If you’ve ever walked past someone smoking weed (or lit up yourself), you know the unmistakable, pungent, musky scent. Marijuana gets its distinct odor from the same source as pine trees, lavender, mint, or citrus plants: terpenes.
Terpenes aren’t just aromatic; they play an essential role in a plant or animal’s life. Some help plants attract pollinators, while others deter predators. Terpenes can also help plants recover from damage, while others bolster the immune system to keep infectious germs at bay. Likewise, terpenes can benefit humans and help other beneficial compounds, like CBD, work more effectively.
WHAT ARE TERPENES?
Scientifically speaking, terpenes are volatile unsaturated hydrocarbons. These aromatic molecules are derived from the molecule isoprene.
While many types of plants, and even some insects, contain terpenes, cannabis has an exceptionally high concentration. Thus far, scientists have identified more than 100 in the cannabis plant alone, though there are many more in nature.
In addition to helping plants and insects stay safe from predators and illnesses, and promoting healing when harm does occur, terpenes also play a significant role in resin production. Besides essential oils and beauty products, terpene-rich resins are also used for products such as natural rubber and many steroids.
TERPENES, SCENT, & FLAVOR
A strain’s unique flavor and aroma come from its special blend of terpenes. Some of the best-known varieties in cannabis include myrcene, linalool, caryophyllene, limonene, and pinene. A strain that smells citrusy most likely contains limonene, while those that smell like Christmas trees probably have pinene. A lavender odor indicates linalool. Often, distributors name their strains after the prominent terpenes it contains. For example, a strain with “blueberry” in its name probably has myrcene—fun fact: natural syrup gets its taste mainly from the more than 300 terpenes it contains.
TERPENES & AROMATHERAPY
There’s a reason essential oils are so popular, and it’s not just because they smell nice. While they don’t have the full healing potential of CBD, thanks to the terpenes that give them their odors, they can provide distinct health benefits.
A few drops of lavender on your pillow, for example, may help you sleep better while diffusing citrus oils, or using a lemony balm may help you feel more alert. Ever wondered why many topical creams smell like peppermint? The terpenes in this plant, menthol, menthone, and limonene, can relax muscles and relieve pain.
Keep in mind neither essential oils nor CBD are magic potions. They aren’t a cure, and they can’t necessarily replace a doctor’s prescription. But they can be a legit, effective health supplement that might help mitigate certain ailments and enhance your wellbeing.
TERPENES & CANNABINOIDS
Cannabinoids, such as cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), work by influencing the body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ECS, a vast network of receptors, endocannabinoids, and enzymes, is one of our most crucial biological systems. It’s responsible for a range of functions and processes, including sleep, mood, memory, appetite, reproduction, pain sensation, and immun/knowledgebase/everything-we-know-about-the-ecs/e system response.
While CBD, THC, and their fellow cannabinoids are similar, they interact with the ECS differently and produce different effects. The key difference between CBD and THC that’s central to CBD legalization is CBD does not produce the euphoric “high” that THC can. However, all of the more than 100 cannabinoids in the cannabis plant also have distinct properties and specialties.
Terpenes can work synergistically with cannabinoids, making them more effective. This phenomenon, called the “entourage effect,” is the same reason CBD sometimes works best when combined with THC. Certain terpenes may also reduce the intoxicating effect of THC and boost its therapeutic benefits.
To get the full benefit of terpenes and other naturally-available compounds in the cannabis plant, look for full-spectrum or broad-spectrum CBD products. Full-spectrum contains the full range of cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids, including CBD and THC (only up to 0.3%).
Broad-spectrum contains all of the terpenes and flavonoids and all cannabinoids except for THC. Broad-spectrum products and isolates are available even in states where THC is not (yet) legal.
Some CBD producers extract terpenes and pair them strategically to produce specific results.
SPECIFIC TERPENES & THEIR USES
We won’t get into all 100 terpenes found in cannabis, but here’s a bit about some of the most important players.
- Linalool: Most prominent in lavender, linalool can provide relaxation and relief from anxiety and pain. It may also have anticonvulsant properties.
- Myrcene: Myrcene can account for up to 65% of the terpene content in certain cannabis strains and is what produces the plant’s musky scent. It may help reduce inflammation and chronic pain. Other plants rich in myrcene include lemongrass, mango, and thyme.
- Limonene: The second-most abundant terpene in cannabis, limonene, is also found in peppermint and certain rind fruits. It has anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, and anti-carcinogenic properties. It may help with digestion and gastrointestinal issues, and heartburn. It can also enhance mood.
- Pinene: Besides cannabis, you’ll find pinene in pine needles, basil, parsley, rosemary, and dill. It has antiseptic effects and may boost alertness and memory retention. It may also help improve respiratory function.
- Caryophyllene: The only terpene that binds to CBD receptors, caryophyllene, like limonene, is good for the gastrointestinal system. It also has anti-inflammatory properties and may be helpful in alcohol addiction rehabilitation. Aside from cannabis, it’s found in black pepper, cotton, cinnamon, and cloves.
Want to learn more? Did you know that CBD and THC aren’t the only cannabinoids that can be taken as supplements? Read about CBG, the ‘Mother Cannabinoid’ and how it might help you here.