What are Terpenes?
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Think of terpenes like herbs and spices: they're not the main ingredient, but the building blocks of different cannabis strains' scents and flavours.
Whether you’re a new consumer or a seasoned stoner, you might be familiar with the two main chemical compounds in cannabis: THC and CBD. And while those two compounds are essential parts of the cannabis flower, they aren't the only thing that makes each strain of herb, and each smoking experience, unique. To understand what gives each container of cannabis its individual personality, you need to dive into the world of terpenes.
Terpenes can be a bit intimidating. They have scientific-sounding names, are hard to memorize, and work in harmony with one another. But learning about them could be the key to unlocking a whole new degree of control. Let’s dive in.
What are terpenes?
In scientific terms, terpenes are naturally occurring (or synthetic) hydrocarbon molecules. They're found widely throughout the plant world, particularly in conifer trees and citrus fruit.
Here's a simple way of understanding terpenes: they're essential oils secreted by a plant, giving it a distinct character. Basically, terpenes are the building blocks of a plant’s smell and taste.
When you smell the distinct smell of a Christmas tree, for instance, what you’re smelling are the terpenes present in pine needles (the terpene pinene, in this case). If you’ve ever walked into a kitchen cleaned with Lemon Pledge or Lysol, you know how powerful and distinctive the smell of limonene can be.
OK, but what do terpenes have to do with cannabis?
There are more than 200 different types of terpenes found in cannabis plants. In good cannabis, about 2-5% of its weight is made up of terpenes — more than many strains have in CBD. Some terpenes, such as pinene or myrcene, are found in abundance, while others are rarer.
In cannabis, terpenes are found within the trichomes — the frosty white hairs on the tips of cannabis bud. Terpenes are different than cannabinoids like THC and CBD, which are also contained in the trichomes, though some terpenes such as caryophyllene behave in similar ways to cannabinoids and the two substances interact in important ways.
Think of terpenes in cannabis a bit like herbs and spices in a dish: they might not be the main ingredient, but they're essential in creating a well-rounded and enjoyable meal. Same with cannabis. Just like fried chicken and chicken cacciatore are different expressions of the same type of meat, two strains from the Haze lineage can be completely different from one another, because they have different terpenes.
If you’re buying your cannabis in Canada, you might see some terpene names listed, as more and more licensed producers and cannabis stores are putting that information on labels or on product displays. Here’s what you need to know about the major terpenes:
Aroma: Musky, earthy, fresh
Vaporizing temperature: 330°F (166°C)
Reported effects: Relaxation, drowsiness, couch-lock
Medical benefits: Anti-inflammatory, anti-insomnia, anti-oxidant
Also found in: Hops, bay leaves, cloves, lemongrass, mangoes, thyme
Aroma: Citrusy, fresh, acidic
Vaporizing temperature: 351°F (177°C)
Reported effects: Uplifting, euphoria, creativity
Medical benefits: Anti-depressant, focus, stress relief
Also found in: Lemons, limes, grapefruit, peppermint
Aroma: Pine trees, foresty, earthy
Vaporizing temperature: 311°F (155°C)
Reported effects: Focus, mood improvement, creativity
Medical benefits: Anti-inflammatory, gastroprotective, antiseptic
Also found in: Rosemary, pine needles, orange peels
Aroma: Spicy, pungent, diesel
Vaporizing temperature: 246°F (119°C)
Effects: Uplifting, calming, pain-busting
Medical benefits: Activates cannabinoid system, pain relief, anti-anxiety
Also found in: Cloves, pepper, cinnamon
Aroma: Floral, fresh, slightly citrusy
Vaporizing temperature: 388°F (198°C)
Reported effects: Calming, relaxation, pain relief
Medical benefits: Anti-inflammatory, anti-anxiety, possible neuroprotective
Also found in: Lavender, rosewood, sage
Other terpenes to know about:
While the above five are the most common terpenes you’ll see listed, there are more than 200 terpenes that have been found in cannabis. Here’s a few more to look — and smell — for:
Humulene: Humulene has an earthy, woodsy aroma that has a touch of spice, similar to caryophyllene; it’s known for its anti-inflammatory properties.
Terpinolene: Terpinolene has a sweet, floral, slightly piney smell, and has antifungal and antibacterial properties.
Eucalyptol: Also known as menthol, eucalyptol occasionally shows up in cannabis and delivers a mint-y, clean smell, and is known for a soothing, calming effect.
Geraniol: Another rare terpene (as far as your stash bag is concerned), geraniol smells like roses, and has a soothing effect.
Ocimene: Sweet, floral, and a little bit woodsy, ocimene is prized by the perfume industry and has antibacterial and antiseptic effects.
How do terpenes work?
Terpenes act on the receptors in the brain in a myriad of different ways. The smell of lavender (high in the terpene linalool) gives a calming, soothing feeling, whereas the smell of peppermint (with the terpene menthol) can be invigorating and energizing. The idea is that by surrounding yourself with certain smells, it will have different psychological effects.
In the 1980s, the Japanese government, eager to see people spend more time in nature in an effort to improve their overall health, invented shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” a term for people going to the forest to exercise, relax, and so on. Later research has shown this “has beneficial effects on human health via showering of forest aerosols as well as physical relaxation.” In other words, showing that terpenes from the forest can improve your well-being.
The entourage effect
In cannabis, when we talk about terpenes and medical benefits, we’re often talking about the entourage effect — the name given to the way all the different chemicals in cannabis interact to produce an effect that is unique to every strain of cannabis. Studies have shown that when THC is isolated, it tends to have much less of an effect, medically speaking. That’s because the entourage effect is critical to the way cannabis functions within the body.
THC and CBD interact with one another, for instance, with CBD thought to moderate some of the harsher, paranoia-inducing effects of THC. All the terpenes in cannabis contribute to this entourage effect as well. Myrcene, for instance, is thought to be a terpene that when present makes a strain effective at promoting sleep. Limonene is thought to be an uplifting high, while linalool is often great for relaxation without sleep, or for muscle relaxation. In all of these examples, the thing a user would feel most is the psychoactivity of THC, but the way that it feels different from strain to strain (or even the same strain grown differently) is an example of how important the entourage effect can be.