Terpenes in Cannabis: What Are They, And What Can They Do?

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Added 13 December 2022

Why do some cannabis strains smell like nostalgia? 

Why do oranges smell so fresh? 

Why do some strains hit a lot harder than others despite having the same levels of THC?

The answer to these three questions lies in one compound — terpenes — that is found in cannabis and many other flowers and fruits, including oranges and mangoes. 

Terpenes are aromatic compounds, but they play a much bigger role in the plant kingdom. And the benefits don’t stop when you pluck the buds off the plants — they can offer various therapeutic benefits to you too.

But what are terpenes? Here is everything you need to know about terpenes found in cannabis and what they do for the plant and you.

What are Terpenes in Cannabis?

What are Terpenes in Cannabis?

Terpenes are chemical compounds that naturally occur in various plants, including cannabis. In fact, these terpenes are even found in some animals! Apart from cannabis, terpenes are more commonly found in aromatic herbs like thyme, sage, and pepper, and in citrus fruits like lemon or even mangoes. 

Essentially, these compounds are what give cannabis (and other plants) their aromas, colors, and flavors. In the cannabis plant, these terpenes are found in female plants’ trichomes, sticky glands covering the buds. These trichomes produce terpenes via their resin glands. 

So, the next time you roll a Cherry Diesel strain, thank terpenes for the sweet diesel smell and flavor profile.

Various factors determine the number of terpenes a specific cannabis strain develops. The most significant contributing factor here is genetics — some strains are naturally more inclined to develop more terpenes than others. This is why some strains are more aromatic than others.

Additionally, other factors like the weather, light exposure, temperature, humidity, growing practices, mediums, nutrient supply, etc. also affect the number of terpenes a plant develops.

Thanks to their chemical buildup, terpenes found in cannabis can also be processed into other products like pesticides, solvents, and dyes, and many even have therapeutic properties. More on this later.

Difference Between Terpenes and Cannabinoids like CBD and THC

Difference Between Terpenes and Cannabinoids like CBD and THC

Cannabis contains over 200 phytocannabinoids, and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) are only two of them. Other common cannabinoids include CBN, CBG, CBC, CBGA, THCV, etc. 

Similarly, scientists have found over 150 different types of terpenes in cannabis, like myrcene, caryophyllene, limonene, etc. 

And these two compounds — cannabinoids and terpenes — are very different from each other. Sure, they come together to produce the entourage effect when you consume full-spectrum cannabis, but the similarity ends there.

Cannabinoids, or phytocannabinoids, are compounds that can interact with the human endocannabinoid system (ECS) by mimicking endocannabinoids naturally present in the human body. On the other hand, terpenes are hydrocarbon-based aromatic compounds that give the plant its flavor and aroma profile. 

What is the Role of Terpenes in Cannabis?

What is the Role of Terpenes in Cannabis?

Terpenes not only give cannabis plants their distinct aroma and flavor profile but offer various other intrinsic benefits to the plant, too. 

Terpenes give cannabis aroma and color that not only attracts buyers but also beneficial insects, especially pollinators like bees.  

At the same time, terpenes protect the cannabis plant from predators and harmful pests by repelling them. Some pests can’t stand the aroma of such compounds. 

For example, geraniol, a terpene found in cannabis, repels herbivores and insects that would otherwise feast on the plant. And other terpenes like linalool and terpinolene attract pollinators. 

The terpenes also protect the plant by triggering immune responses — they communicate to the plant about the surrounding environment and stress factors, which trigger the plant’s immune responses, protecting the plant. 

Do Terpenes Get You High?

Do Terpenes Get You High?

The short answer is terpenes are non-psychoactive and won’t get you high. But with anything else related to cannabis, the answer is never so straightforward. 

Some terpenes can be considered psychoactive because they affect the brain and may even improve your cannabis high. Essentially, experts believe that some terpenes influence the psychotropic effect of THC (cannabinoid that produces the high). 

Typically, terpenes work in synergy with other cannabinoids like THC and CBD in what is called the entourage effect. Here, all the cannabis compounds come together to produce effects that are more enhanced as opposed to simply consuming the same compounds individually. 

For instance, a 2018 study on people suffering from epilepsy found that those who consumed full-spectrum CBD experienced fewer side effects and improvement compared to those who only consumed CBD isolates. The former contains terpenes. 

The same study noted that full-spectrum CBD products with terpenes were four times more effective or potent than CBD isolates that didn’t contain any terpenes. 

Terpenes are also found to offer some stress relief in users. But research in this specific arena is still pending as scientists have largely focussed only on CBD and THC’s effect on our bodies. However, with new studies being carried out every year, experts look forward to terpenes being medicinal powerhouses, too.

So, no, consuming terpenes won’t get you high per se, but consuming cannabis with terpenes may be more potent than cannabis isolates. Again, research is pending, so we need to wait for a while before we get any conclusive evidence on the psychotropic effects of terpenes. 

Do Terpenes Have Any Benefits for You?

Do Terpenes Have Any Benefits for You?

As mentioned earlier, there is a lack of research on the effect of terpenes on the human body. However, many preclinical studies and in vitro studies have shown that terpenes may have a variety of benefits for you. 

But remember, the studies are only performed in test tubes or on aminal subjects so far and the same effects may or may not translate well on the human body. 

While we wait for more research to back these claims, let’s take a look at some of the potential health benefits of terpenes.

1. Terpenes May Help Fight Viruses

Coronavirus is one virus that took over the world, but many new viruses keep emerging every year. This is why scientists are always on the lookout for more antiviral compounds that can fight viruses more effectively. 

