Do you wonder where to even start when it comes to selecting a medical cannabis product? Does the selection confuse you?
People often wonder why two varieties of cannabis with similar amounts of THC and CBD, can have such different effects on a person. One chemovar (also called a “strain”) of Cannabis can make someone feel sleepy, yet another chemovar may make them feel stimulated and not tired at all.
This may be due to the terpenes in the Cannabis plant and it’s these terpenes that we look at in this episode of the Medical Cannabis Podcast: A Beginner’s Guide.
We explore some of the common terpenes in the Cannabis plant, and how these terpenes can actually affect the way a person “feels” after consuming cannabis. This can help you select a cannabis product that is right for you.
You can listen to the episode right here on this webpage by clicking the big green triangle below. Or if you want to check it out on iTunes, click here.
Reminder that this article and podcast provide general medical information for educational purposes only and not specific medical advice for you. Please talk to your doctor for medical advice.
In episode #1 we outlined how the Cannabis plant can produce over 100 different Cannabinoids (the active molecules from the plant that can interact with our Endocannabinoid System).
Because they come from plant we call these molecules phytocannabinoids.
Delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC for short, is just one of those phytocannabinoids. It is the phytocannabindoid that can get you high or stoned if you take more than you are accustomed to.
Cannabidiol (CBD for short) is another phytocannabinoid. This is a very popular non-intoxicating cannabinoid. This one doesn’t get you high or stoned.
We also outlined that there are many different chemical varieties of Cannabis, which we will call “chemovars” but are commonly called strains of Cannabis. So when you hear the word cannabis strain you can picture it as a variety of cannabis with different amounts and quantities of its natural chemicals.
These chemovars of cannabis are purported to have different effects from each other. One chemovar is said to make you feel a certain way, and another chemovar is said to make you feel the opposite.
Cannabis folklore says that a Cannabis sativa plant will make you feel a “mind high” or uplifted, while a strain from Cannabis indica will make you have a relaxed body called “couch lock” and you’ll experience more of a stoned effect.
The plants do look different: the Cannabis sativa plant is taller and narrower, while the Cannabis indica plant is shorter and bushier but why would that cause these difference in effects?
If you compare the phytocannabinoid profiles of two different chemovars you may see the same amount of THC, CBD and other phytocannabinoids in it, but they make you feel different sensations.
Why is that?
Well you can probably guess that we don’t think it is due to a name, sativa or indica.
Part of the problem with this cannabis folk knowledge of indica = relaxed and stone, and sativa = high and stimulated, is that most of the chemovars out there today are hybrids, or cross-breeds between an indica and a sativa. They are like a mutt dog…they aren’t pure breds. Pure indica or pure sativa strains are uncommon.
This folk knowledge has been passed along, but we want to peel back the layers and figure out what is actually going on.
And knowing what is going on can help us make a more informed decision on selecting a cannabis chemovar. It gives us a better understating on how a particular chemical variety may make you feel.
This is why we are dedicating this episode to the chemicals in the plants called terpenes.
What are Terpenes?
We briefly mentioned terpenes in episode #1.
The work by Dr. Ethan Russo, a neurologist, showed that the terpenes in cannabis can change and affect how the cannabinoids, like THC, actually work in us!
Terpenes are the fragrant essential oils of the plant that give it its huge variety of smells. Some chemovars of cannabis can smell citrusy, fruity, skunky, or even have hints of pine.
It isn’t the cannabinoids in the plant that give it is smell – cannabinoids don’t have a smell – it is the terpenes that create the aroma.
You’ll notice that many of these terpenes found in cannabis are not exclusive to cannabis. What I mean by that is, for instance, the terpene Linalool is also found in lavender. It is associated with the lavender’s smell, and its calming aromatherapy.
Most of my “Aha!” moment about understanding why chemovar “A” causes a different effect than chemovar “B” was because I read the paper “Taming THC: potential cannabis synergy and phytocannabinoid-terpenoid entourage effects” by Dr. Ethan Russo. (If you want to check it out I’ve provided the link below.)
I’ve mentioned him a few times already, but this paper has great insights into different cannabinoids and terpenes. It contains a nice chart that breaks down different terpenes found in cannabis, other plants they’re also found in, and the potential medical benefits of the terpenes.
Interestingly, the terpenes themselves may have medical properties, and they can affect our body in different ways.
As terpene awareness and knowledge grows among patients, licensed producers of cannabis will now frequently include terpene profiles.
These are a description of which terpenes are in their product and how much of the terpene is in there. Below is screenshot of a terpene profile from a Canadian medical cannabis producer. (I am not affiliated with this company I’m just showing them as an example for educational purposes.)
This gives us greater insight into the product, and how it could possibly benefit our medical condition.
These terpene profiles help to illustrate why two different chemovars with a similar phytocannabinoid content can make us feel so different.
Why does the plant make terpenes?
The plant makes the terpenes for “selfish” reasons. The plant doesn’t care what the terpenes do to our body. It makes the terpenes to enhance its chances of survival.
