A Beginner’s Guide to Cannabinoids & Terpenes

Beginners Guide Cannabinoids
Cannabinoids and terpenes are the two primary classes of chemical compounds in the marijuana plant that provide therapeutic results. Cannabinoids, including THC, CBD, and over 100 others, interact with the human body's endocannabinoid system (ECS), influencing various functions such as learning, memory, emotional processing, sleep, temperature control, pain control, and inflammatory and immune responses. Terpenes, on the other hand, are responsible for the unique aroma and flavor of marijuana, but they also influence how cannabinoids behave in the body and can affect other receptor systems. The interaction of cannabinoids and terpenes in the human body, known as the entourage effect, enhances the therapeutic benefits of marijuana, helping to treat a myriad of diseases and ailments.
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The medical marijuana patient community understands the medicinal effects of cannabis, as they experience the benefits firsthand, but the marijuana plant itself is highly complex with different compounds that provide those therapeutic results.

Cannabinoids and terpenes are the two primary classes of chemical compounds in the marijuana plant; however, while both are familiar terms, understanding of their specific roles is often less clear. Cannabinoids, perhaps the more familiar term, are primarily responsible for marijuana’s influence on the body (including THC’s intoxicating effect). Terpenes play a critical role in the unique aroma and flavor of marijuana – although they also exert influence over the plant’s effect, as well.

In this article, we’ll explore cannabinoids and terpenes, and their specific roles in the medical benefits of marijuana.

What Are Cannabinoids?

When most people hear the word “cannabinoid,” they naturally associate it with cannabis plants. While this association is correct, it’s a little-known fact that the human body includes a natural endocannabinoid system (ECS) that factors into almost every moment the human body functions. According to Harvard Medical School, this includes learning, memory, eating, emotional processing, sleep, temperature control, pain control, and inflammatory and immune responses.

To stimulate receptors for those various functions, the body produces molecules called endocannabinoids (or endogenous cannabinoids), which have a structural similarity to molecules in the cannabis plant (phytocannabinoids). Every human has these tiny cannabis-like molecules hard at work in our brains, and the cannabis plant leverages this cellular activity to further stimulate and help the body function.

An excellent example of this naturally occurring process is when tissue is damaged. Human cells produce cannabinoids that regulate inflammation and pain through cannabinoid receptors. These receptors are the same that are targeted by the cannabinoids in marijuana, further helping to alleviate that inflammation and pain.

There are more than 100 known phytocannabinoids in the marijuana plant. The most common compounds and their hypothesized benefits are:

What Are Terpenes?

The marijuana plant contains a second class of compounds called terpenes, which do not have the same effect as cannabinoids on the endocannabinoid system, but do affect other receptor systems in the body and can influence how cannabinoids behave in the body.

Terpenes are best known for giving the marijuana plant its scent and flavor in addition to providing bacterial, viral, and fungal protection. While there are an estimated 20,000 terpenes found in all plants, 150 have been identified in marijuana plants specifically. The most commonly occurring include:

Cannabis terpenes are secreted from the marijuana plant’s resin glands and are responsible for emitting distinctive marijuana scents such as mint, pine, berry, and citrus. It’s often these scents that help identify the various strains.

What Is the Entourage Effect?

So how do cannabinoids and terpenes interact in the human body to produce the desired effect? They work synergistically, in a process commonly known as the entourage effect. Simply stated, cannabinoids and terpenes work together along with the endocannabinoid system to enhance therapeutic benefits. They are complementary to one another, helping to treat a myriad of diseases and ailments as detailed above.

Studies have shown

that the composition of certain terpenes vary broadly across different strains of cannabis, allowing experts in the field to target specific terpenes with specific strains to produce desired effects and enhance medical benefit.

Cannabinoids and terpenes demonstrate the complex nature of the marijuana plant, and work in tandem to stimulate the endocannabinoid system to help alleviate some of the most persistent medical conditions. With these two organic compounds working together, patients are able to experience relief from countless ailments, from ALS and cancer to diabetes to chronic pain!

Updated: June 5, 2024

Article Written By:

Jessica Walters

Jessica Walters serves as CannaMD's Chief Medical Researcher. Prior to her time at CannaMD, Jessica earned her degree from Harvard where she focused on neuropsychology. Her personal research interests include psychosocial interventions for obesity, depression, and generalized anxiety disorders.


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