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Demystifying the Mood Enhancing Chemicals We Ingest Every Day

Medical cannabis use is on the rise, and terpenes are a trending topic you should know about.

Freshly mowed grass on a warm summer’s day. Fragrant pine boughs tied up with ribbons, harkening the holiday season. Nana’s banana bread, just as it comes out of the oven. Linen right out of the dryer, cinnamon toast, and the rich scent of earth and decay as rain hits a window. Scent memory is so strong, we have the ability to recall smells simply by reading words associated with them. This is due to aromatic chemical compounds called terpenes, their natural ingestion during our daily lives, and how they affect the brain.

Legislation for medical marijuana is sweeping the country, and terpenes are having a moment in the spotlight. When talking about strains, terpenes have long been in the conversation with words like “pine”, “floral”, and “peppery” used to describe a particular aroma, or taste. This shift from simply being aware of terpenes, to actually using them to achieve a desired outcome, is becoming more refined as physicians delve into the science behind these chemical compounds. Slowly, conversations about terpenes are moving past these aromatic descriptors to include the physiological effects on the body, and a patient’s possible emotional response.

Patients filling a recommendation from their dispensary may have noticed the informational labels on the back of their mylar bags, and child-safe screw-top bottles: a list of terpenes featured in their prescribed strains. This is helpful information to have if you know what to do with it, because terpenes can affect people in different ways. Empowering patients with the ability to identify and understand which terpenes are the most beneficial for their medical circumstances can increase the effectiveness of their treatment.

Which brings us to an important question: what do terpenes do, exactly? While these chemical compounds don’t produce the kind of high typically associated with cannabis, we do know they have some effects on the chemicals our brains produce based off of patient feedback. Myrcene, for instance, has long been used as a food additive, and has been shown to have relaxing effects and may stimulate the production of the anti-anxiety hormone, serotonin. ADHD patients might find they benefit from pinene as it’s widely cited as one of the best terpenes for focus, and floral linalool may aid in memory retention as observed in rats with Alzheimer’s. Others – like citrusy limonene commonly found in oranges, lemons, and limes – appear to trigger the body’s anti-inflammatory response. And almost anyone who’s ever found relief in a cough drop can tell you how effective the terpene menthol can be.

In each of these instances, the terpenes influence the neurotransmitters in the brain, which in turn affects how we feel. The research into harnessing the therapeutic uses of terpenes is ongoing, replete with speculation, educated guesses, and scientific observations that are largely still out for peer review. As medical marijuana laws are revised across the nation, funding for these studies is quickly gaining traction. Western medicine is at the precipice of understanding and employing terpenes for medical use, and doing so has the potential to increase a recommendation’s effectiveness, the patient’s mental clarity, and generally improve their overall wellbeing.