What are terpenes and what do they do?

November 14, 2021

Aroma is one of the primary characteristics most consumers look for when purchasing cannabis. From the sweet to the skunky and everything in between, cannabis cultivars exhibit a wide variety of fragrances. But what gives cannabis buds their distinctive smell?

Let us introduce you to terpenes. Terpenes are hydrocarbon compounds produced by many plants, particularly conifers like pine trees. Plants use terpenes in a variety of ways, including as building blocks for more complex molecules, to ward off insects and grazing animals, and to attract pollinators.

Terpenes can also be used as additives in food, cosmetics, and cleaning supplies. For example, the hoppy taste of beer is partially derived from the presence of the terpenes α-humulene and β-caryophyllene while the distinct smell of the cologne Bleu de Chanel is partially attributed to the inclusion of the terpenes linalool, limone, and geraniol.

A graphic of common terpenes found in cannabis, their aromas, and their affects.
List of terpenes commonly found in cannabis.

There are over 30,000 known terpenes, but some of the most commonly found in cannabis include myrcene, pinene, humulene, and . Though the focus has largely been on cannabinoids, the conversation lately has evolved to also take terpenes into consideration. Many cannabis companies include terpenes in their products, such as edibles, vape cartridges, concentrates, and topicals to work synergistically with cannabinoids or as a flavor/aroma enhancer. 

The combined effects of cannabinoids and terpenes is often referred to as the “entourage effect,” which is the center of much debate in the world of cannabis pharmacology. One such example of the entourage effect at work is the presence of myrcene in indica cannabis cultivars. β-Myrcene is believed to help assist cannabinoids cross the blood-brain barrier and thus enhance the psychoactive response. This, coupled with myrcene's analgesic, sedative, and anti-inflammatory abilities contribute to indica's "couch lock" effects. Conversly, consider the uplifting effects of sativa cultivars. Sativa cultivars are rich in terpenes such as limonene and pinene, which contain antidepressant-like properties according to a 2020 study.

How terpenes interact with the human body is still a matter of scientific research, but terpenes have long been used in traditional medicine and aromatherapy to heal or treat a variety of ailments for centuries throughout different cultures. A 2019 paper written by Destinney Cox-Georgian, a professor of biology at CSU Northridge, and her colleagues found that terpenes can potentially serve as anticancer and antidiabetic treatments. They also found that they possess antifungal, antibacterial, antiparasitic, and anti-insect properties.

Another 2021 study conducted on mice found that the terpenes α-humulene, geraniol, linalool, and β-pinene exhibit "cannabimimetic" behavior, meaning that they have similar pharmacological effects to cannabis. This lends some credence to the entourage effect theory and suggests that terpenes and cannabinoids work together to provide the chemical responses that they do. Interestingly enough, the researchers also found specific differences between male and female rats' reaction to Linalool, suggesting that the reaction to the terpene may be mediated by different receptors in the different sexes.

Final Thoughts

As cannabis becomes legalized in more parts of the United States and the world, more extensive scientific research will be conducted to discover the true potential of terpenes and their exact mechanisms of action. Future treatments for chronic and acute conditions will be developed with the versatile help of terpenes and may help provide safer alternatives than existing treatments.

While many customers on the recreational cannabis market focus on the cannabinoid counts of the products they purchase, an increasing number of people are discovering the synergistic effects of terpenes. Furthermore, cannabis companies themselves are helping educate their customers about terpenes. Though not legally required, many cannabis companies are beginning to test for terpenoid content as they would for THC percentages. This helps promote knowledge and understanding of the effects and role of terpenes. Not only do they give cannabis strains their distinct and nuanced aromas, but they also influence the way one feels when they consume cannabis.

Come in today and ask your budtender about terpenes and how to identify them!