Have you ever taken a big whiff of a bag of weed? Did it crinkle your nose with dank earthy aromas or did its sweet and fruity smell make your mouth water? Cannabis is one of the most diverse flowering plants out there when it comes to flavors and aromas, and that’s all thanks to terpenes. While THC is often credited for the effects caused by cannabis, terpenes also play a major role in how certain strains smell, taste, and affect you. Here’s everything you need to know about terpenes, including what they are, how they work, and which ones you’ll see the most often in cannabis strains.
What are terpenes?
Terpenes are all-natural chemical compounds found in every species of plant on earth. They are even produced by some insects, and are solely responsible for the way plants smell and taste. You can think of these hydrocarbons as the essence of plants, or their essential oils.
Think of your favorite fruit - let’s say it’s strawberries, for example. You’ll notice that the fruits taste and smell much different than the foliage that makes up the strawberry plant. This is thanks to the hundreds of different terpenes that make up the plant. Flavors and odors are made up of a combination of terpenes which all serve a different purpose within the plant. The foliage of the strawberry plant is bitter, making it less likely for insects to eat the leaves. However, the sweet fruits are attractive to birds which helps them to spread their seeds. The terpene profile that makes up each plant plays a unique role in the ecosystem, so it’s a lot more than just scents and flavors!
In fact, each terpene isolate comes with its own list of unique health benefits and therapeutic properties. The same terpenes responsible for the bitter flavor in the foliage in the example above also have antibacterial, insecticidal, or other properties that help protect the plant from harm. In recent years, we’ve discovered just how big of a role terpenes play in their environments, as well as a whole list of health benefits that extend to our bodies when we eat or smoke them.
As cannabis continues to become legalized in more places across the country, scientists are able to better study terpenes. The green rush has generated a huge interest in these compounds, allowing scientists to research each one more thoroughly. Current studies show that terpenes interact with our endocannabinoid system in the same way that cannabinoids like THC and CBD do. Terpenes are capable of both boosting and limiting the effects of the 100+ cannabinoids found in cannabis. In fact, cannabinoids have been found to be more effective when they’re taken with terpenes than when they’re taken alone thanks to the discovery of a phenomenon known as the Entourage Effect.
What is the Entourage Effect?
The Entourage effect is a documented phenomenon first discovered in 2006 by Dr. Ethan Russo, the Director of Research and Development at International Cannabis and Cannabinoids Institute and a Senior Medical Advisor to GW Pharmaceuticals. His first round of research found that CBD made THC less effective, so he set out to explore the complex relationship between these two cannabinoids. In the process, he found that terpenes and cannabinoids all interact with each other within our endocannabinoid systems and are responsible for most of the effects we see in therapeutic plants like cannabis.
Before the 2010s, cultivators and consumers alike were only focused on growing plants that contained lots and lots of THC. In the process of selectively breeding strains to produce more THC, the plants also began producing fewer terpenes and other cannabinoids. Eventually, the community realized that there was a lot more to cannabis than THC alone. Even with THC percentages over 25%, these strains just didn’t feel as powerful as classic strains with less THC. Why? Because they were lacking other cannabinoids and terpenes. Further research conducted after Dr.Russo’s initial discovery found that the full-spectrum of cannabinoids and their terpenes worked together to boost the effectiveness of each compound.
Most people who use cannabis are aware that cannabis strains all have a unique smell and flavor thanks to terpenes, though many are unaware of the complex connection these compounds share with one another. Take medical patients, for example. Some patients use cannabis for pain, while others use it for depression. So what exactly makes a strain more effective at treating these symptoms than others with a similar THC level? This is where the entourage effect comes in.
In Dr. Russo’s conclusion, he wrote that terpenes offer "complementary pharmacological activities that may strengthen and broaden clinical applications and improve the therapeutic index of cannabis extracts." Basically, this just means that terpenes make cannabinoids more effective and vice versa.
Each cannabis strain has a unique terpene profile made up of over 100 different terpene isolates that are responsible for how the strain will taste and smell. However, each one also affects cannabinoids and the endocannabinoid system in a unique way. Some terpenes offer similar effects to cannabinoids, and some terpenes even act like cannabinoids within the body. The entourage effect shows that similar cannabinoids and terpenes boost each other’s effects.
Take CBD, for example. This cannabinoid is known for reducing anxiety and reducing pain. However, terpenes like b-Caryophyllene and Linalool are also good at reducing anxiety and pain. These terpenes also have anti-inflammatory and pain-reducing effects on their own. With that said, when these compounds come together, they produce more powerful relaxing and pain-relieving effects than they would if each one was taken on its own. These cannabinoids and terpenes are often found together in the same cannabis strain, which would make it a better choice than other strains for anxiety or pain relief.
The entourage effect highlights this relationship and shows that full-spectrum cannabis (cannabis that contains the full spectrum of cannabinoids and natural terpenes) is more effective than isolated cannabinoids or terpenes alone.
This relationship also highlights that terpenes are responsible for the typical indica, sativa, and hybrid effects you’re familiar with. Since each strain contains its own unique ratio of terpenes and cannabinoids, each one will offer different effects. Terpenes like b-caryophyllene and myrcene are more commonly found in strains that promote relaxing, indica-like effetcs, while strains with energizing or cerebral, sativa-like effects are more likely to contain limonene or pinene.
That was a lot to cover, so here’s a little cheat sheet:
Terpenes are the aromatic chemical compounds found in all plants.
