Updated: Jun 27, 2022
Terpenes, what are they and why are they so important?
You may have heard your friends or budtenders talking about terpenes and felt like they were speaking a whole different language. Terpenes are in everything! They're the aromatic compounds that determine the scent of many different plants, not just cannabis. That musky, earthy, skunky smell cannabis is famous for? That's myrcene! It's one of over 150 terpenes that can be found in cannabis.
Beyond providing cannabis with its unique array of scents, terpenes also hold diverse functions in the plant and can produce a range of therapeutic and mood-altering effects in cannabis consumers, making terpenes just as important as overall THC/CBD content.
Where do terpenes come from?
Terpenes in cannabis are a naturally-occurring compound derived form the trichomes of the female cannabis plants. Trichomes are the sticky, translucent glands that cover the surface of buds, and in much smaller amounts, on leaves and stems. Critically, trichomes contain resin glands that produce terpenes. Terpenes are the natural form of these compounds when they are in the live plant. As a plant dries and cures — in the production of cannabis, for example — the terpenes oxidize and become terpenoids.
Terpenes play a vital role the growth and survival of the cannabis plant. Besides producing distinctive aromas, they also enrich color and pigmentation in leaves and buds, and contribute to the overall flavor of cannabis. In short, terpenes help to enhance the plant’s attractiveness to some creatures, while deterring others that can do harm.
How do terpenes affect us?
Terpene use is nothing new, humans have been using essential oils and aromatherapy for hundreds of years. For example, anyone who’s used lavender oil—which contains linalool— knows that it can potentially help you relax you. Similarly, terpenes in certain cannabis strains can add to its effects, this is known as the entourage effect.
Terpene effects aren't just ~feel good~ they also offer medical benefits, such as anti-viral, anti-microbial, anti-depressant, and pain relief, although these claims are still being studied.
Types of Terpenes
Caryophyllene is a very common terpene, found in foods such as pepper, cloves, cinnamon, rosemary, hops, oregano, basil and dark leafy greens (think arugula). It's aroma can be described as spicy, musky, pungent, woody, warm, and peppery.
What makes caryophyllene an intriguing terpene is its relationship with our endocannabinoid system, particularly, its ability to bind to CB2 receptors. Because of this, it comes with a host of potential medical benefits. Caryophyllene is a bigger molecule than terpenes like myrcene and limonene. Caryophyllene’s molecular structure also contains a cyclobutane ring, something rare in nature and not found in any other known cannabis terpene. The unique molecular structure of caryophyllene allows it to easily bind to CB2 receptors primarily located within our peripheral endocannabinoid system. This means that is doesn’t cause any of the euphoric feelings of cannabis while providing many of the benefits associated with activating those receptors, like reducing inflammation.
It’s unlike any other terpene because it is the only one that has the ability to directly activate a cannabinoid receptor, especially CB2 receptors.
Myrcene is another common terpene. Its aroma is that musky, earthy, peppery, spicy, balsam. As mentioned, it can be found in thyme, mangoes, lemongrass, sweet basil, hops, citrus fruits, and eucalyptus.
Myrcene is thought to enhance the psychoactive effects of THC by lowering resistance across the blood-to-brain barrier. Basically it allows chemicals (and cannabinoids such as THC) to cross the barrier more quickly. Myrcene also increase the maximum saturation level of your CB1 receptor, which allows for a greater maximum psychoactive effect. Myrcene is also the most likely cannabis terpene to be dominant in flower. A strain’s “dominant” terpene is simply the terpene present at the highest level.
Limonene's aroma is citrus and fruity. It can be found in (surprise) citrus fruit rinds, as well as juniper.
Despite limonene’s potential therapeutic benefits, little is known about how it works in the brain and body, and what doses are required to achieve these benefits. In many of the limonene studies to date, high doses were used—much higher than amounts found in cannabis.
Pinene is the most common terpene in the natural world. It can be found in pine needles, rosemary, basil, balsamic resin, and bergamot to name a few things. Pinene originally developed as an adaptive protection against predators, but these compounds offer us humans a variety of potential benefits. Just as different cannabinoids have different effects, so do terpenes. These unique attributes contribute to the overall composition of a strain, adding a dimension to each one’s “personality.” Although more research is needed, some benefits to pinene include, anti-inflammatory, anti-anxiety, and pain-relief.
Linalool can be found in over 200 types of plants and is so common that even those who don’t use cannabis consume over two grams of linalool each year through their food, including numerous fruits and spices.
Linalool's aroma is soft yet spicy floral.
Studies indicate that linalool’s behavioral effects may largely be mediated by how it impacts the brain. One way is through blocking the receptors for the primary excitatory brain chemical, glutamate. Linalool may be muscle-relaxing and have pain-relieving effects through additional distinctive mechanisms. For instance, linalool reduces the signaling strength of acetylcholine, a brain chemical that’s required for muscle contraction and movement. This is why lavender is used in aromatherapy for relaxation, the linalool.
These are just some of the more common terpenes found in cannabis. There are many many more terpenes to discover!