Terpenes (pronounced tur-peens), or terpenoids, are aromatic metabolites found in the oils of all plants.

There are more than 20,000 terpenes in existence and at least 100 produced by the cannabis plant. Terpenoid production evolved over time in plants, including cannabis, to attract pollinators and to act as defense compounds.

Common Cannabis Terpenes
Common Cannabis Terpenes

Female cannabis plants produce glandular trichomes, which are glands that look like small hairs or growths that protrude from the flowers and leaves. Trichomes house crucial compounds, including cannabinoids (such as THC and CBD), flavonoids, and terpenes.

When plants are handled delicately and the trichomes remain intact throughout collection and processing, you end up with excellent cannabis with strong and distinct flavors, colors, and smells.

To humans, terpenes act as natural guides to discovering which cannabis strains our endocannabinoid system is most likely to enjoy and gain a benefit from.

Terpene production is largely governed by abiotic factors such as temperature, humidity, and light intensity (think about the fragrant scents of flowers at night time), and these factors are synthesized in response to stress.

Some soups can smell rich and meaty, while others can be delicate with herbal notes. If you can tell the difference between a goulash and a gazpacho, excellent! Your senses of smell and taste are working.

What you’re sensing in meals, fruits, flowers, and even cleaning products are terpenes.

These organic compounds that give plants flavor and smell (and the reason you can tell a difference between a coconut and a raspberry) are present in cannabis flowers, too. So let’s dive into what terpenes really are, how they behave, and how you can make informed decisions about terpene profiles when buying and consuming medical cannabis.

Here’s The Deal:

One of the most fun aspects of being a cannabis consumer or patient is the ability to smell the array of fragrances that the plant’s flowers produce. With scents ranging from fruity aromas to cheese-like smells, the cannabis plant can require the consumer to develop a level of familiarity and expertise with its unique makeup. So what exactly is behind these fragrances that trigger such connections? And what is it that makes them so unique?

What’s In a Name?

First, the words terpenes and terpenoids are often used interchangeably, although the meanings do vary. Terpenes are the naturally occurring combination of carbon and hydrogen, whereas terpenoids are terpenes that have been modified through a drying and curing process (chemical modification), altering the oxygen content of the compound. And, then there’s: Trichomes.

Trichomes and Terpenes, What you Need to Know

In cannabis, terpenes are made in the trichomes of the plant. Trichomes are the shiny, sticky, mushroom-shaped crystals that cover the leaves and buds. Trichomes on cannabis act as a defense mechanism in nature, protecting the plant from insects and animals through the production of fragrant terpenes that repel these dangers. As humans, we smell these terpenes and can make inferences about the strain and possibly physiological effects that the strain may have.

Cannabis is an incredibly diverse plant regarding its biological makeup and potential benefits — and terpenes – are no exception. There are over 100 different identified terpenes in the cannabis plant, and while the differences can be subtle, much progress has been made in making classification of terpenes and their effects easy for patients and consumers to understand. Broadly, terpenes can be broken down into sweet, sour, spicy, or bitter — with each category further breaking down into more specific smells. These specific smells consist with certain strains, which in turn correlate to the effects of that plant. In fact, to help with this., many companies have produced terpene wheels to better help people understand this.

How Terpenes Affect your Mood

Here’s an example: A sour-smelling flower may have a strong lemon scent to it. Lemon scented strains are often correlated with strains like lemon skunk or lemon haze; these are zesty sativas that give the consumer a boost of energy and euphoria. With a better understanding of terpenes and how they relate to the scents that you are experiencing, you are able to come to certain conclusions about the plant in front of you by simply smelling it.

Here are some examples of Terpenes and what they do:

LimoneneYou may be more familiar with terpenes than you realize. Considering our lemon example above, do you know what terpene a lemon scent refers to? Limonene. Limonene is not only characteristic of citrus-smelling cannabis but it’s also the exact terpene found in lemons and other citrus fruit rinds, like oranges and limes, giving them that fruity smell. Among other products, limonene is commonly used as a fragrant additive in cosmetics and cleaning supplies.

