Many people may not know that cannabis terpenes play a significant role in the benefits and effects of the cannabis plant. Cannabinoids such as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) also contribute to benefits but they are not the only players. In fact, terpenes interact with these chemical compounds and change effects. In order to benefit the most from cannabis consumption, the terpene content or profile of a strain is just as important as the cannabinoids. Terpenes define the true diversity among cannabis chemovars, formerly known as strains.
Terpenes, or terpenoids, are aromatic compounds that naturally occur in plants and create signature scents like that of lemons, lavender, or mint. They are explained as “the primary constituents of essential oils and are responsible for the aroma characteristics of cannabis.” Terpenes are hydrocarbons that are made and stored in the trichomes, and when the plant dries and cures, as with cannabis flower, the terpenes begin to oxidize and shift from terpenes to terpenoids.
Terpenes are also commonly isolated to add flavors and scents to many everyday products including, but not limited to, perfumes, body products, and foods. Plants produce terpenes to attract pollinators like bees, repel predators, and protect the plant by helping it recover from damage and boosting its immune system.
Terpenes are not only responsible for the fragrance in cannabis, but they also offer therapeutic potential for cannabis consumers. For example, different terpenes may promote relaxation, airway dilation, and soothing, sleep, or mental focus while others fight against bacteria.
While the indica vs sativa dichotomy has been used for centuries to differentiate between cannabis strains, we now know that the cannabinoid and terpene profiles can be used to predict the effects of different strains. In “The Cannabis Sativa versus Cannabis Indica Debate: An Interview with Ethan Russo, MD,” published in the academic journal Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research, Dr. Ethan Russo argued that using indica vs sativa as a distinction between strains is not supported by cannabis science. Dr. Russo goes on to say, “it is essential that future commerce allows complete and accurate cannabinoid and terpene profiles to be available.”
Medical News Today explains that “many terpenes are bioactive,” which means they have a biological effect on the body. There are over 200 terpenes in cannabis, and scientists are investigating which terpene and cannabinoid combinations can lead to better experiences and benefits (9). For example, combining linalool with THC can help with countering poor memory effects and assist with keeping a clear mind. Combining pinene and CBG could be beneficial to patients with conditions such as methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). Additionally, this 2018 study found that those who consumed CBD-rich terpene extracts benefited more than those who consumed CBD-isolate.
Terpenes are believed to facilitate cannabinoid absorption and offer therapeutic properties. Terpenes affect your “high” by modifying the absorption of the cannabinoids. In other words, they are capable of boosting or reducing the absorption of chemicals like THC, which is responsible for the psychoactive effects of cannabis. The effects of terpenes on cannabis are also dependent upon boiling points and preservation techniques.
This is all made possible by the fact that cannabinoids and terpenes are able to bind to the receptors located throughout our body in the endocannabinoid system. Dr. Raphael Mechoulam coined the term “entourage effect” to describe the synergistic effect that happens when the compounds in cannabis are present and consumed together, as opposed to in isolation. Learn more about the entourage effect here.
When it comes to picking a chemovar or strain to medicate with, follow your nose. Read the Certificate of Analysis (COA) to know the terpene and cannabinoid content of your favorite products. The COA may not always be accurate, but when you find a product you like you should know its contents, stick with it, and use as little as possible to minimize tolerance.
Over time, you may begin to notice that specific terpenes grab your attention or enhance the medical benefits you are looking for. Interested patients should first consult with a qualified healthcare provider. Never self-diagnose or self-treat. More research is needed to fully understand exactly how cannabis terpenes affect us. Explore cannabis strains for beginners here.
While terpenes are aromatic compounds, cannabinoids are organic compounds that are also available in significant concentrations in cannabis plants. Most terpenes have the ability to interact with our endocannabinoid system in a similar manner, but the difference lies in how the body absorbs and uses the compounds.
While THC is psychoactive and binds to endocannabinoid receptors, terpenes themselves are not intoxicating. They facilitate easier absorption of chemical compounds into the brain and bloodstream while also initiating the release of serotonin, norepinephrine, dopamine, and GABA.
We know that there are six headlining terpenes found in cannabis and each offers different benefits. Understanding each commonly available terpene can help determine which strain would be more beneficial for your needs.
