What Are Pinenes?
Imagine it’s Christmas morning, You tear open your first present from Santa to find an ounce of fresh, pharmaceutical-grade cannabis. You take a deep breath, and the aroma of the bud mingles with the smell of the cut Douglas fir strung with lights decorating your living room. The smells you conjure as you create this pleasant fantasy are — in large part — caused by common, twin chemicals called pinenes.
Part of a larger class of aromatic chemicals called terpenes, pinenes are commonly found in species of pine trees all over the world; herbs like rosemary and allspice; and other plants like your gift-wrapped bundle of cannabis sativa.
They’re hard to dissolve in solution, which is one reason their aroma is so strong and distinct. Both these terpenes are present in variable quantities in marijuana, depending on the strain. They appear to modulate the action of the myriad other chemicals contained in the whole plant, aside from adding to the pungent smell.
What Is the Difference Between Alpha Pinene vs. Beta Pinene?
The distinction of Alpha Pinene vs. Beta Pinene really boils down to differences in sub-types of isomers called “entanisomers.” That’s just a fancy way of saying Alpha Pinene and Beta Pinene are molecules made of the same type and number of atoms (isomers), and are shaped like mirror images of each other (enantiomers)– very similar to the differences between THC and CBD.
Because of this, their effects on the human body are very similar. They usually both occur in together in most plants and industrial compounds. Because of this, relative differences in the effects of Alpha and Beta pinene are tough to tease apart.
Where Do You Find Pinenes (Other Than in Cannabis)?
Central components of turpentine, pinenes have been studied most heavily from a toxicology perspective.
Turpentine is made from pine tree resin, and it has many industrial as well as some medicinal uses. It’s notably a paint solvent and is present in a lot of manufacturing environments. High levels of exposure to turpentine fumes can be dangerous, so scientists have monitored, for example, sawmill workers and studied how the body processes and removes pinene, among the other chemicals in turpentine.
Researchers have discovered a list of metabolites of terpenes present in the urine of industrial workers exposed to turpentine — a substance that’s been has been around for thousands of years as a solvent, detergent and medicine.
“Metabolite” is the name for the chemical that is excreted by the body as a result of breaking down a chemical you have ingested, inhaled or absorbed in any way from the environment. In this way, Scientists have been able to partially reverse-engineer the process by which the body breaks down pinenes.
One established medicinal use for pinenes in turpentine is as a topical analgesic. It’s applied as an oil on joints affected by rheumatoid arthritis to provide pain relief. Though people have done it historically, NEVER ingest turpentine; it’s toxic in vapor and liquid form.
The level of pinenes in marijuana, however, is so low it can’t poison you any more than you could overdose on rosemary leaves.
Can Pinenes Make Antibiotics More Effective?
Pinenes, both Alpha and Beta, also kill microbes. One study shows pinenes can battle the scary, often incurable staph infection evolved in hospitals to resist antibiotics.
“Bactericidal effect occurred after 6 hours in methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA),” states a 2012 study in the journal Molecules. “In combination with commercial antimicrobials, ciprofloxacin plus Alpha pinene or Beta pinene presented synergistic activity against MRSA.”
In other words, adding pinenes — whether Alpha Pinene vs. Beta Pinene — to current market antibiotics increased their effectiveness.
How do Pinenes Influence the Effect of Therapeutic and Recreational Marijuana?
Aside from adding to pot’s distinctive odor and flavor, pinenes also seem to affect the function of cannabinoids in marijuana — cannabidiol (CBD) and Delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). These cannabinoids and other less potent ones interact with the human nervous system’s cannabinoid receptor system, presently the main target research into the cannabis plant.
The synergistic effects between cannabinoids and terpenes like Alpha and Beta pinene (dubbed the entourage effect) are exciting ancillary research targets in medical and neurological pot research, however.
Pinenes seem to work in conjunction with the cannabinoids and other terpenes in whole-plant preparations to increase the therapeutic benefit far above isolated cannabinoids, in some cases.
It’s been known for some years marijuana compounds can kill many types of cancer cells in petri dishes and animals, but recent research has shown terpenes like pinenes and other compounds make THC an even more effective cancer killer.
A June 2018 study that appeared in Biochemical Pharmacology showed whole-marijuana preparations were more effective in killing breast cancer cells than isolated THC– a direct appraisal of the entourage effect.
“Together, our results suggest that standardized cannabis drug preparations, rather than pure cannabinoids, could be considered as part of the therapeutic (options) to manage breast cancer,” the study states.
There has also been research suggesting that pinenes can help with memory loss.
As marijuana laws continue to relax around the country, more institutions are engaging in research into the synergistic effects of terpenes and cannabinoids. Future lab and clinical studies will flesh out more details about the relationship between pinenes and the other active chemicals in cannabis so the plant can be bred and used more effectively.
Alpha Pinene vs. Beta Pinene References:
“Biological activities of α-pinene and β-pinene enantiomers”
AC DaSilva et al
“Alpha Pinene” (a collection of toxicology studies related to the chemical)
U.S. National Library of Medicine
“Appraising the ‘entourage effect’: Antitumor action of a pure cannabinoid versus a botanical drug preparation in preclinical models of breast cancer.”
S Blasco-Benito et al