You might have noticed that not all strains smell the same. Pine, berry, mint… There’s more than a few distinctive fragrances in cannabis.
Cannabis has a unique smell. Some people find it unpleasant and overwhelming, while most marijuana enthusiasts find it very calming and enjoyable. Just like any other plant, pot has components which are responsible for its unique aroma and flavor.
These components are terpenes, aromatic molecules of cannabis, secreted inside the tiny resin glands of cannabis flowers.
Terpenes produce a citrusy aroma in some strains, fruity and sweet notes in others and while some may smell and taste like lavender, others can be more earthy and pungent. Certain strains even smell like cheese. However, it’s not all about the smell.
Terpenes also produce a wide range of medical effects and that is exactly what’s so captivating about them in the first place. There are at least 80-100 terpenes unique to the cannabis plant and the combination of these chemicals and cannabinoids is responsible for the entire success of the cannabis plant as we know it.
What are terpenes and what is their use?
Terpenes are organic chemicals produced by most plants and even some animals like swallowtail butterflies and termites. The term terpene is also often used to refer to terpenoids, which are oxygenated derivatives of terpenes. The easiest way to understand them is to think of them as volatile aromatic molecules. What’s so special about these chemicals is that they give plants their unique aroma.
From the chemical point of view, terpenes are derived from the basic molecule of isoprene which replicates to make terpenes.These substances have two very important roles in every plant’s life: to protect the flowers from predators and to produce resin.
They are a major part of resin and are heavily used in the production of essential oils, so they are a good fit for medical and beauty products. That is how terpenes made their way into the fragrance industry, as well as conventional and alternative medicine. They are most commonly used in aromatherapy, but they’re also synthetically made as flavors and aromas and as food additives.
There are a few more fun facts about terpenes: natural rubber is made of terpenes, as are many steroids. Also, it wouldn’t hurt to know that an organic and completely natural maple syrup contains about 300 terpenes, which makes it so yummy in the first place. But what about cannabis?
Terpenes basically give each strain its unique smell and taste. Not only that but they also enhance the effects of cannabis by influencing how we process cannabinoids. Let’s explore this in more detail.
How terpenes work with cannabinoids?
What we usually consume from cannabis is the flower. And just like any other flower, cannabis flower has its own recognizable smell. As mentioned before, there are about 120 terpenes found in cannabis. They coexist in the herb with cannabinoids like THC and CBD (sometimes even working with them for our better experience), but they are not psychoactive like THC.
Some of those terpenes can be found in other plants, while others are exclusive to cannabis. But, It’s not all about the smell, though. Terpenes also have therapeutic properties and can aid in plant’s medical effects: They interact with our endocannabinoid system and assist cannabinoids in entering the bloodstream, in a process called the entourage effect.
Myrcene, for instance, increases cell permeability and allows cannabinoids to be absorbed faster than they would on their own. Limonene is responsible for increasing serotonin levels which influences how weed affects our mood. That means these terpenes can influence neurotransmitters in our brain which entails that different strains may have different effects on our mood.
Terpenes and the “Entourage Effect” explained
The “Entourage Effect” is a term coined by S. Ben-Shabat and Raphael Mechoulam back in 1998 to represent the biological synergy of cannabinoids and other compounds like flavonoids and, of course, terpenes. (1)
According to Chris Emerson, these compounds work together to make “the sum of all the parts that leads to the magic or power of cannabis”. When terpenes work with cannabinoids like CBD and THC, they form a synergy that creates stronger and better effects than both would achieve on their own.
This symbiosis between cannabinoids and terpenes is what gives cannabis its special powers, as it improves the absorption of cannabinoids, overcomes bacterial defense mechanisms and minimizes any side effects.
Research on medical properties of terpenes in cannabis
Some terpenes are very effective in relieving stress, others are great when you need to relax, while there are some that boost focus. There are many options here, as you’ll have a chance to see. For example, myrcene induces sleep, while limonene uplifts our mood.
In recent years, terpenes found in cannabis became an important subject of scientific research. It was Jürg Gertsch who first noticed the ability of beta-caryophyllene to bind to the CB2 receptors, calling it “a dietary cannabinoid”. (2) He also concluded that all green vegetables that contain this terpene are extremely beneficial for human use.
Shortly after that, Dr. Ethan Russo published an article in 2011 in British Journal of Pharmacology, which pointed to all the therapeutic properties of terpenes in marijuana, especially those missing in cannabis products that only contain CBD. (3) He discussed the cannabinoid-terpene interaction as a “synergy with respect to treatment of pain, inflammation, depression, anxiety, addiction, epilepsy, cancer, fungal and bacterial infections”.
Further research discovered that terpenes, terpenoids, and cannabinoids have the potential to kill respiratory pathogens, for instance, the MRSA virus. However, that’s not even half of the story. Terpenes have a lot more health effects which we’ll discuss next.
15 terpenes in cannabis explained
As I mentioned before, there are more than 100 terpenes in just one cannabis flower. At the top of this page are some of the most well-known terpenes right now, most of which you’ll find in legal cannabis products in your area.
- Ben-Shabat S, Fride E, Sheskin T, Tamiri T, Rhee MH, Vogel Z, Bisogno T, De Petrocellis L, Di Marzo V, Mechoulam R, An entourage effect: inactive endogenous fatty acid glycerol esters enhance 2-arachidonoyl-glycerol cannabinoid activity, European Journal of Pharmacology, July 1998, 353(1):23-31.
- Gertsch J, Leonti M, Raduner S, Racz I, Chen JZ, Xie XQ, Altmann KH, Karsak M, Zimmer A, Beta-caryophyllene is a dietary cannabinoid.Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, July 2008, 105(26):9099-104.
- Ethan B Russo, Taming THC: potential cannabis synergy and phytocannabinoid-terpenoid entourage effects. Br J Pharmacol. 2011 Aug; 163(7): 1344–1364.
- Mediavilla, Vito, Simon Steinemann, Essential oil of Cannabis sativa L. strains. Journal of the International Hemp Association, 1997, 4(2):80-82.
- Miller JA, Lang JE, Ley M, Nagle R, Hsu CH, Thompson PA, Cordova C, Waer A, Chow HH, Human breast tissue disposition and bioactivity of limonene in women with early-stage breast cancer, Cancer Prevention Research, Jun 2013, 6(6):577-84.
- Al Mansouri S, Ojha S, Al Maamari E, Al Ameri M, Nurulain SM, Bahi A. The cannabinoid receptor 2 agonist, β-caryophyllene, reduced voluntary alcohol intake and attenuated ethanol-induced place preference and sensitivity in mice, Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior, September 2014, 124:260-8.
- Chuan-bin Yang, Wei-jing Pei, Jia Zhao, Yuan-yuan Cheng, Xiao-hui Zheng & Jian-hui Rong, Bornyl caffeate induces apoptosis in human breast cancer MCF-7 cells via the ROS- and JNK-mediated pathways, Acta Pharmacologica Sinica, 2014, 35:113–123.