synthase enzyme, into CBDA with the CBD synthase enzyme, etc.  The presence and amounts of these specific enzymes controls which major cannabinoids are produced.  See simplified illustration. 

When cannabis is dried and cured properly, the most prominent cannabinoids will be the acidic forms.  After harvest, a natural process of degrading begins called decarboxylation.  This process can be sped up by applying heat, such as when preparing for making concentrates or edibles or immediately upon vaping or smoking it.  Decarboxylation causes the acidic cannabinoid to lose a carbon dioxide molecule (CO2), forming the more recognizable THC, CBD, CBC, etc. 

Terpenes are made from a building block of a five-carbon isoprene molecule (C5H8).  Terpenes are then classified by how many isoprene molecule units are present.  The five classifications include:

  1. Monoterpenes that have 2 isoprene units (10 carbon atoms)
  2. Sesquiterpenes that have 3 isoprene units (15 carbon atoms)
  3. Diterpenes that have 4 isoprene units (20 carbon atoms)
  4. Triterpenes that have 6 isoprene units (30 carbon atoms)
  5. Tetraterpenes that have 8 isoprene units (40 carbon atoms)

Geranyl pyrophosphate is also the precursor to terpenes.  It forms monoterpenes and converts to farnesyl pyrophosphate and geranylgeranyl pyrophosphate which are precursors to sesquiterpenes and diterpenoids.  This conversion is made by their corresponding terpene synthase. 

When looking at all the potential combinations and effects of cannabis ingredients it is easy to see why people claim it helps with so many health conditions.  Medicating with cannabis is like combining the therapeutic benefits of combining a pharmaceutical (cannabinoids) with the power of essential oils (terpenes).   If you consider having a disease or illness as your body being “out of balance,” then you understand why the seemingly outrageous claims of helping almost every condition known to man actually has a factual basis.  The endocannabinoids system is working to bring your body back into balance whether your problem is a headache, arthritis, or constipation.  Once you understand what cannabis is doing in the body, the meaning of it being a bi-phasic medication becomes clear.  Too little medication will not fully help your health condition, whereas you can over-do and get too much of a good thing as well.  It is all in THE BALANCE.

Written By: Melissa Cornwell

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