Whether you’re just starting out on your journey with cannabis or consider yourself a seasoned connoisseur, you’ve likely heard the term “terpenes” thrown around in descriptions of different strains or products. But what exactly are terpenes, and how important are they to your cannabis consumption experience?
Terpenes are bio-active molecules that — much like the much-lauded cannabinoids — have a specific effect on the user (Pellatti et al., 2018). In this article, we’ll be diving into the most popular “sedating” terpenes, which can help you achieve common cannabis consumption goals like Relax & Refresh or Improve Sleep.
Terpenes occur naturally in all plants, and are frequently related to the scents attributed to those plants and their essential oils (Fogel et al., 2020). According to researchers, terpenes are “the most abundant class of naturally occurring small compounds on the planet,” and possess “innumerable functional and structural roles in most life forms on Earth; including animals, fungi, marine organisms, insects, protozoa, and bacteria (Weston-Green et al., 2021).”
Humans have been extracting oils from plants since the beginning of recorded history, and it is likely that the terpenes in these oils, along with other compounds, are responsible for the healing effects attributed to plant oils (Weston-Green et al., 2021).
Over 150 different terpenes have been found in cannabis plants, and old-school growers train their noses over their entire careers to sniff out the presence of certain terpene-produced scents associated with higher potency or specific therapeutic effects (Booth & Bohlmann, 2019).
Take your diet into account when experimenting with terpenes, as they occur naturally in many foods and are even sometimes used as a flavor additive. In fact, if you’re looking to increase the presence of a particular terpene to help with a desired outcome for cannabis consumption, consider exploring companion foods if your strain or product options are limited.
When looking for a cannabis product to aid in relaxation or sleep, check out options featuring strains known to have high levels of sedating terpenes like myrcene, linalool or beta-caryophyllene. If possible, stick to products that have received a certificate of analysis (COA) from a testing center that has been approved by your state. These certificates will often help you understand the breakdown of different cannabinoids, terpenes, and other compounds present in your product of choice, allowing you to make a selection based on your goals for your own cannabis consumption.
Read on to learn more about these three major sedating terpenes, including historical and modern scientific evidence for their use.
Myrcene is commonly found in “hops, cannabis, lemongrass, verbena and bay, as well as in citrus and citrus juice” and has been described as having a “resinous, herbaceous, balsamic and geranium-like scent,” (Surendran et at., 2021). It’s the most common terpene found in American-grown cannabis today (Lewis et al., 2017).
There is significant evidence supporting “the hypothesis that myrcene is a prominent sedative terpenoid in cannabis, and combined with THC, may produce the ‘couch-lock’ phenomenon of certain chemotypes that is alternatively decried or appreciated by recreational cannabis consumers,” researcher Ethan B. Russo (2011) writes.
Other researchers note that, while myrcene is found in many cannabis strains, you’ll want to seek out a strain with a myrcene concentration higher than 0.5% in order to get the best relaxing, sedative effects (Surendran et al., 2021). With this in mind, keep an eye out for CBD-rich strains known for their high myrcene content like Harlequin, a sativa-dominant hybrid noted for its minimal psychoactive effects and popular with medical patients (Michaels, 2014). If you’d like to keep those psychoactive effects or find that CBD-rich products don’t always work for you, give a THC-rich strain like Northern Lights or Blue Dream — both of which are known to have high myrcene levels — a try instead.
Plants containing high levels of myrcene have been used for relaxation and sleep in folk medicine for generations. One such folk tradition, the use of lemongrass-derived cidreira tea in Brazil as a tranquilizer and for gastrointestinal disorders, prompted laboratory research that confirmed myrcene’s ability to relax and promote longer sleep in mice (Gurgel Do Vale et al., 2002).
Commercial medicine has delved into myrcene’s potential as well with the cannabis-based oral spray Sativex, which is currently undergoing trials and testing with the goal of eventually marketing itself in the United States as a medicine for sleep disorders, especially those related to chronic pain (Russo et al., 2007).
In a review of the literature on Sativex, which uses a 1:1 ratio of THC to CBD, as well as the literature on a similar product called Tetranabinex made with THC extract exclusively, a team of researchers concluded that Sativex and related products demonstrated “THC was sedative, while, in contrast, the presence of CBD was alerting, tended to counteract THC adverse effects on cognition, and impaired wakefulness,” (Russo et al., 2007).
The findings above are somewhat unexpected given CBD’s reputation for increasing the sensation of a mellow “body high,” but that reputation could be based on the use of CBD on its own. As we’ve seen again and again, in popular anecdotes and in formal experimentation alike, cannabinoid combinations can lead to unexpected synergistic benefits. We invite readers to explore different ratios of CBD to THC, as well as a variety of strains selected based on the potential benefits of the dominant terpenes in those strains. (The Jointly app is a great tool for tracking your findings and optimizing your product choice to reach your cannabis consumption goals!)