Terpenes are responsible for the way cannabis tastes and smells.
Terpenes work closely with cannabinoids to promote effects within our endocannabinoid systems within our bodies.
Terpenes make cannabinoids more effective in a phenomenon known as the entourage effect.
The entourage effect shows that terpenes are partly responsible for how a strain will affect us.
Terpenes are responsible for the indica/sativa/hybrid traits of many cannabis strains.
Common Cannabis Terpenes and Effects
While there are hundreds of terpene isolates out there, only a handful make up the largest percentage of terpenes found in cannabis strains. Below are the most common cannabis terpenes as well as their uses and effects.
Myrcene - Myrcene is an earthy terpene found in mangos, cannabis, and hops among many others. It’s herbaceous and slightly metallic in flavor, though most consider it to be earthy. It promotes sedative and soothing relaxing effects. Like most terpenes, it’s a natural anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory, though it also reduces pain and has been shown to inhibit and kill certain cancer cells. Myrcene is also credited with causing the couch-locking effects of many indica-dominant strains. Myrcene can be found in strains like OG Kush, Blue Dream, and Granddaddy Purple.
b-Caryophyllene - b-Caryophyllene is a large terpene that promotes effects like and even mimics cannabinoids. It can be found in cannabis, black peppercorn, and star anise and is responsible for a spicy, peppery flavor. It interacts with our endocannabinoid system directly to modulate body responses like pain and inflammation. Like other terpenes, it’s also antibacterial and anti-inflammatory in nature, though it’s also showing promise as an anti-depressant as it can boost the effectiveness of SRI mood stabilizers. Like myrcene, b-caryophyllene also offers calming and uplifting mental effects. b-Carophyllene can be found in strains like Bubba Kush, Chemdawg, and Sour Diesel.
Pinene - Pinene is most commonly found in cannabis, rosemary, sage, and pine trees. It offers a very piney aroma and is responsible for earthy and woody flavors and can help reduce inflammation and kill certain bacteria. When taken internally, it promotes organ-protective properties and can cause programmed cell death in many different types of cancer. Pinene is also a powerful insect repellant and disinfectant. In aromatherapy infusions, the smell of pinene has been shown to improve focus and boost your memory, though it has also been shown to clear airways and make it easier to breathe. It can be found in strains like Island Sweet Skunk, Romulan, and Dutch Treat.
Limonene - Limonene is found in cannabis and the peels of citrus fruits and is responsible for potent energizing and cerebral effects. It has the unique ability to help penetrate skin cells, making it a popular choice in topical products and acne products. It causes an uplifted and euphoric effect that helps you focus. Like many terpenes, it is also a potent antibacterial and anti-inflammatory agent. Interestingly, it has been shown to help with digestive problems and kill funguses. It can also reduce inflammation in the lungs, making it a possible choice for treating asthma and bronchitis. You can find limonene in strains like Berry White, Do-Si-Dos, and Lemon Skunk.
Linalool - Linalool is most commonly found in lavender and promotes a light floral aroma that is best known for its calming, anxiety-reducing properties. Linalool is a potent anti-anxiety agent and helps reduce stress as well as pain and inflammation. In some studies, Linalool was found to be a powerful anticonvulsant against seizures and muscle spasms. Since it relaxes the mind and soothes the muscles, it also offers sedative effects that may combat insomnia. When taken with CBD or THC, it can act as an anti-depressant for people with treatment-resistant depression and boost the effectiveness of SRI mood stabilizers. Linalool can be found in strains like Amnesia Haze, Lavender Jones, and Master Kush.
Terpinolene - Terpinolene is most commonly found in lightly aromatic fruits and herbs like apples, cabbage, bay leaf, and cannabis. It promotes potent antibacterial and antiseptic properties as well as potent anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties. Interestingly, Terpinolene has a unique effect within our circulatory system, acting as a potent antioxidant that may help reduce the risk of developing heart disease. It may also inhibit the growth and spread of certain cancer cells. It offers a piney, floral, and herbaceous flavor profile and can be found in strains like Golden Pineapple or Jack Herer.
Ocimene - Ocimene is responsible for a candy-like sweetness in cannabis strains like Strawberry Cough and Space Queen. It can also be found in kumquats, mangos, and orchids. Like many other terpenes, it offers potent antibacterial and anti-inflammatory effects, though ocimene has also been found to help reduce muscle spasms and seizures. Its sweet, almost menthol-like aromas are good at decongesting the sinuses and repelling insects. Most interestingly however is that Ocimene has been found to inhibit the enzymes that cause hypertension and type 2 diabetes.
Humulene - Humulene is most commonly found in cannabis strains like Headband, Girl Scout Cookies, and Skywalker OG as well as hops and herbs like parsley, basil, and oregano. It acts as a natural sedative, antibiotic, anticancer, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory agent. However, humulene is also a potent appetite suppressant thanks in part to its spicy, woody, and herbal flavor profile. Interestingly, Humulene boosts with the absorption rate of cannabinoids by the endocannabinoid system and can help you feel relaxed, relieved, and sleepy.
All in all, cannabis is so medicinally valuable and therapeutic thanks to its high concentrations of both cannabinoids and terpenes. Each one plays an important role within the body, and they all work together to promote desirable effects within the body. Even your favorite fruits, vegetables, herbs, and spices contain high concentrations of terpenes that promote wellness within the body. They’re set to become the next health craze, so make sure the bud you smoke is fragrant and flavorful for best results.