Every beer lover knows the power of humulene, though they may never have heard of it. This common terpene is so abundant in the hops plant (Humulus lupulus) that it’s largely responsible for the flavor and aroma of all varieties of beer. Humulene is also found in many spices such as sage and ginger—and in cannabis, where it adds potent antibacterial and anti-inflammatory effects to cannabis products of all kinds.
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Terpenes Are Powerful Plant Healers
Terpenes are found in many plants around the world, and even in some insects. These essential oils produced by plant resin glands are responsible for the aroma and taste of a wide range of plant and tree families such as pine, citrus and cannabis.
As interest in the medicinal properties of cannabis continues to grow, research has begun to focus on the properties of the more than 200 terpenes found in the various strains of the cannabis sativa plant. That research is now confirming what natural healers have known for centuries: Many terpenes have healing properties all their own. And they can also interact with other compounds for a synergistic result that boosts the effects of both.
Each cannabis strain has its own unique terpene profile, and the dominant terpenes in that profile are responsible for cannabis’s many different aromas and flavors. Terpenes also interact with cannabis compounds like tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD); the combined effects of both terpenes and compounds on the body’s natural endocannabinoid system (ECS) can explain why cannabis has such a wide range of therapeutic applications.
Cannabis Compounds, Terpenes & the Endocannabinoid System
The ECS was discovered in the early 1990s, and since then it’s been the subject of intense research. This research continues to reveal new information about the role the ECS plays in modulating all kinds of processes in the body such as:
- Supporting immune responses
- Regulating signaling in the brain
- Maintaining autonomous functions like temperature, heart rate and respiration
The ECS also plays a role in digestive health and cognitive processes such as mood and memory. The ECS contains two primary receptors, called CB1 and CB2. These receptors are found throughout the body, and they can be triggered both by cannabinoids produced naturally by the body (endocannabinoids), and by the compounds and terpenes in cannabis. All of these compounds bind to those receptors in nearly identical ways. That’s why cannabis products of all kinds can have such a profound effect on so many different health conditions.
Cannabis terpenes can bind to cannabis receptors, or they can affect processes that happen when cannabis compounds like THC and CBD bind to either the CB1 or CB2 receptor. The CB1 receptor plays a role in moderating the movement of neurotransmitters in the brain, which affects things like mood, memory and pain signaling. The CB2 receptor, which is found in many peripheral tissues, glands and organs, affects many processes related to the immune system and cellular health.
Humulene & the Terpene Beta-Caryophyllene
Humulene’s main claim to fame may be its leading role in flavoring beer, but it can also do much more. Humulene is also known as alpha-caryophyllene, because of its relationship to beta-caryophyllene (BCS), another terpene found in cannabis and many other plants.
BCS binds to the CB2 receptor and has a long list of documented healing properties including:
- Reducing inflammation
- Supporting the growth of healthy cells
- Suppressing the growth of tumor cells
BCS has also been called the first “dietary cannabinoid,” because it was awarded the FDA’s GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) designation for use in food.
In chemical terms, humulene is an isomer of beta-caryophyllene. It has the same chemical formulation as BCS, but its atoms are arranged differently. This means that humulene shares many of the characteristics of BCS, but it also has some different properties of its own. BCS binds uniquely to CB2 receptors associated with immune functioning and system regulation, which accounts for its effects on cell growth and inflammation processes.
As an isomer of BCS, humulene appears to behave in similar ways, so that it can add antibacterial and anti-inflammatory support to cannabis products of all kinds—along with some other surprising effects:
Humulene is antibacterial and antifungal: Recent research reveals that humulene has antibacterial and antifungal properties. This makes it useful in treating a variety of bacterial and fungal infections, particularly certain strains of Staphylococcus, a bacterium responsible for many kinds of infections. Humulene can also be used topically to combat fungal skin infections.
Humulene fights inflammation: Like BCS, humulene can help control inflammation and boost the body’s immune responses. Humulene has shown promise in reducing airway inflammation due to allergies, and in helping the body fight infection by supporting the immune system as a whole.
Humulene could help fight cancer: In a number of laboratory experiments, humulene has been shown to reduce cancerous tumors by depriving cancer cells of the oxygen they need to grow and spread. In this way, humulene, like BCS, may be able to suppress tumor development and support a process called apoptosis—the natural death of cells.
Humulene is a natural insecticide: Along with its immune-boosting and inflammation- fighting properties, humulene can also help reduce the spread of insect-borne diseases. Some studies show that humulene is toxic to the larvae of several varieties of mosquitos responsible for transmitting diseases such as malaria, dengue fever and West Nile virus. Used topically, it can also be an effective repellent for mosquitos and other flying insects.
Humulene can help with weight loss: Like other terpenes and compounds in cannabis, humulene can affect the appetite. But humulene doesn’t stimulate the appetite and satiety pathway. Instead, this terpene appears to suppress activity in that pathway, so that there’s less desire to eat. For this reason, some research suggests that humulene could be used as a weight loss treatment.
How to Consume Humulene
Some humulene is found in just about every strain of cannabis, although certain strains, such as Bubba Kush and Super Lemon Haze have a much higher content. Humulene can also be purchased alone as a terpene extract that you can add to various cannabis products to increase their immune-boosting and bacteria-fighting effects. Like BCS, humulene is so prevalent in foods that it’s also sold as a food-grade supplement.
Consuming humulene can come with risks, though. It can cause allergic reactions in some people when inhaled, used topically or added to food. And like other terpenes, when heated to very high temperatures such as in dabbing, it can produce toxins. Still, when used wisely, this terpene, which flavors beer and spices, can add potent healing power of its own to the many therapeutic uses of cannabis.
Photo credit: Yutacar
If you’re new to cannabis and want to learn more, take a look at our Cannabis 101 post. HelloMD can help you get your medical marijuana recommendation; it’s easy, private and 100% online.