The terpenes can help repel insects, provide a bitter taste to dissuade animals from eating it, or attract pollinators.
Some common terpenes found in Cannabis
Lets take a closer look at some of the most common terpenes in cannabis.
It’s also found in hops. Can have a sedating effect on its own, and Dr. Russo points out that when it is combined with THC it can cause even greater drowsiness.
Using a cannabis variety that is high in myrcene may help to explain the couch lock that cannabis folk knowledge associates with indica strains. So it isn’t because it’s an indica strains, it’s because the product is high in the terpene myrcene.
Also found in lemons and citrus fruits.
Lemon scent is used to provide an uplifting stimulating scent to some products (like cleaning products) and it’s limonene that provides this boost.
It has an anti-anxiety effect, and because of its mood-boosting effects it is desired by patients suffering from depression
The cleaning aisle in a grocery store often smells of lemons or citrus because large companies put the lemon scent into their products to elicit the sense of being clean, bright, and fresh.
And limonene in cannabis may have that same uplifting, cheery effect.
Also found in black pepper. The cannabis plant may produce this chemical because this terpene can attract a predatory insect called “green lace wings” that eat pests like aphids. It’s like the cannabis plant calls in the green lace wings to protect itself from other bugs.
It shows potential as an anti-inflammatory and pain-reliever and this may be due to stimulation of the CB2 receptor. The cannabinoid receptor that is found in abundance on immune cells. (Remember it is your body’s immune system that causes inflammation.)
A terpene also found in pine trees producing the typical “pine scent.”
It has an invigorating scent that may help improve focus, and when found in Cannabis it may help offset the short-term memory impairment caused by THC.
A negative effect that may occur with THC is problems with short-term memory. The person may forgot what they were saying mid-sentence and trail off. This is often made fun of in movies when a character has consumed cannabis.
So being able to improve focus and reduce THC’s effect on short term memory could be a benefit in people that require daytime THC treatments.
Linalool is a terpene also found in lavender, and is used in aromatherapy to help relax.
When found in cannabis it may help the patient relax and act as an anti-anxiety aid.
This list of terpenes is not comprehensive.
But it gives us a glimpse into using Cannabis as medicine beyond just the cananbinoids. And it could help guide you in selecting a chemical variety of cannabis suited to your health state.
Examples of matching medical conditions to terpene content
If you feel overworked, tight muscles and you can’t sleep well, then a cannabis product higher in Myrcene may help you relax, wind down and help you sleep.
So this “couch lock” effect, or “body stone” can be desirable in some patients. If someone needs to rest and repair then a Myrcene-rich chemovar should suit them well.
Contrast this with someone who is feeling down, or depressed…they may want an uplifted, stimulated effect. Selecting a cannabis product with some limonene in it may provide the boost they are looking for.
If a patient was suffering from nerve pain, and they needed cannabis during the day, but still wanted to be able to function, then selecting a chemovar higher in alpha-pinene may help improve their focus and offset THC’s memory issues.
Knowing what terpenes are in a chemovar can help provide some initial guidance on selecting a chemovar to start with, but it may take some trial and error to get the chemovar that is right for you.
A chemovar not only has various amounts of the phytocannabinoids in it, but they also have various amounts of terpenes.
It would be so much simpler if Chemovar “A” only contained myrcene, and Chemovar “B” only contained limonene. Then you’d be sure that “A” will make you feel relaxed and drowsy from the myrcene, and “B” will be uplifting from the limonene. But a chemovar of cannabis usually has a variety of terpenes in different quantities.
So a chemovar may contain both limonene and myrcene. In that case, what effect will it have?
The Canadian Licensed Producer of medical cannabis called GreenRelief claims that if a chemovar contains greater than 0.5% myrcene it will cause this couch-lock effect. (You can check out their article here.) So in their opinion if you have 0.5% myrcene content it will tip the scales toward the sedated, drowsy, and relaxed side.
I’m hoping to learn even more about this, but it also appears to depend on a couple factors, including the person using it. One person may feel stimulated from it, but another may feel drowsy. We call this inter-patient variability.
So that does seem to muddy the water a bit. But…
Don’t let the confusion hold you back.
After speaking with your doctor about what Cannabinoids you are going to use (e.g. CBD and/or THC) and how you are going to take it (e.g. oral liquids, vaporizing, etc…), then you can look at the terpene profile of the chemovar to narrow down a variety to start with.
Select a chemovar that has the terpenes to match your needs. (e.g.Do you need for daytime or nighttime?)
Then you always start low and go slow.
And document your journey. Write down as much as you can about the chemovar you’ve selected, and what dose you are taking.
Write down how it makes you feel. Is it benefitting you? Any adverse effects?
And you need to use your own documentation to guide your medical cannabis journey going forward.
I hope you found this topic as interesting as I did . And I hope it helps provide some basic guidance on what you can look for in a cannabis chemovar (aka “strain”).
Learning about the terpenes makes me realize I have so much more to learn about this fascinating plant. But I welcome the opportunity.