What are Terpenes?
Updated: Feb 15
You’re already familiar with some terpenes, even if you don’t know it yet. They’re found in almost all plants, including fruits and vegetables. Terpenes are the chemical structures that give plants their aroma and flavour.
Terpenes are responsible for the strong scents of lavender, citrus, or pine, for example, and for those flavours as well. In living plants, terpenes are created to help attract pollinators or fend off predators who would use the plant as a food source. In the human body, they have a host of health benefits.
While terpenes have existed for as long as plants have, they’re now becoming a household name thanks to cannabis. In cannabis plants, terpenes are responsible for the distinct aromas and flavours of different strains. There are over 20,000 identified terpenes in nature, and cannabis alone has over 100.
What’s the Difference Between Cannabinoids and Terpenes?
At first glance, you might be confused about the difference between cannabinoids and terpenes in cannabis. They do have some similarities: they’re both chemical compounds created in the trichomes of the cannabis plant, sticky hairlike structures that protrude from the plant matter. Structurally speaking, they are similar but have different effects.
Cannabinoids are chemicals that interact with the body’s endocannabinoid system to produce effects ranging from pain and inflammation relief to the intoxicating high associated with THC. While terpenes work synergistically with cannabinoids to enhance those effects (known as the “entourage effect”), they don’t interact with the endocannabinoid system on their own (there’s one exception to that rule; we talk about that a little bit farther down).
And while some long time users of cannabis swear by their noses to detect stronger or weaker cannabis, it’s actually terpenes, not cannabinoids, that are responsible for the distinct scent and flavour profile of the plant. Although different strains have different terpene profiles, making them easily distinguished to experienced users, the terpene profile actually doesn’t indicate the balance of various cannabinoids.
Do Terpenes Have Health Benefits?
That isn’t to say that terpenes don’t have their own effects, however: in fact, humans have been using terpenes to achieve different results for as long as we’ve been using cannabinoids.
Consider the aromatherapy powerhouse of lavender, long used as a sleep aid, to lower anxiety and stress, and for relaxation. It’s the terpenes in lavender that give it that distinctive scent. If you’ve diffused essential oils to make your space smell like oranges or dropped some peppermint oil on your temples to help with a headache, you’ve used terpenes.
Additionally, new research suggests that aromatherapy may not work the way we assume; instead of the scent profile triggering emotional centres in the brain, it’s been discovered that the terpenes themselves can directly affect brain activity. One such terpene, called beta-carophyllene, is being studied for its potential ability to treat Alzheimer’s disease. Beta-carophyllene is found in herbs like basil, oregano, pepper, and, yes, cannabis.
A Brief Overview of Some Terpenes
While there are over 100 different terpenes found in cannabis, most of them are found in very small quantities and don’t likely have noticeable effects. Some of the more common terpenes in cannabis are carophyllene, linalool, limonene, mrycene, pinene, terpineol, and humulene, among others.
We’ll go over each terpene in more detail in future articles, but for now let’s cover some basic information about these common terpenes.
Caryophyllene is unique because it’s the only terpene we know that binds to CB2 receptors in the endocannabinoid system. This makes it an ideal in relaxing blends, as well as gives it anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects of its own. As mentioned above, caryophyllene is being studied as a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, as it helps to reduce inflammation in the brain associated with the illness.
Also found in herbs and spices like black pepper, oregano, cinnamon, and cloves, this terpene has a spicy and peppery profile.
Linalool is the primary terpene found in plants like lavender and mint and it gives off a spicy, floral scent. It’s one of the more prominent terpenes in cannabis.
Linalool has relaxing, and even sedative, effects. It’s currently being studied as a treatment for seizure disorders, as at high doses it can act as an anti-spasmodic.
As you’ve probably guessed from the name, limonene is a bright, citrusy terpene that’s also found in citrus fruits like lemon, orange, and grapefruit. It’s also the second more prolific terpene in cannabis.
Limonene has mood-boosting effects and anti-bacterial properties. It’s being studied as possibly having anti-cancer effects, as one study found it played a role in shrinking cancerous tumours.
Myrcene is an earthy, slightly musky terpene that is also found in mangoes. It’s the most prominent terpene in cannabis, and is largely responsible for the distinctive cannabis “smell”.
Myrcene is useful for lowering inflammation and pain, and has slight sedative properties as well.
Pinene is actually two terpenes in one - alpha-pinene and beta-pinene. These terpenes are found predominantly in pine trees - guess what they smell like? They’re also found in herbs like rosemary and basil, and have a fresh, bright aroma.
Pinene has anti-inflammatory effects and is particularly helpful for people with asthma as it can act as a bronchodilator, opening up the lungs to help with oxygen intake.
Terpineol has a clean, floral terpene with a hint of mint. It is also found in lilacs, pine trees, and eucalyptus blossom.
Along with anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties, terpineol has a strong sedative effect, leading some to theorize it’s responsible for the “couch lock” effect of certain strains of cannabis.
Humulene is a woodsy, spicy terpene that’s the primary terpene found in hops. It’s also found in sage, clove, and black pepper.
Humulene has anti-cancer properties, in that it helps prevent cancer cells from spreading. It also acts as a mild appetite suppressant, and has anti-inflammatory, analgesic and antibacterial benefits as well.
These are just seven, out of hundreds, of terpenes found in cannabis plants. While research has been limited so far, it’s pretty exciting to see science confirm the medicinal and therapeutic properties of cannabis and all of the many compounds it contains.