Beta Caryophyllene - A Terpene or A Cannabinoid?

Noel Palmer, Ph.D., Chief Scientist, Evolab 

Most people understand that cannabis is responsible for producing cannabinoids; most notably delta-9 THC and CBD. What many people don’t fully understand is that cannabis produces other phytochemicals (chemicals produced by plants) that are therapeutically active. Terpenes are a class of phytochemicals produced by cannabis (and other plants), and in fact scientists believe that terpenes serve as the building blocks for cannabinoids in the cannabis plant. That being said, terpenes in and of themselves are considered to be therapeutically relevant in many ways.

Terpenes are naturally occurring compounds produced by plants and insects that are characterized by their aromatic properties. Many people believe that terpenes are responsible for the flavor and smell of different varieties of cannabis. In this article, we are going to talk about beta-caryophyllene (BCP), a sesquiterpene produced in high proportions in cannabis. Some research suggests that beta-caryophyllene is the most common terpene found in cannabis, and also is regularly found in the public food supply from a variety of sources (e.g. black pepper) . BCP is also found in the essential oils of a variety of plants, including rosemary, hops and  cloves, and is even an FDA-approved food additive. 

The therapeutic activity of beta-caryophyllene can be partially described as a CB2 agonist – suggesting its role as an anti-inflammatory agent. On top of being a CB2 agonist, beta-caryophyllene has been shown to be active on a number of receptor targets in the body – making it a good candidate for neuropathic pain and neurodegenerative diseases – as well as being an antioxidant agent and antimicrobial compound. The bioavailability and metabolism of beta-caryophyllene still needs to undergo scientific scrutiny. This is especially true in regards to smoking or vaporizing cannabis in which blood levels of beta-caryophyllene (and all terpenes) have yet to be resolved.  Obtaining this data will be useful as science tries to understand how terpenes can potentiate or attenuate the effects from both THC and CBD.  

Unlike other terpenes, BCP has properties similar to cannabinoids - and some researchers suggest that it may indeed actually be classified as a cannabinoid. While BCP was first synthesized in 1964, in 2008 a group of European scientists led by Andreas Zimmer, Ph.D and Ildiko Racz, Ph.D of the University of Bonn, suggested that BCP is a cannabinoid that acts on CB2 cannabinoid pathways. However, CB1 receptors, the pathways responsible for THC’s effects, are not affected by BCP.

Published in the Journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the researchers explained: 

“Here, we report that the widespread plant volatile β-caryophyllene (BCP) selectively binds to the CB2 receptor and that it is a functional CB2 agonist. Intriguingly, BCP is a common constituent of the essential oils of numerous spice and food plants and a major component in Cannabis.” 

Racz and Zimmer’s follow up study, published in 2013 in the Journal European Neuropsychopharmacology, shows that BCP produces significant anti-inflammatory effects. Using mice, the study found that BCP dosed orally was more effective than injections of the synthetic CB2 cannabinoid JWH-133, suggesting that BCP could provide better efficacy than synthetic cannabinoids. 

“It is likely that BCP belongs to a group of common plant natural products with major potential impact on human health. The oral intake of this dietary cannabinoid with vegetable food could be advantageous in the daily routine clinical practice over synthetic cannabinoid agonists.” 

With its numerous potential benefits, BCP and other terpenes like it are an important part of our understanding of The Entourage Effect --  the theory that a diverse, naturally occurring variety of terpenes and cannabinoids work synergistically to improve health or fight disease. Put simply, the idea suggests that the beneficial impact of the whole plant is greater than the sum of its individual parts. More research will likely uncover additional potential benefits of BCP and other terpenes, and we are excited to be a part of those efforts.

Graham Sorkin