What are Terpenes? It wasn’t long ago that few cannabis enthusiasts had even heard of terpenes, much less knew their favorite plant contains an abundance of terpenes. Now we hear about terpenes all the time, and increasingly, consumers are demanding strains with diverse terpene profiles. Yet, even with increasing awareness about terpenes, most people don’t fully understand what terpenes are and why they’re important. So what’s all the “buzz” about?
What is a terpene?
As you may know, cannabis is a complex plant with over 500 chemical compounds. Of these compounds, over 100 are cannabinoids (like THC, CBD, CBN, et al.). To varying degrees, both cannabinoids and terpenes influence the effects of cannabis.
However, unlike cannabinoids, terpenes aren’t unique to cannabis. They’re found throughout the “plant kingdom.” They’re a diverse class of organic compounds that we find in numerous plants. And, it’s likely that many cannabis strains contain more terpenes than cannabinoids.
Often highly pungent, they’re chiefly responsible for giving plants their unique aromas. But, they do more than give off a great scent! They also provide therapeutic effects.
While any given strain may contain more than a hundred terpenes, here’s a list of some of the better known terpenes and what properties they’re thought to possess:
Myrcene is one of the most prominent terpenes in cannabis. Myrcene is known for being a muscle relaxant, sedative and analgesic (pain relief). It also produces anti-inflammatory effects. Indica-dominant strains are generally high in Myrcene content, which is likely why consumers tend to favor Indica-dominant strains for pain relief and sleep disorders. A typical Indica-dominant strain will have 3% (or more) Myrcene, while Sativa-dominant strains generally have less than .5%. Myrcene may also help THC cross the blood brain barrier more easily, which increases a strain’s sedative effects. You can also find Myrcene in hops and mangos!
Linalool is found not only in cannabis, but it’s known for giving lavender such a unique and aromatic scent. Often used in aromatherapy, linalool has been characterized as a relaxant, sleep aid, anticonvulsant and anxiolytic (anti-anxiety). It's also thought to play a key role in helping the body produce Vitamin E.
Limonene is found most abundantly in the peels of citrus fruits and other plants, but is also prominent in many cannabis strains. Limonene, which is also commonly used in aromatherapy, is thought to be useful in treating bronchitis and promoting weight loss. There’s also research that has emerged suggesting Limonene could be helpful in cancer prevention and treatment. Animal studies suggest Limonene inhibits cancer-forming chemicals and even kills cancer cells. Keep in mind, however, “mice are not men,” and more research is needed before we’ll know if these effects also occur in humans.
Pinene is supposedly the most common terpene found in plants, and acts as a natural repellant to insects. It’s abundant in conifers as well as cannabis. You’ll also find plenty of Pinene in pine nuts. Thanks to its distinctive aroma, it’s popular in perfumes and colognes. From a medicinal perspective, Traditional Chinese medicine has long embraced Pinene for its antiseptic, bronchodilator, and anti-inflammatory effects. It’s also been used in Chinese medicine as an anti-cancer agent, although research has yet to conclusively validate its anticancer potential.
Caryophyllene is found in numerous essential oils, particularly clove oil. It’s also found in rosemary, hops, and of course, cannabis! Organic chemist, and Nobel Prize-winner, E.J. Corey, was the first to synthesize Caryophyllene in 1964. Ever wonder what gives black pepper its characteristic spiciness? You guessed it! Caryophyllene. From a medicinal perspective, it’s thought to be an anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) and an anti-inflammatory agent. It’s even been used to prevent or cure malaria.
What's the difference between a "terpene" and a "terpenoid?"
Now, we often hear the terms “terpene” and “terpenoid.” What’s the difference? Increasingly, the terms are used interchangeably. But, technically, there is actually a subtle difference. Terpenes are hydrocarbons, meaning they are comprised entirely with hydrogen and carbon. Terpenoids, on the other hand, became terpenoids after the flower has been dried and cured (a process called oxidation).
Clearly, there's lots to learn about terpenes, more than can be covered in a single post. For more details on various terpenes, what their potential effects are, and what strains to find them in, here's a handy "terpene wheel":