Myrcene is the most commonly occurring terpene in the cannabis plant and is found in other plants like hops. This terpene has a spicy, musky smell and is found in lemongrass, mango, and thyme. When consuming this terpene, one can benefit from its ability to act as an anti-inflammatory agent as well as from its antimutagenic effects. These benefits or effects include the ability to provide pain relief, act as a sleep aid for insomnia as well as protecting our bodies against damage to our DNA from external toxins, which may cause the production or growth of cancer. Importantly, myrcene enhances cannabinoid crossing into the brain and allows for stronger effects from THC. Strains that are high in myrcene include OG Kush, ACDC, Purple Urkle, Critical Mass, and Granddaddy Purple.
Pinene is one of the most researched terpenes found in cannabis and is available in two varieties known as ‘alpha-pinene’ and ‘beta-pinene.’ These terpenes produce a citrusy, peppery, and earthy smell. Alpha-pinene smells like basil, dill, parsley, and hops, while beta-pinene smells more like pine needles and rosemary. The benefits of this popular terpene include boosting energy levels, improving mental focus, acting as a bronchodilator, reducing inflammation, countering short-term memory loss (common in dementia), fighting against cancer as well as being antiseptic and antiviral. Popular strains that are high in this terpene include Bubba Kush, Dutch Treat, Blue Dream, Jack Herer, and Harlequin.
Limonene is produced in the peels and rinds of citrus fruits and gives fruits like oranges and lemons their signature scent. The benefits it offers include reducing inflammation, alleviating stress and depression, reducing pain, alleviating nausea, suppressing appetite, being anticarcinogenic and antifungal as well as being an antimicrobial agent. Popular strains that are high in limonene include Lemon OG, Trainwreck, Durban Poison, Bruce Banner, Sour Diesel, and OG Kush.
Linalool is responsible for the scent of lavender or birch. This terpene is also found in over 200 different plants including coriander, so chances are that you have consumed this terpene before. The benefits associated with this terpene include reducing inflammation, anti-epileptic properties (for those suffering from epilepsy), lowering stress and anxiety, antimicrobial properties and even repelling mosquitoes. Popular strains that are high in this terpene include Amnesia Haze, Lavender Kush, Granddaddy Purple, and Purple Urkle.
Humulene has spicy, woody, and earthy notes. Its aroma resembles the likes of black pepper, cloves, ginger, and sage, amongst other herbs. The potential benefits of this terpene include suppressing appetite, promoting wound healing, reducing inflammation, relieving pain (like an analgesic), bacteria-fighting properties as well as possible anti-proliferative or anti-cancer properties. Popular strains that are high in this terpene include Skywalker OG, Girl Scout Cookies, White Widow, Pink Kush, and Sour Diesel.
Caryophyllene is characterized by its spicy scent and is found in hops, black pepper, cloves, cinnamon, and rosemary. The therapeutic benefits of this terpene include reducing inflammation (especially that induced by arthritis), balancing glucose levels (for those suffering from diabetes), inhibiting cancer activity as well as alleviating pain, stress, depression, and anxiety. Popular strains that are high in this terpene include Chemdog, Sour Diesel, Girl Scout Cookies, Cookies and Cream, and Death Star.
These terpenes are lesser-known and may not be available in high concentrations in marijuana but are still worth knowing about.
Ocimene is a lesser-known terpene, but it is commonly found in nature. This terpene has a pleasant aroma that is frequently used in the perfume industry since it has a sweet, citrusy, and floral scent. The aroma from this terpene can be found in mint, parsley, and orchids. The benefits associated with this terpene include reduction in inflammation, pain relief, anticonvulsant properties, antifungal properties, and antitumor activity. Strains that are high in ocimene include Golden Goat, Strawberry Cough, and Lemon Sour Diesel.
Terpinolene is commonly found in cannabis strains but is only present in very small quantities. This compound has a sweet, piney smell that resembles mint, camphor, and menthol. It is commonly found in botanicals like mugwort, wormwood, and sagebrush. The potential benefits associated with this terpene include reducing inflammation, being an antioxidant, neuroprotection, alleviating stress, anti-anxiety effects as well as relieving pain and insomnia. Popular strains that contain terpinolene include Dutch Treat, Orange Cookies, and Golden Pineapple.
