What are terpenes and why should you care?
Ahh, the smell of cannabis. For generations, stoners around the globe have been trying to hide the smell from our parents, our teachers, the cops sometimes (but also, of course not because I am a law abiding citizen, thank you very much) and whoever else we just, you know, would rather not share with – often times without much success. Most strains seem to get their names from their strong and sometimes unique smells, like a fruity Blueberry or a pungent Cheese. The smell of cannabis can be strong, and can also vary widely, but have you ever thought about the compounds responsible and what they might be capable of? Me either, until recently, but terpenes have become a bit of a hot topic in the cannabis community of late and I think it’s about time we pay them a little attention. Let’s talk terps, baby.
What are Terpenes?
When we talk about cannabis, the chemical compounds that we usually talk about are cannabinoids, like THC and CBD, and what we know about how they interact with our body’s endocannabinoid system. Terpenes are the aromatic compounds found in cannabis, as well as things like citrus, pine trees and a variety of herbs and other plants, however they are often associated with cannabis because of their high concentrations in cannabis plants. They are often isolated and used in things like essential oils, perfumes and other body products and serve a variety of different functions in plants. Some terpenes attract pollinators and repel predators and some protect the plant’s immune system or help repair damage. Over 100 different terpenes have been identified in cannabis and there are a variety of factors that can affect the terpene profile of a plant, like weather, climate, age of the plant, soil type and more, which can lead to widely varying terpene profiles across strains.
What’s cool about terpenes is that they not only work for the plant, but there is evidence to suggest that they may also play a key role in the effects of different strains of cannabis. This means that although there’s more research needed into how and how much, terpenes may do more than just stink up your room. For example, myrcene, a terpene that can also be found in hops and lemongrass, is often found in relaxing strains, but a strain that’s limonene heavy may be what you want to elevate your mood.
How Terpenes Work
It goes without saying that we’ve made it to the part of the article where I not only remind you what kind of scientist I’m not (a botanist) but also that there’s little to no clinical research or evidence into the following theories, however we can come to certain hypotheses based on other evidence. Some terpene studies have been performed on animals, but the dosages tend to be so high that the data doesn’t translate well to typical human dosing. Terpene profiles and concentrations can also vary so widely that it makes it incredibly difficult to nail down specific profiles and their corresponding effects. That being said, there is some evidence to suggest that terpenes may play a more important role in achieving the desired effects of cannabis than we realized.
Terpenes have the ability to interact directly with the brain and body, and in conjunction with the phytocannabinoids and other compounds found in cannabis, terpenes may be more nuanced indicators of the effects of a certain strain beyond your go-to sativa and indica categories. Now this doesn’t mean that your indicators are obsolete, but being able to identify the dominant terpene in a strain you enjoy may give you a better understanding of the overall cannabis experience you’re looking for and help you find other strains that you may not have considered before.
How exactly are terpenes helpful at all? Aren’t THC and CBD the stars of the show? Not necessarily. If we were to take this out of the context of cannabis and into the context of my second favorite thing, food. It’s the same concept as eating whole foods as close to their natural form as possible. We know that the nutrients found in whole foods are important and good for us, and there are ways to get them in an isolated form, ie. a bottle of vitamins from the store, just like we could get a CBD or THC isolate. Now, even though we can get a bottle of vitamins, we also know that eating a whole carrot or apple and the diverse nutrients is better for you overall. Consuming a diverse profile of phytonutrients (plant derived nutrients) is what gives us the optimal nutritional and therapeutic effects, and the same goes for cannabis. We know that, for example, a THC isolate is more likely to have adverse anxiety or paranoia effects than consuming THC and CBD together.
It’s speculated that terpenes may increase blood-brain barrier permeability, meaning that terpenes may make it easier for cannabinoids to reach the brain, as well as affecting the way THC binds to CB1 receptors in the brain. Additionally, terpenes and cannabinoids may hit different targets in our brains, activating multiple receptors or cellular pathways at a time, making them capable of attacking an issue from multiple sources.
Fortunately for us, it is now more common to test for and list a dominant terpene on commercial cannabis, and armed with a little bit of knowledge, we can now use this to our advantage. A “dominant” terpene is simply the terpene with the highest concentration in that particular strain, but remember that there are hundreds or terpenes and even more variations on terpene profiles so don’t stress yourself out. Stick with identifying which dominant ones you prefer and go from there.
Below is a short list of the most common terpenes found in cannabis, what else they can be found in, potential benefits and common strains. Now, on a slightly less scientific sidenote, I want you to pay attention to the potential benefits of each terpene and the other places it can be found. I’ll tell you why at the end.
The most common terpene found in modern, commercial cannabis is one I mentioned earlier, myrcene. Also found in hops, lemongrass and thyme, myrcene has a peppery, almost spicy fragrance. Believed to promote calming effects, myrcene is typically the dominant terpene (the terpene present at the highest levels) in strains like Granddaddy Purple, OG Kush and Blue Dream. Myrcene may also be an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, as well as an effective treatment for pain and insomnia.
When isolated, limonene has a citrusy, fruity scent and is often associated with cannabis that “smells like lemon”, although a lab test is needed to know for certain if a strain is limonene dominant. Little is known about how limonene actually affects the brain and body, even though some studies have been conducted – albeit with dosages much higher than what can be found in cannabis – and show that limonene may help elevate mood, relieve stress, and help with anxiety and depression, as well as have antifungal and antibacterial properties. Limonene can also be found in peppermint, juniper and rosemary. Some popular strains that tend to have limonene dominant terpene profiles are White Fire OG, Wedding Cake and Strawberry Banana.
Caryophyllene is unique in that it’s unique molecular structure makes it the only terpene known that also acts as a cannabinoid. Also called beta-caryophyllene or BCP, it’s unique molecular structure allows it to bind CB2 receptors found mainly in our peripheral endocannabinoid system (ECS). By binding to these peripheral receptors and not the receptors in the brain, BCP can provide relief from inflammation without any of the cerebral effects of feeling “high”. Often identifiable by it’s musky and sometimes funky profile, caryophyllene can be found in higher amounts in strains like Sour Diesel, Chemdog and is often found in high levels of many strains of the Cookies family. Responsible for the nose tingling, sneeze inducing bite of black pepper, caryophyllene can also be found in cinnamon, cloves, basil and oregano.
The more I learn about terpenes, the more it seems to just make sense to me. Now, I’m by no means claiming to understand the science behind it, but I have my fair share of aroma-therapy bath things, essential oils and salves, and I’ve noticed that cannabis shares terpenes with a lot of plants that are used in similar ways. Lemongrass teas were often used to combat insomnia, peppermint and citrus are used to energize and uplift, and cinnamon and clove are common components in topicals to help warm and soothe muscles. While, as usual, we still need to do a lot more cannabis-focused research when it comes to terpenes and all of their potential benefits, there’s a sort of intuitiveness that comes with learning about it.
So the next time you’re at a dispensary picking up your favorite strain, pay a little more attention to the smell, the way it makes you feel. Find out what the dominant terpene is and see if there’s a common thread you can start to tie between your strains, your terpenes and your desired outcome.
Another tool has been added to your cannabis belt. Use it well!
Kelly Mahoney worked at a medical cannabis Co-op with her mother, Laura Mastropietro, dealing mainly with helping new patients acquire their medical cards and helping them find the best strains and methods. Diagnosed at a young age with spinal muscular atrophy, she was also a medical cannabis patient and still advocates for the incredible benefits, and downright fun, of cannabis. She now lives in a prohibition state as a cat mom and gamer wife.