Limonene is known for its powerful antifungal and antibacterial properties. It’s a natural insecticide on the cannabis plant and can even assist in treating toenail fungus in humans. Limonene is easily absorbed through inhalation and even improves absorption of other terpenes through the skin and body tissue, like mucous membranes and the digestive tract. Limonene is also known for its stress-relieving and mood-enhancing effects.
PineneCan you guess where pinene is commonly found? That’s right — pine trees. Pinene actually comes in two types: alpha, which smells like pine needles and is the most commonly found terpene in nature, and beta, which smells like rosemary, basil, dill, or parsley. Pinene is also found in conifer trees, citrus peels, and turpentine. Pinene is a powerful bronchodilator, which helps improve airflow to lungs, making it a good option for those struggling with asthma. It’s also an anti-inflammatory and local antiseptic and has been used by cultures around the world for its healing properties for thousands of years. Pinene easily crosses the blood-brain barrier improving memory and alertness. It’s even said that pinene counters memory loss associated with THC.
MyrceneCommonly found in mangoes, hops, thyme, and lemongrass, myrcene is said to be one of the most abundant terpenes in cannabis. Myrcene is important because its presence determines whether a strain is indica or sativa. According to Steep Hill Labs, if a plant has more than 0.5% myrcene, it will produce indica-like effects. Anything less than 0.5% myrcene produces sativa-like effects. Myrcene is also known for its antibiotic, analgesic, and anti-mutagenic properties.
LinaloolLinalool is commonly found in lavender and its aroma is light and floral. Widely known for the ability to reduce stress, linalool is used as an anti-anxiety, antidepressant, and sedative. Linalool is also used to relieve seizure symptoms and provide relief to those suffering from psychosis.

From what we know, the potential benefits from terpenes are promising. These organic, naturally occurring compounds not only enhance and inform your cannabis experience but also offer great medicinal benefits to patients. Terpenes have been used for thousands of years by cultures around the world for their healing properties and as cannabis science expands, the possibilities to help more people becomes increasingly exciting.

Bottom Line:
Terpene-based products are pushing the conversation about these compounds into the mainstream. Consumers are beginning to understand the correlation between terpenes and cannabinoids and their cannabis-consumption experience. The more sophisticated the consumer becomes, the more evolved the products on the shelves (and their marketing) will become.

What are terpenes?

When considering which cannabis strain to purchase, it’s helpful to start narrowing down your options, so:

  • What flavors do you like/respond to (terpenes)?

All these questions come down to — how do you want to feel after consuming cannabis? These are just guideposts along the way to help you decide what you enjoy, prefer, and what your body responds best to.

Tip: Consider terpenes a connoisseurs’ approach to cannabis. In the same way that a wine lover would consider the blackcurrant notes in a Chilean merlot versus the crisp citrus of an unoaked Californian chardonnay.

Before modern research on cannabis and terpenes was conducted and legalization happened, many people decided on cannabis based on the typical characteristics and effects of indicas and sativas.

New research has now shown that terpenes significantly influence the flavor and smell of buds. They can also amp up, change, or lower the intensity and duration of effects for strains.

How terpenes work in the body

As we’ve mentioned, terpenes have their own effects apart from their relationship with cannabinoids, including inhibiting serotonin uptake and enhancing norepinephrine activity (acting as antidepressants), increasing dopamine (regulating emotions and pleasure experiences), and augmenting GABA (the “downer” neurotransmitter associated with relaxing effects).

Terpene Benefits
Terpene Benefits

More research needs to be done about the compounded therapeutic effect of terpenes with cannabinoids on the mind, emotions, and behavior of consumers.

Currently, the accepted knowledge is that terpenes compound or lighten the effects of cannabinoids THC and CBD (among others) by binding to endocannabinoid receptors and neurotransmitters and imitating compounds our bodies naturally produce (to regulate emotions, weight, health, etc). The FDA and other agencies have recognized terpenes as safe, but how could they not? They’d have to outlaw tomatoes and cinnamon if terpenes weren’t legal.

With research, cannabis scientists, growers, and enthusiasts are starting to tailor strains to use terpenes to balance the negative effects of cannabinoids – such as pinene balancing the short-term memory loss from high concentrations of THC.

