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From Great Smell to… Medical Benefits? The Truth about Terpenes

Photo by Jesse Faatz

A new bar in Downtown Los Angeles is making cocktails spiked with terpenes that are also found in cannabis. There’s nothing wrong with adding an extra terp-kick to your drink, but advertising the terpene’s cancer benefits is a whole separate ball game. Is it any help that this new spot is called Prank Bar?

Prank Bar makes cocktails, such as the “Mon Frere,” a mix of Plymouth Gin Cocchi Americano, limonene terpenes and Regan’s Orange Bitter (I’m no mixologist, but isn’t it redundant to add limonene to a drink that already has orange bitters?), and their limonene-packed “Anti-Inflammatory” ambrosia. These drinks probably carry a powerful aroma, but don’t expect them to cure you of depression or cancer.

This whole terpene craze seemingly started with a review published in the British Journal of Pharmacology in 2011, titled, “Taming THC: potential cannabis synergy and phytocannabinoid-terpenoid entourage effects.” Written by Ethan Russo, a genuine pioneer in the field of cannabis science, this paper made quite a splash in the cannabis industry. After legalization progressed and labs popped up to analyze legal cannabis products for potency—and essential oil content—the terpene obsession really picked up.

Looking at data from different cannabis samples and trying to observe differences in terpene content between strains, some labs began making unsubstantiated claims regarding terpenes.

Indeed, the claim that myrcene, the main terpene in cannabis, somehow increases THC delivery to the brain is based on absolutely nothing, sorry folks. Nevertheless, connoisseurs began to demand higher terpene contents for the flavor, the “medical benefits” and this popular idea that terpenes modulate the effect of cannabinoids in the brain and are responsible for the perceived subjective effects of different strains.

Differences in cannabinoid content is a much more likely scenario for explaining the diverse effects of different cannabis strains—due to the proven and measurable effects these have on the brain.

However, the medical research that Russo used in his famous “entourage effect review is not hearsay from cannabis industry herbalists; in fact, he wrote the paper while serving as the senior medical adviser to GW Pharmaceuticals, the Big Pharma manufacturer of the cannabis drug Sativex.

For example, reported anti-anxiety properties of limonene are based on research done on mice using bitter orange extracts, which indeed show effects. But these mild observations cannot be directly translated to humans and often require very high doses. Limonene was also studied in a Phase I clinical trial for treating cancer, but has not yet advanced to Phase II. Similarly, myrcene has been studied for its pain-relieving properties, but conclusive evidence in humans has not been identified.

A review published this past January about the applications of terpenes for colorectal cancer indicated that terpenes may act as preventive agents, but their potential (not proven or even loosely indicated) cancer-fighting properties need further investigation.

Any mild medicinal benefits from terpenes in prevention of disease or induction of mild anti-anxiety effects can be best obtained from their natural sources. Want some of those limonene anti-anxiety effects? Eat an orange. Want the limonene gastro-esophageal benefits? Squeeze some lemon over your meal. The calming effects of caryophyllene? Sprinkle some oregano over your pizza.

The benefits of a vegetable-rich diet don’t just stem from vitamins and fiber, think of all the terpenes!

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