Updated on March 16, 2021.
Medical content reviewed by Dr. Joseph Rosado, MD, M.B.A, Chief Medical Officer
If you watch VICE, you have probably seen a show or two about cannabis restaurants. They are very few right now across the United States. Federal prohibition and food safety regulations conflict (go figure) and presents a challenge to chefs who want to provide cannabis-infused gourmet meals. Humble terpenes will find their way to U.S. menus sometime soon.
One restaurant chain that is making waves is Cultivating Spirits. They have three locations in Colorado, California, and Las Vegas. The restaurant provides a three-course gourmet pairing of spirits and cannabis-infused foods. Never heard of it? Add it to your bucket list. They even do private events like birthdays, bachelor’s, or engagement parties. And weddings.
With federal legalization looming as a high probability for 2021, we could see many new restaurants opening in recreational states. What a great way to re-open after social distancing and Covid-19 is a distant memory. Not only does food taste better when you are high, but it also augments the nutritional benefits.
The entourage effect is still not fully understood by the medical community. But what they do know is that the terpenes in cannabis have many wellness benefits. And when combined with THC, those benefits are amplified.
But you don’t need advanced scientific training to unlock some of those benefits for yourself. Did you know that many plant-derived foods are high in organic terpenes? And when you consume high-terpene foods with cannabis? Some pretty magical things can happen.
What Are Terpenes? The Reason Why Consuming Plants Is Good For Our Health
From the food pyramid to your mom telling you to eat your fruits and veggies every day, plants are good. And we are taught that plants are an important part of a healthy diet. But how many people know why plants are so good for us? Here is a hint; it’s more than just the vitamins.
Science has identified more than 20,000 different types of terpenes that exist naturally in plants. You have been eating, smelling, and tasting terpenes your whole life. For example, when you dice up a fresh herb like parsley? That smell and flavor come from a terpene called Parsley Apiole. It was discovered by an apothecary called Heinrich Christoph Link in the 18th century.
Cannabis, like every other plant, is loaded with terpenes. The unique properties of different cannabis strains are the result of THC and terpenes. And the scent or aroma of different strains (from citrus to stinkweed) is from the specific strain’s flavonoid content.
Medical cannabis can be effective for patients because of the entourage effect—the combination of terpenes, THC, and flavonoids. But when you consume other edible plants (including herbs and spices) with cannabis, you add additional medicinal benefits. This is why people are very interested in pairing certain foods and adding terpene-rich recipes into their diet.
Discovering the Therapeutic Potential of Terpenes
The potential for using terpenes as a preventative health therapy is just starting to be realized. Researchers are getting more data about medical cannabis use (thanks to legalization). For the first time since before the 1930s in America, patients are legally using cannabis and providing some important revelations.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) granted UCLA a large $3.9 million grant to conduct a study on terpenes. The five-year study’s focus will determine if terpenes and THC, in conjunction, can provide effective pain relief. And if supplementation could reduce patient reliance on opioids for pain management. The study is led by Professor of Psychiatry and Bio-Behavioral Sciences, Ziva Cooper.
Imagine if an edible was formulated with the right terpenes for pain relief? Combined with THC, terpenes, and cannabidiol (CBD) work together to reduce inflammation. That is well documented by researchers worldwide. And since chronic pain symptoms originate from inflammation, you can see the link. Lower the inflammation, reduce the pain without the dangers side-effects and overdose risks of opioid medications.
With the alarming growth annually in opioid overdose deaths in the United States and worldwide, terpene research could be lifesaving. Federal legalization in the United States (which could happen if the MORE Act is ratified) would make it easier for similar discoveries. And revolutionize health care for patients with chronic disease.
Choosing Fresh Foods That are High In Terpenes
Ready to start cooking with more terpenes? If you are a patient using medical cannabis, it is worth researching some of the foods that can be paired with marijuana. More of a good thing can result in better symptom management.
If you want to start simple, fresh herbs and dried spices are the easiest way to incorporate more terpenes into your diet. Wherever possible, try to consume organic terpenes raw. When heated, much of the wellness benefits of terpenes are lost. Vaping cannabis, for example, happens at a lower incineration temperature and preserves more terpenes than smoking whole flower.
Beta-Caryophyllene is the first non-cannabinoid that activates human cannabinoid receptors. Some spices you can add to your meals that are rich in beta-caryophyllene include:
The Food and Drug Administration has labeled it in the “generally recognized as safe” classification. Which means larger doses may be consumed safely. Try pairing the herbs and spices with strains that are also high in beta-caryophyllene like Candyland, Chemdog, Original Glue, Cookies, and Cream, or Bubba Kush.
Other popular terpenes include menthol, ginkgolide, and bilobalide (Ginko Biloba). Curcuminoids have known wellness benefits and can be found in turmeric and mustard seed. The terpene myrcene is found in mangoes, bay leaves, and lemongrass. And limonene (responsible for cannabis strains with a citrus scent) can be found in peppermint, rosemary, and many raw fruit rinds.
A Warning About Terpene Toxicity in Concentrated Oils
Before you get too excited and head to your local health food store to get some terpene-rich oils, it is important to know they can be toxic. But only at the highest levels of concentration. You should never consume or swallow concentrated terpenes or essential oils.
Does that mean you cannot prepare terpene oil for oral consumption? You will need to consult with a medical professional or a licensed compounding herbalist. Oil preparations for oral consumption are diluted for safety.
The human diet has focused on many natural terpenes in fruits, vegetables, herbs, and spices. Some studies have shown that terpenes can protect our digestive systems when consumed orally. And since more than 70% of our immune system function happens in the digestive tract? Terpenes could provide substantial benefits.
Many health food stores have oral preparations already diluted and safe to consume daily or as-needed. Just don’t reach for a powerful concentrated terpene and self-dose without consulting with an experienced medical professional first.