What distinguishes one strain of cannabis—or hemp—from another? There are many different factors, including the cannabinoid makeup, the aroma, and the appearance of the bud—not to mention the effect it has on your mind and body. Another major factor is the terpene profile. So, what are terpenes?
Terpenes are responsible for the fragrance of cannabis and hemp plants. When you smell a bud that reminds you of blueberries or lemons, that’s the work of true terpenes.
But terpenes don’t just make cannabis smell good. They also seem to have different effects on the body. Some research suggests that terpenes have certain medical benefits, which could be harnessed to treat particular health conditions and ailments. So, what are terpenes?
It's helpful to understand the benefits of terpenes. Hemp connoisseurs can use their knowledge of terpenes to help them choose new strains in the future. For example, if you find that limonene-dominant strains energize you, you might look for new strains that are also limonene-dominant. CBD users, too, can benefit from choosing CBD products that are high in certain terpenes.
Here’s what you need to know about terpenes.
What are Terpenes?
Terpenes are found all over in nature, from conifer plants and herbs to insects and fruit. If you’ve ever walked into a conifer forest and been blown away by the pine fragrance, or if you’ve breathed in the relaxing scent of lavender, you’ve experienced the magic of true terpenes first-hand.
Most terpenes have a strong odor, and some have flavors too. Plants and insects evolved to have terpenes that deter animals that eat them and, in some cases, attract parasites and predators that kill those animals. Functionally, terpenes are used in perfumery and aromatherapy due to their fragrance.
When it comes to cannabis, true terpenes are secreted in the hemp bud in the same way cannabinoids are produced: by the sticky trichomes that coat a true cannabis bud. Trichomes are the microscopic, sticky, shiny things on a bud of cannabis that give it a color and fragrance. They look a little like tiny hairs. These tiny “factories” produce terpenes and cannabinoids alike. Think of them as the plant’s glands.
In general, the stickier the cannabis is, the better. This is because more trichomes mean more cannabinoids and terpenes. Generally, more trichomes also make the cannabis’s odor stronger and make the bud appear more “sparkly” when you hold it to the light.
How do True Terpenes Affect Our Bodies?
When it comes to the physical and mental effects of cannabis, we often talk about cannabinoids. Cannabinoids like CBD and THC are responsible for how our bodies and minds react to hemp. They interact with the endocannabinoid system, which in turn affects our digestive system, skin, brain, cardiovascular system, and more.
While cannabinoids are important in shaping our experiences with cannabis, terpenes can also produce certain physiological effects. You might have heard this anecdotally from people who’ve used certain strains of hemp or cannabis to produce certain effects. According to a 2018 review in the European Journal of Medical Chemistry, true terpenes are generally safe to consume and are tolerated well by humans.
The review also notes that the terpenes found in cannabis might have the following properties:
- Anxiolytic (anti-anxiety)
Of course, terpenes have to be studied further before we fully understand their medical benefits. But, as the review points out, there is a large number of studies that suggest terpenes may have these benefits. In the future, experts will be able to understand and hopefully harness the medical potential of terpenes.
What Types of Terpenes are Found in Cannabis?
Every strain of cannabis and hemp has a mixture of terpenes, with some terpenes being more dominant than others. Many strains are intentionally bred to have certain dominant strains of terpenes. This gives different strains their iconic fragrances and effects.
Here’s a quick rundown of the most common terpenes found in cannabis and hemp, as well as their possible medical benefits.
Caryophyllene also affects our endocannabinoid system, making it both a cannabinoid and a terpene.
Strains containing caryophyllene: GSC, Purple Punch
Found in: Black pepper, cinnamon
Effects: Stress relief, relaxation
Health benefits: It might be able to treat pain and mood disorders. A 2016 review notes that there’s some evidence it could also be an antimicrobial terpene, and it might be able to prevent certain heart diseases.
Humulene isn’t very common, and it hasn’t been studied thoroughly. Humulene-dominant strains are quite uncommon.
Strains containing humulene: Gelato, Sherbert
Found in: Hops, certain woods
Aroma: Woody, herby
Effects: Relaxing, soothing
Health benefits: There isn’t a great deal of research on humulene, but one study suggests it could be an anti-inflammatory.