Terpineol is a terpene that is common in over 150 plants but is present in smaller quantities in marijuana. It has a pleasant floral smell, and it is used in the fragrance/perfume industry. Terpineol’s sweet smell is similar to lilacs, crabapple blossoms, and lime blossoms. Therapeutic effects of this terpene include reducing inflammation, anticonvulsant, antibacterial, antiasthmatic, antispasmodic, antidiarrheal, gastroprotective, antitumor, and antioxidant effects as well as alleviating pain. Terpineol can also improve cannabinoid absorption in the skin and enhance local effects. Popular strains that contain this terpene include White Widow, Jack Herer, and Girl Scout Cookies.
Geraniol is found in many plant species and happens to be the main compound found in rose oil. It is also used in many perfumes due to its sweet and floral aroma, and it can even be found in lemons and geraniums. This terpene is an insect repellant, antimicrobial, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antiseptic, and it is chemo-preventive. Strains that contain this rosy terpene include Dutch Hawaiian, Tahoe OG, Strawberry Diesel, Harlequin, and Amnesia Haze.
Borneol is used in Traditional Chinese medicine and has been an ingredient in cosmetics for decades. This terpene has a minty smell similar to menthol and camphor. Borneol can be found in mugwort, wormwood, ginger and sagebrush. Its therapeutic properties include reducing inflammation, alleviating stress, relieving pain, inhibiting oxidation, and neuroprotective properties. Strains that contain this terpene include Amnesia Haze, OG Kush, and Golden Haze.
Bisabolol is another terpene with a sweet, fresh, and floral scent with hints of citrus, and it is found in chamomile. Bisabolol delivers potential anti-irritant, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobic, and pain-relieving properties. Popular strains that contain this terpene include Headband, Girl Scout Cookies, Sour Diesel, and ACDC.
Camphene has an earthy aroma like that of fir needles and is found in essential oils such as cypress oil and citronella. Camphene is thought to alleviate pain, reduce inflammation and assist with decreasing plasma cholesterol, which boosts heart health (for those suffering from heart disease). Strains that contain camphene include ACDC, Ghost OG, Banana Kush, and Strawberry Banana.
Eucalyptol, otherwise known as cineol, is a terpene that smells minty, spicy, and earthy. This terpene can be found in eucalyptus oil, bay leaves, tea tree, and mugwort. Its therapeutic potential includes antifungal, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant effects as well as pain relief. Popular strains with this terpene include Bubba Kush, Girl Scout Cookies, and Super Silver Haze.
Nerolidol is commonly found in ginger, jasmine, lavender, lemongrass, and tea tree. This terpene’s aroma is woody and smells like bark. The benefits expected from nerolidol include aiding sleep due to its sedating effects (for those suffering from insomnia) as well as antifungal and antimalarial properties. It can also increase skin absorption of cannabinoids. The strains Jack Herer, Skywalker OG, and Sour Diesel contain nerolidol.
Guaiol is a terpene found in cypress pine and guaiacum oil. Its aroma is like that of the terpene pinene and smells like pine trees. Its benefits include antimicrobial and insecticidal effects and is still used in traditional medicine to this day. Jillybean, ACDC, and Pennywise are strains in which guaiol is found.
Delta-3-Carene is found in rosemary, cedar, and even turpentine. Its aroma is sweet but also pungent and cedar-like. The benefits of Delta-3-Carene include reducing inflammation, promoting mental focus, and acting as a decongestant. It should also be known that this particular terpene can cause dry eyes. AK-47, Super Lemon Haze, and Skunk #1 are all strains in which Delta 3 Carene is found.
As you can see, there are many of these aromatic compounds which can be consumed in cannabis products—giving you some of the best benefits you can get from the plant. When deciding which cannabis strain to purchase from a dispensary or consume based on their cannabinoid and terpene profile, it is important that you steer clear of synthetically derived terpenes as they run higher risks of adverse effects. To end on a positive note, consuming cannabis with significant terpene content is not only beneficial but can also be enjoyable as the aromas tease your sense of smell and contribute to the flavor and effects of the flower.
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4. Lodi, M. (2019, April 2). Terpenes 411: Camphene. Medmen.com. Retrieved March 30, 2022, from https://www.medmen.com/blog/guides/terpenes-411-camphene
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9. Russo E. B. (2011). Taming THC: potential cannabis synergy and phytocannabinoid-terpenoid entourage effects. British journal of pharmacology, 163(7), 1344–1364. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/labs/pmc/articles/PMC3165946/
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