Cannabis Terpenes: What you need to know

By Anna Wilcox | June 02, 2017

The best advice for picking out great cannabis? Follow your nose. Like many other plants, cannabis produces special aroma molecules that give each strain its unique flavor and fragrance. These molecules are called terpenes, and they do much more than give your bud a nice scent.

But, what are cannabis terpenes exactly and what do they do? As it turns out, these punchy molecules have some very serious implications for human health. Here’s what you need to know about cannabis terpenes:

What are cannabis terpenes?

If you catch a whiff of cannabis, you’re breathing in a fragrant breath of terpenes. Cannabis terpenes are the reason some strains, like Blue Dream, feature such a powerful blueberry aroma. Other terpenes provide that signature pine-sol scent to strains like Jack The Ripper.

When you pick out a strain that smells good to you, it’s the terpenes that are driving the appeal. These scented chemicals can be thought of as a plant’s external communication and defense system.

While plants may seem like inanimate objects, they engage with the world around them by secreting chemicals into the air and ground. Many of these chemicals are terpenes, which provide several different services for the plant, including:

  • Attracting pollinators.
  • Fending off pests and herbivores.
  • Protecting plants from infection.
  • Protecting plants from UV rays.

In cannabis, terpenes are most concentrated in the trichome resin glands that rest atop cannabis buds and leaves. Yet, some evidence suggests that cannabis roots can also secrete terpenes.

Why are cannabis terpenes important?

Now that we know what terpenes are, it’s important to talk about what they do. Cannabis terpenes are a largely untapped pharmacy in the cannabis plant.

While only 30 or so vitamins and minerals are thought to be mandatory for human health, these essentials are just a small sliver when compared to the vast chemical world of plants.

The cannabis plant alone produces at least 400 unique compounds. At least 113 of which are molecules thought to be specific to the herb, called cannabinoids. Another estimated 100 are aromatic terpenes. Though, most terpenes appear in such small amounts that they are not noticeable.

Typically, cannabinoids are considered the primary medicinal compounds in cannabis. The herb’s most famous psychoactive, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), fits into this group. However, research conducted over the past two decades has uncovered that there may be more to terpenoids than meets the nose.

What do cannabis terpenes do?

Whether you’re a medical cannabis patient or are just hoping to enhance your high, terpenes are worth your attention. While terpenes from plants like lavender have been used in aromatherapy for decades, researchers have discovered that these scented molecules can improve the effectiveness of cannabis medicines.

Most terpenes have medical value of their own. Yet, their therapeutic qualities are enhanced when paired with other active cannabis compounds, like cannabinoids. Likewise, the medicinal effects of cannabis are amplified by the presence of certain terpenes.

Simply said, terpenoids and cannabinoids have a synergistic relationship with one another. While both types of compounds have strength as individuals, when combined, they are more like an unstoppable force.

The phenomenon is called the “entourage effect”. The benefits of combining cannabinoids and terpenoids are greater than simply isolating these molecules and using them on their own.

While researchers are only just beginning to scratch the surface on these chemical relationships, the discoveries thus far are nothing short of astounding.

Some terpenes have shown powerful anti-tumor effects. Others may enhance the sedative powers of cannabis and reduce inflammation. More still may be useful in quelling convulsions in conditions like epilepsy. These reasons are why cannabis terpenes are so important for human health.

What are the most common terpenes in cannabis?

As mentioned above, there are over 100 terpenes present in cannabis. Like wine, the flavors and aromas of the cannabis plant are complex and unique. In fact, a recent study found over 30 genes responsible for making terpenoid molecules in cannabis.

Yet, while the plant can produce dozens of these aromatherapy molecules, a few of them stand out from the pack. Here are the most common terpenes in cannabis:

1. Myrcene

cannabis-terpenes

Hoping to tell an indica from a sativa? Myrcene is one of the most common terpenes found in cannabis. It provides a musky, mango-like aroma and is also common in hops and lemongrass.

Interestingly, this little molecule is what provides the sedative effect to some strains. Strains with over 0.5 percent myrcene are classified as sleepy indicas. Sativa strains typically test below the 0.5 percent cutoff.

Expect strains high in myrcene to be quite potent. This molecule also helps THC enter the brain faster, and can inspire a serious case of couchlock. Strains which may test high in myrcene include:

2. Limonene

cannabis-terpenes

As you might guess from the name, limonene is a terpene that provides a lemon citrus scent to some cannabis strains. Thought to be more predominant in sativa varieties, limonene provides a stimulating scent and an anxiety-relieving experience.

Early research suggests that limonene has anti-tumor properties in breast cancer. It is also thought to be useful in treating acne-causing bacteria and fungal infection and may be helpful to those with gastrointestinal disorders.

Some strains which may test high in limonene include:

3. alpha-Pinene

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A sharp, acidic, pine-like scent is one of the most common cannabis aromas. As it turns out, the terpene alpha-pinene is responsible for this aroma. Early research suggests that alpha-pinene is a bronchodilator, meaning that it opens up airways in the lungs and helps you breath easier.

Other research has found that this terpene has potent anti-inflammatory properties and may even improve memory. Some strains which may test high in pinene include:

4. Beta-caryophyllene

cannabis-terpenes

Beta-caryophyllene is a very special terpene. This molecule provides the sharp, black pepper scent to some cannabis strains. Unlike other terpenes, this one can also act as a cannabinoid. In fact, it connects with some of the same locations as cannabidiol (CBD), the second most famous cannabis compound.

This trait makes beta-caryophyllene a powerful anti-inflammatory molecule. Yet, this terpene is also thought to ease anxiety and depression. As a pro tip, if you find yourself a little too lifted from THC, a sniff or two of some caryophyllene-rich black pepper oil can help you calm down.

Some strains which may test high in beta-caryophyllene include:

5. Linalool

cannabis-terpenes

Fancy a little relaxation? Linalool is what gives lavender (and cannabis!) its famous scent. Research suggests that linalool may have anticonvulsant and muscle relaxant properties, especially when combined with CBD.

While perhaps not as sedative as myrcene, this terpene also acts as an anxiolytic by quelling stress and promoting a sense of calm. Some strains which may test high in linalool include:

Anna Wilcox

Anna Wilcox is a natural products writer with a special emphasis in the cannabis plant. Inspired by the beauty of the natural world and a passion for health and the environment, she launched her botanical writing career in 2013. Favorite strain? Middlefork, a Pacific Northwest favorite. Contact her on Twitter @DelilahBField.

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