This is possibly one of the most noticeable terpenes in that the fragrance is easy to distinguish. Limonene-dominant strains are relatively easy to find.
Strains containing limonene: White Fire OG, Strawberry Banana, Lemon G
Found in: Citrus fruits like lemon and orange
Effects: Uplifting, energizing
Health benefits: A fair amount of evidence suggests that it might be able to treat mood disorders such as anxiety and depression. It could also reduce inflammation and pain.
One of the more widely-studied terpenes, linalool is usually used to give cosmetics a lavender scent.
Strains containing linalool: Kosher Kush, Zkittlez
Found in: Lavender
Aroma: Floral, lavender-like
Effects: Relaxing, mood-enhancing
Health benefits: Linalool might be able to treat anxiety, depression, insomnia, pain, and inflammation.
Myrcene is one of the more common terpenes in cannabis.
Strains containing myrcene: Granddaddy Purple, OG Kush
Found in: Hops, thyme, lemongrass
Aroma: Herbal, musky, earthy
Effects: Soothing, relaxing
Health benefits: Myrcene might be able to treat insomnia, pain, and inflammation.
Like limonene, pinene is easy to sniff out as it smells distinctive. It’s a very common terpene outside of cannabis, as it's found in conifers and various herbs.
Strains containing pinene: Big Smooth, Critical Mass
Found in: Pine needles, parsley, basil, rosemary
Effects: Alertness, focus, relaxation
Health benefits: Pinene is fairly well-studied. According to research, it might be able to treat asthma, pain, inflammation, ulcers, anxiety, and cancer.
While we have to keep in mind that terpenes must be studied further before we understand their benefits, the current research is promising.
Terpenes and The Entourage Effect
You might have heard of the “entourage effect,” which is the idea that cannabinoids work better in conjunction with one another. For example, CBD is more powerful when trace amounts of THC, CBG, CBN, CBC, and other cannabinoids are present.
The entourage effect also includes terpenes. According to a 2019 article in Frontiers in Plant Science, terpenes seem to enhance the effect cannabinoids have on our bodies, and vice versa.
This may be because of the fragrance factor. Most of us find the smell of citrus energizing and the smell of herby lavender relaxing. It’s possible that inhaling that fragrance affects our minds and bodies in such a way that we respond positively to it.
But it’s not just the aroma. Some of the studies mentioned before controlled for aroma by giving non-fragranced terpenes to their test subjects. What this suggests is that terpenes affect us, even when we can’t smell them.
Terpenes and CBD
So, what does this mean for the average CBD user? It means terpenes affect us, too.
Have you ever found that one brand (or product) of CBD makes you relaxed and sleepy while another makes you focused and energized? It could be because of the terpenes in the hemp it was derived from.
If you’re a CBD fan who wants to feel the benefits of terpenes, you should opt for full-spectrum CBD. Full-spectrum CBD will contain terpenes as well as cannabinoids.
Full-spectrum CBD, however, can also contain THC. Many people avoid THC as it can be detected in a drug test, and it can be intoxicating in large doses. If you want to avoid THC but still want to experience the effects of terpenes, look for broad-spectrum, THC-free CBD. This means that THC has been removed from the product, but the rest of the cannabinoids and terpenes have been left as is.
The hemp your CBD is derived from matters. Quality hemp means quality CBD, because quality hemp is bred to have certain levels of terpenes. While all hemp might seem the same at surface level, it can really influence the effect of your CBD products.
Nowadays, most lab analysis reports contain information about terpenes. These lab reports (also known as certificates of analysis) often note whether certain terpenes were found in the CBD. You can find our lab reports here.
If you’re interested in a certain effect, look for CBD products that contain the relevant terpenes—so if you’d like CBD that could help you focus, CBD high in pinene might be a good choice, and if you’d like CBD that is relaxing, myrcene or linalool might help.
When it comes to choosing cannabis or CBD products, terpenes might not be the first thing on your mind. But given their effect on our bodies and brains, and given how they can totally transform your experience with cannabis or CBD, it’s something you should consider.