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What Happens When You Eat Terpenes?

Updated: Jul 1, 2023

Brought to you by the Higher Learning LV Cannabis for Anxiety seminar.

 

Welcome to the new Gooey Rabinski Series at Higher Learning LV. This exclusive collection offers students an opportunity to learn from veteran cannabis writer Gooey Rabinski about a variety of topics of importance to professionals in the marijuana and hemp industries. This article introduces the topic of terpene inhalation versus ingestion (eating).


What Happens When You Eat Terpenes?

What happens when you eat terpenes? Terpenes are the infamously aromatic molecules produced by hemp and marijuana that also provide a wealth of medicinal efficacy for lifestyle consumers and patients. Typically, these efficacious phytomolecules are inhaled within cannabis smoke or vapor. But what happens if you eat terpenes?

A young man with long hair is eating chinese noodles, flanked by a solid green background
Gooey Rabinski explains the dynamics of terpenes when eaten versus ingested.

Examining the Efficacy of Terpenes When Ingested

Edible cannabis products, including baked goods, gummies, and even infused ice cream, have come into the public spotlight with adult use legalization of the kind herb sweeping across North America.


Too high a dose may produce negative side effects in patients, including paranoia, panic attacks, or an involuntary nap for 12 or more hours.

Many are familiar with the benefits and potential negative side effects of consuming cannabis edible products with respect to the major cannabinoids tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). Too high a dose may produce negative side effects in patients, including paranoia, panic attacks, or an involuntary nap for 12 or more hours.

A wholesale shop in the Korean district of Los Angeles that features terpenes.
Terpenes offer anti-cancer efficacy in addition to pungent aroma.

Understanding Edibles

Understanding this topic is assisted by an understanding of the significant differences between the consumption avenues of inhalation (smoking and vaporization) and ingestion (eating). Each carries a distinct set of pros and cons that must be carefully matched to a patient’s particular needs and physiology.


"When terpenes and cannabinoids are eaten, versus smoked or vaped, several factors regarding their effects change."

Factors that Vary

When terpenes and cannabinoids are eaten, versus smoked or vaped, several factors regarding their effects change. These include potency, onset, duration, and overall bioavailability (how much medicine actually reaches receptors and produces real efficacy).


Vastly different metabolization pathways are involved in each process, with inhalation passing molecules like cannabinoids and terpenes to the lungs, where they are handed over to the heart and pumped directly to the brain and other areas of the body. Because the lungs process molecules in a dramatically different manner than the stomach and liver, different effects are experienced.

Image of an X-ray of human lungs.
Human lungs process terpenes differently than the stomach and liver.

One reason that inhalation and ingestion produce such markedly different results is due to the fact that each path produces a distinct molecule that is slightly different from the other. The lungs convert THC to a particular molecular variant called delta-9 THC, whereas the stomach and liver convert the infamous molecule to something called delta-11 THC. This is a variant that, for a variety of reasons, produces a more potent and longer lasting effect.


"In a nutshell, eaten cannabis gets metabolized by the liver, so delta-9 THC becomes 11-hydroxy-THC, which passes the blood-brain barrier more rapidly and has more of a psychedelic effect than standard THC."

"In a nutshell, eaten cannabis gets metabolized by the liver, so delta-9 THC becomes 11-hydroxy-THC, which passes the blood-brain barrier more rapidly and has more of a psychedelic effect than standard THC. Smoked or vaporized cannabis bypasses the liver and doesn’t create the same 11-hydroxy-THC." wrote Dr. Mitch Earleywine (RIP), a psychology professor at the State University of New York at Albany and author of the book Understanding Marijuana: A Look at the Scientific Evidence.

Dr. Mitch Earleywine (RIP)
Dr. Mitch Earleywine (RIP)

Understanding Terpenes

When it comes to the active chemicals in cannabis that produce positive medicinal results, cannabinoids are only part of the picture. Medical researchers in recent years have discovered the equally powerful health benefits of terpenes, the chemicals originally believed to only provide cannabis with its sometimes pungent aroma.


Research and anecdotal reports have shown terpenes to exhibit a similar positive medicinal efficacy to cannabinoids, combating core physical and psychological disease conditions such as systemic inflammation, pain, anxiety, and depression.

A schematic composed of fourteen molecular structures of common terpenes
Common cannabis-derived terpenes.

40,000 in Nature / 150 in Cannabis

Cannabis and hemp are not the only herbs that manufacture terpenes. More than 40,000 terpenes appear throughout nature and are produced by thousands of plant species. According to Project CBD, the cannabis genome produces about 150 terpenes.


More than 40,000 terpenes appear throughout nature and are produced by thousands of plant species.

SC Labs, in Berkeley, California, has identified 11 primary, or major, terpenes possible in the cannabis genome, meaning they appear more commonly in greater volumes than their molecular siblings, the secondary, or minor, terpenes. Primary terpenes include α-pinene, β-caryophyllene, geraniol, humulene, limonene, linalool, myrcene, ocimene, terpineol, terpinolene, valencene.


But what I really love is the recent October 2022 study that coined the term Super Class Terpene. This study performed a detailed analysis of North American cannabis cultivars (chemovars or strains) and identified the eight most common--and, therefore, most commercially important—terpenes produced by hemp and marijuana.

A ripe, pre-harvest cannabis plant flower that features dense trichomes, the nearly microscopic glands that manufacture all terpenes in the Cannabis sativa L. botanical species.
Terpenes are produced by trichomes

Based on the significantly different metabolization pathways of cannabis molecules when eaten versus inhaled, it is foolish to assume that terpenes deliver the same effects when eaten. Terpenes are extremely delicate and volatile molecules that feature relatively low boiling points. Thus, the temperature and other characteristics of cannabis edibles will have a large influence on the terpene content of the final product.


"Based on the significantly different metabolization pathways of cannabis molecules when eaten versus inhaled, it is foolish to assume that terpenes deliver the same effects when eaten."

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Stay tuned to the Gooey Rabinski Series for the next article that will teach you more about the differences between eating and inhaling terpenes.

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