Terpenoids are a class of phytochemicals which are found in a wide variety of plants. These are often responsible for a plant’s aroma, and may have a range of uses in herbal medicine as they can interact with many types of cell receptors and enzymes. While hemp contains over 200 different terpenoids, this article will focus on beta-caryophyllene.
Beta-caryophyllene is a type of terpenoid known as a sesquiterpenoid1. It is the most abundant terpenoid found in hemp, particularly in extracts that have been heated in order to promote decarboxylation of certain components. Besides hemp, it is also commonly found in black pepper (Piper nigrum) and Copaiba balsam (Copaifera officinalis).
Beta-caryophyllene has been researched for its anti-inflammatory properties, even at low doses.
While pain, swelling and immobility are more rapidly noticeable signs of inflammation, long-term inflammation can result in tissue destruction and loss of function in the affected area, for example the joint damage seen in arthritis. In one study on mice, it significantly reduced the severity of colon inflammation, partially preventing colon damage and weight loss2. Levels of interleukin-6, a chemical produced by the body that is known to promote inflammation, were reduced by 55%.
Another mechanism behind these anti-inflammatory effects is beta-caryophyllene’s ability to affect the PGE-1 (prostaglandin E1) pathway1. The prostaglandins are a family of local-acting hormones known as eicosanoids. These are produced from a fatty acid called arachidonic acid, known for its pro-inflammatory uses in the eicosanoid pathways3.
Perhaps the most interesting property of beta-caryophyllene, however, may be its demonstration as a stimulant of the cannabinoid-2 (CB2) receptors1.
As it was shown to be able to bind to CB2 receptors, it is the first known phytocannabinoid found in plants outside the Cannabis genus. The cannabinoid receptors, along with the body’s own cannabinoids, form the endocannabinoid system (ECS)4. The ECS has been shown to assist in the regulation of many of the body’s physical functions, with significant involvements being found in neurological function, immunity and inflammation control. CB2 receptors are primarily found on immune cells, which fight infection and control inflammation. In fact, later research on beta-caryophyllene found that it could reduce inflammation, and therefore pain, in genetically “normal” mice, but not those unable to produce CB2 receptors5.
In another study on mice, those without cannabinoid receptors showed increased inflammatory responses to allergens, while mice with increased levels of their own cannabinoids displayed a reduced inflammatory response6. If you are concerned about beta-caryophyllene getting you “high” because it acts on cannabinoid receptors, don’t worry; the CB2 receptors produce no psychoactive effects.
The anti-inflammatory effects of beta-caryophyllene may have contributed to hemp once being a popular treatment for duodenal ulcers7.
By protecting the lining of the digestive tract against inflammation-induced damage, it may allow the tissue to repair itself while preventing further damage. Additionally, a study8 on women suffering from menstrual pain found that an essential oil blend containing beta-caryophyllene was effective in reducing their symptoms. However, it was only present in a concentration of 2.69%, and the blend contained other anti-inflammatory and analgesic components.
Although cannabidiol (CBD) is often considered to be the primary anti-inflammatory, non-psychoactive component of hemp, a study on mice9 found that a high-CBD whole extract was a more potent anti-inflammatory than CBD alone. Pain, paw swelling and levels of the pro-inflammatory chemical, tumour necrosis factor-alpha, were reduced more significantly by the whole-hemp extract.
In conclusion, beta-caryophyllene appears to be an important supporting component of medicinal hemp, assisting in its reported anti-inflammatory effects. However, more human trials focusing on its abilities are necessary in order to draw a more definitive conclusion.