After the discovery of the endocannabinoid system in humans and animals in the 1980s a lot of focus has gone into research about the effects of plant-based cannabinoids (called phytocannabinoids) or compounds that trigger receptors in that system. One major group of these compounds are the terpenes, an interesting class of plant compounds that, among other things, give fruits and herbs their aromas and odors. One very common terpene is known as caryophyllene, for which mounting evidence is showing could be an effective medicine and an important part of maintaining overall health. Caryophyllene is one of the more abundant terpenes found in nature. It has a woody smell and is often used in perfumes and cosmetics. Caryophyllene comes in several forms (called isomers), most commonly β-caryophyllene (BCP), its oxide (BCPO), or α-humulene. Both BCP and BCPO are thought to have cancer-fighting properties, and so are the most well studied of the Caryophyllene isomers. The compound is relatively abundant in plants such as cannabis, where it is thought to be secreted as a defensive mechanism to inhibit insect predation. Published studies have shown evidence for its application in pain management as a pain reliever, a gastroprotective, immune booster, anti-malarial, and effective in the treatment of addiction. Indeed, as more studies are completed, the attractiveness of the compound in health and medicine is growing.

B-Carophillene terpene infographic Source: Wikileaf

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What Does Caryophyllene Do?

According to a 2016 review which looked at many studies of the terpene, BCP has been found to affect the CB-2 receptors of the bodies endocannabinoid system in much the same way as the CBD found in cannabis. It thus affects the peripheral nerve system, rather than that of the brain. As such, it affects the immune system in similar ways, reducing inflammation and associated pain. Its isomer, BCPO did not directly affect the CB-1 or CB-2 receptors but was found to have complementary effects through alternative pathways in the body. Another study looked at its anti-microbial properties and found that it was effective at preventing both the growth and adhesion of the candida fungus (similar to the terpene Myrcene). This fungus is becoming increasingly prevalent in humans as more people are taking immunosuppressive drugs and undergoing transplants. The fungus is becoming resistant to many drugs currently on the market, however, the study indicated that BPO was an effective treatment for which the fungus did not appear to build a resistance against. It was also shown to be effective against the fungus Aspergillus niger and the bacteria Bacillus subtilis. Cancer patients going through chemo are one of the most susceptible groups to fungal and bacterial infections, and also the group which stands to gain the most from the benefits of BCP and BCPO for multiple reasons.

Caryophyllene And Cancer

Many studies have focused on the anti-cancer and anti-tumor properties of caryophyllene, and have indicated that it both slows tumor growth and proliferation. This is thought to be due to similar action of CBD in the body’s endocannabinoid system. The effects are still not well-proven, but the 2016 review did highlight some studies showing positive effects in mice, and one study with some effects in humans. But more so, it has been shown to work well in conjunction with traditional cancer therapies, increasing the bioavailability of the chemo drugs. That particular study also highlighted all the complementary effects of caryophyllene on side effects of cancer treatment, most significantly involving chronic and acute pain.

Two Medical Scientists iStock / gorodenkoff
The study highlights the fact that one of the hardest types of pain to treat are neuropathic and inflammation-related chronic pain that is often associated with cancers and their treatments, which can be a lifelong struggle for many patients. Traditional pain meds, including Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) and opioids, have difficulty treating these types of pain. Furthermore, NSAIDs are very harmful to the stomach and gut, and opioids have a high addiction and overdose potential.  It was found that the addition of BCP could reduce the need for both NSAIDs and opioids through the inclusion of Caryophyllene. A 2014 study found BCP and BCPO to reduce the neuropathic pain and pain caused by inflammation through both the endocannabinoid and the opioid systems of the body. Because BCP only directly affects the CB-2 receptors, instead of the CB-1 receptors of the brain, there is no psychoactive effect. And don’t forget that BCPO has been found not to interact with either CB-1 or CB-2 receptors, meaning BCPO also has zero potential for psychoactive effects. This makes BCP and BCPO ideal for those taking the medication long-term and is a benefit over taking pure cannabis or pharmaceutical opioids. So, by potentially fighting both the cancer and the side effects of treatment, BCP and BCPO have been rising as a complement to the conventional treatment of cancer, alongside the use of cannabis, and for similar reasons. However, all the studies state that the science is still in its primary stages, and more in vivo studies are needed to confirm the effectiveness of the terpene in the treatment of disease.

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Where To Find Caryophyllene

BCP is found in many common plants throughout nature but is highly concentrated in several plants known to have health and medicinal properties. This includes the cannabis plant, black pepper, basil, cinnamon, cloves, oregano, and rosemary. Broccoli is also high in Caryophyllene isomers, and there is some evidence that consuming it can help reduce inflammation and pain, especially when used in conjunction with cannabis. It can also be found in many essential oils of the same plants and herbs listed above. It is still too early to promote it as an effective medication, but the evidence is building regarding the potential benefits of its regular consumption and supplementation to maintain overall health.