Studies have also shown myrcene to possess anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, muscle relaxing, and analgesic effects (Fogel et al., 2020). Myrcene may also have a role in easing passage of cannabinoids and other compounds across the blood-brain barrier — the protective layer keeping potential blood contaminants from reaching the brain — and increasing those compounds’ impact on a user’s experience (Surendran et al., 2021).
Linalool is present not only in many strains of cannabis, but is also abundant in another common flower associated with relaxation: lavender (Fogel et al., 2020).
This floral terpene has been “well-documented as having sedative and calming effects, which are associated with its anti-anxiety properties,” featuring a “total body effect, which not only reduces stress and anxiety through its sedative effects but also through reducing the stress hormone cortisol,” (Fogel et al., 2020, pg. 59) Linalool is also considered to have a positive impact on overall mood, causing study participants to report “increased drowsiness, and reported on a less depressed mood and of feeling more relaxed,” as well as increased cognitive performance (Fogel et al., 2020, pg. 59).
Lavender and linalool have been used for relaxation for centuries through herbal pillows, teas and other natural solutions. For example, some styles of traditional Mexican medicine make use of linalool-rich laurel plants to treat “epilepsy, fright, and sadness,” (Weston-Green et al., 2021, pg. 13). American and European alternative medicine strategies also utilize lavender-based linalool in aromatherapy to promote relaxation and improve overall mood (Buchbauer, 2002).
Modern studies confirm the folk traditions and their application to common stress-related ailments, with researchers finding that inhalation of isolated linalool had a sedative effect on mice in an experimental setting (Russo, 2011). An additional review of the same study reveals that the constituents of the lavender oil used on the mice, including linalool itself, produced similar but less effective anti-stress effects on their own, suggesting that linalool works best in tandem with other compounds it is commonly found alongside to create desired effects in a manner similar to the “entourage effect” frequently attributed to whole-plant cannabis extracts when compared to isolated extracts of THC or CBD (Buchbauer, 2002).
Human trials of Silexan, a lavender oil capsule rich in linalool, also revealed the effectiveness of treating anxiety with linalool to be comparable with the traditional antidepressant drug paroxetine (Weston-Green et al., 2021). The same study also found that linalool-based treatment of anxiety caused fatigue less frequently than the traditional anti-anxiety medication lorazepam.
Further research also suggests that linalool’s relaxing properties could be beneficial for consumers who deal with anxiety. Weston-Green et al. (2021, pg. 12) observe that, in a laboratory setting, the application of linalool “decreased anxiety-like behaviors in mice… and restored social interaction in mice subjected to a social defeat paradigm.”
Strains like Durban Poison and varieties of the Runtz family are known for their calming, sedative effects — possibly due to their relatively high concentration of linalool. Weston-Green et al. (2021) note that research regarding the efficacy of linalool consumption via cannabis is currently lacking, but go on to call for additional research in this area based on the demonstrated health benefits of linalool found in other plants.
Like myrcene and linalool, beta-caryophyllene — sometimes written more formally as β-caryophyllene — has been credited with the ability to ease anxiety and prolong sleep (Galdino et al., 2012). Its scent is frequently compared to that of freshly crushed black pepper.
Studies regarding beta-caryophyllene derived specifically from cannabis are limited but, fortunately, due to the frequent presence of beta-caryophyllene in other plants, there has been some formal study done regarding the terpene’s potential for evidence-based therapeutic use.
For example, several styles of Brazilian folk medicine traditionally utilize the leaves and roots of a regionally native plant called manacá that is noted for its high concentration of beta-caryophyllene to treat a variety of ailments, including diseases of the liver and kidney, as well as stomach aches, headaches, and rheumatism (Galdino et al., 2012).
This tradition prompted a study by researchers from the Universidad Federal de Goiás and Universidad Federal de Santa Catarina, both located in Brazil, with the goal of establishing whether beta-caryophyllene has potential for use in anti-anxiety medication.
The research team discovered that both the essential oil from manacá, in which beta-caryophyllene serves as the primary component, as well as isolated beta-caryophyllene decreased expressions of an anxious state among mice through several tests in a laboratory setting (Galdino et al., 2012).
Beta-caryophyllene showed promise on its own when separated from the essential oil, but the researchers report that the desired anti-anxiety effects were best achieved by using the full-spectrum essential oil (Galdino et al., 2012). The disparity between the efficacy of the full-spectrum essential oil over that of the isolated beta-caryophyllene again suggests the potential benefit of allowing unidentified or understudied compounds found in the whole plant to be included in your consumption habits.
While we can’t make a direct connection between high levels of beta-caryophyllene and a particular cannabis product or strain for aiding sleep or seeking out sedative effects, we can suggest looking for higher concentrations of beta-caryophyllene alongside other sedating terpenes, as can be found in this COA of Forbidden Fruit flower for Arete Hemp, in order to achieve the best results when using cannabis to relax or aid sleep.
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