Examples of terpenes found in cannabis

  • Pinene (pine): Pinene is the most common terpene in the world, and has anti-inflammatory properties. It’s also found in orange peels, pine needles, basil, and parsley. It’s been known to counter short-term memory loss from THC, improve airflow to your lungs, and promote alertness.
  • Myrcene (earthy, musky, fruity): Myrcene can be found in mangoes, hops, thyme, lemongrass, and basil, and is the most commonly found terpene in cannabis. It can compose up to 50 percent of a cannabis plant’s terpenes. Myrcene has also been shown to be useful as an anti-inflammatory, a sedative, and a muscle relaxer. Many indica strains have high levels of myrcene, which contribute to the tired/stoned feeling (if higher than 0.5% myrcene in a strain, it creates the “couch-lock” feeling in users).
  • Limonene (citrus): Like its name suggests, limonene smells like lemons, oranges, mandarins, limes, and grapefruits. It’s also — interestingly enough — probably found in your favorite cleaning products or perfumes because of its’ citrusy scent. It’s been shown to elevate mood, relieve stress, and has anti-fungal and antibacterial properties to boot. It also improves absorption of other terpenes and chemicals through the skin, which makes it great in strains that you use for tinctures, ointments, and other topicals.
  • Humulene (hoppy, earthy):Humulene is found in hops, coriander, cloves, and basil. It’s best known for its anti-inflammatory properties and its ability to suppress appetite (while many other strains only increase appetite).
  • Linalool (floral, spicy):Linalool is found in flowers and spices like lavender and coriander, and is widely known for its stress-relieving, anti-inflammatory, and anti-depressant effects. The linalool terpene balances out the anxious side effects of THC, which makes it a useful treatment of both anxiety and psychosis. Some studies also suggest that linalool can boost the immune system and significantly reduce lung inflammation.
  • Caryophyllene (peppery, spicy):Caryophyllene is found in thai basils, cloves, cinnamon leaves and black pepper. Studies show that it can help treat anxiety, depression, and act as an anti-inflammatory, which sounds like a big job to handle for one small terpene.
  • Terpinolene (smoky + woodsy): Terpinolene can be found in sage and rosemary, and has slightly sedative, antioxidant, and antibacterial properties. It’s also been found to depress your central nervous system, and therefore induce drowsiness and reduce excitement or anxiety.

Flavonoids vs. terpenes

Flavonoids sound like flavors… but they’re actually the color-giving nutrients in living things. They’re also one of the largest nutrient families known to scientists at over 6,000 members.

Around 20 of these compounds have been identified in the cannabis plant, which is great because they’re also known for their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory health benefits.

Flavonoids are what gives cannabis plants a purple or brighter green color. Further research is needed to understand the role flavonoids can play for therapeutic cannabis treatments, but the research on terpenes is much further along.

Cooking with cannabis terpenes

When you cook at home, you don’t just throw anything in a pot and hope it turns out okay, right?

You look for recipes because pairing smells, tastes, and textures is important for the final experience. Then you go to the grocery store and look for that hot red, greenhouse-smelling on-the-vine tomato. The mango that smells luscious and almost too sweet. The cinnamon that’s spicy and warming.

Cooking with cannabis requires you to understand the different notes (terpenes) in strains. Controlling the temperature of any cannabis you cook is crucial, especially so when thinking about terpenes, because terpenes are extremely sensitive to heat and can be burned by overheating.

Our recommendation is to research your temperatures and avoid adding cannabis at the very beginning of a cooking process so you don’t burn valuable terpenes. Add your cannabis at the end of your cook instead. Since terpenes volatilize at temperatures similar to cannabinoids, you should cook under 100 degrees Celsius.

Whether you’re using cannabis oil, butter, a drink, or just vaping alongside your meal, you should find a strain with a complementary or similar flavor to your planned meal. Vaping along with eating lets the terpene flavors shine through without burning them off — and you can customize which terpenes you inhale by changing the temperature!

Making a tomato mozzarella salad and are missing a little basil? Look for a strain heavy on myrcene.

Want to intensify the flavor of your lemon salmon dish? Add a strain high in the terpene limonene to a dressing or butter.

And a berry cheesecake could pair nicely with a super floral linalool-heavy strain that you vape as you eat.

At the end of the day, it’s totally up to you how you wish to think about terpenes when you cook with cannabis — whether complementary or similar. As long as you remember that consuming cannabis high in THC in particular will only enhance your experience of the food pairings you’ve created.

Key point to remember: terpenes are to cannabis like “notes” are to wine.

Want to learn more? Read “Let’s Take the Mystery out of CBD Oil

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Some of the content in this post was written by authors who are not credited in this post. We apologize for any confusion.