And they are looking closely at terpenes as the next antiviral drug. This is because various terpenes showcase an excellent ability to kill viruses. These terpenes include alpha- and beta-pinene, camphor, carvone, and caryophyllene. 

2. Terpenes May Fight Bacteria

Apart from viruses, terpenes may also fight bacteria by disrupting their activity or killing them entirely. Some of the potential antimicrobial terpenes include geraniol, menthol, eucalyptol, alpha-bisabolol, and terpinolene. 

3. Terpenes May Help Fight Cancer

Cannabis is already considered an effective remedy for symptoms of cancer, and there is a high chance terpenes could be one of the reasons why cannabis is so effective at that. 

Experts have found that various terpenes, including the ones found in cannabis, can help fight cancer by inhibiting the growth of cancer cells. And what makes these terpenes even better candidates is that they are unlikely to affect non-cancer cells, which is essential for cancer treatments. 

One such terpene with the most potential is limonene, but other anticancer agents include pinene, terpinene, and myrcene. 

4. Terpenes May Help Fight Depression

Did you know that 25% of antidepressant drugs are developed from herbal extracts that are rich in terpenes? That should tell you that perhaps terpenes are an effective treatment for depression

The two most common terpenes found in antidepressants are linalool and beta-pinene. 

Sure, research is pending, but if terpenes are found to be effective against depression, that can change the way we look at depression medications. 

5. Terpenes May Relieve Pain

A few early studies have found that terpenes found in cannabis mimic cannabis cannabinoids to create pain-relieving effects without the psychoactive high associated with THC. 

Additionally, studies have found that full-spectrum cannabis products containing terpenes are far more effective at relieving the symptoms of pain compared to cannabis isolate products that don’t contain any terpenes. 

The terpenes associated with pain relief include geraniol, linalool, humulene, and beta-pinene. 

Which Terpenes are Found in Cannabis?

Which Terpenes are Found in Cannabis?

The number of terpenes found in cannabis is staggering — over 150 — but most of these only occur in small, trace quantities. But some terpenes occur in higher concentrations, making the difference noticeable. 

Here are some of such common terpenes found in cannabis.

1. Myrcene

Perhaps the most dominant terpene found in cannabis plants is myrcene, which is also a dominant terpene in mangoes, lemongrass, and hops. This terpene is usually associated with an aroma that is spicy, herbal, earthy, and musky, and often gives cannabis its mildly sweet flavor profile. 

Apart from giving cannabis its distinct aroma profile, myrcene is also found to be anti-inflammatory. According to a 2015 study conducted on cultured cells, myrcene may reduce inflammation that is caused due to osteoarthritis

Additionally, myrcene may also prevent the breakdown of cartilage cells, decrease the production of inflammatory cells, and even slow down osteoarthritis progression. 

2. Caryophyllene

The second most dominant terpene found in cannabis is caryophyllene, which is also known as beta-caryophyllene. This terpene gives cannabis its spicy, peppery flavor profile, and is also found in other plants like rosemary, oregano, black pepper, and cloves. 

Fun fact: caryophyllene is the only cannabis terpene that can bind to CB2 receptors in ECS, which is why experts classify it as an atypical cannabinoid. Of course, there could be other terpenes with similar abilities. 

And research into caryophyllene's therapeutic abilities shows significant potential — it may ease symptoms of various conditions like diabetes, colitis, anxiety, depression, cerebral ischemia, liver fibrosis, and Alzheimer’s. 

3. Limonene

Limonene, as the name suggests, is a terpene that both lime and cannabis share and is also found in various other citrusy fruits and ginger. And it gives some cannabis strains their fresh, clean, citrusy flavor profile, like Papaya Punch and Black Cherry Soda. 

Studies have found that this terpene alters the function of some immune cells in the human body, which may protect you from various disorders. For example, in one study, this terpene enhanced the production of antibody-producing cells in the bone marrow and spleen, which identify and neutralize pathogenic viruses and bacteria in the body. 

In fact, some experts also believe that limonene may be useful in treating COVID-19

4. Pinene

Another terpene that is found in abundance in cannabis is pinene, and it comes in two forms — alpha-pinene and beta-pinene. This terpene gives cannabis its fresh, bright scent, along with other plants like rosemary, basil, and pine needles. 

And pinene may also have therapeutic benefits, but research is still in its infancy and not a lot is known about this terpene and its effect on the human body. 

But here’s a fun fact: Shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, is a therapy that’s popular in Japan. This therapy involves taking walks in the forest and enjoying the scents and atmosphere of the forest and is believed to be quite relaxing for one’s psyche.

And a study in Acta Salus Vitae found that even the scent of pinene in the air is enough to be therapeutic for humans. This terpene acts as a bronchodilator, which allows more air into the lungs, and has anti-inflammatory effects when inhaled. 

Pinene may be the reason Shinrin-yoku is so popular in Japan. 

5. Linalool

Linalool is the dominant terpene in lavender plants, but it is also found in various cannabis strains. This terpene gives cannabis and lavender their rich aroma, which is quite calming for many people. It’s no surprise — lavender is one of the most common flowers used in aromatherapy and essential oils.

Some of the cannabis strains that are rich in linalool include Quantum Kush, Berry White, and Wedding Cake.

According to Colloids and Surfaces B: Biointerfaces study, linalool may have the following benefits for you:

  • Antimicrobial
  • Antiinflammatory and pain-relieving
  • Neuroprotective
  • Anticancer
  • Antidepressant and antianxiety

Linalool may be very effective on humans, but more research is required to back the aforementioned benefits. 

6. Humulene

Humulene is the dominant terpene in hop plants, along with clove and ginger, but some cannabis strains are also quite rich in humulene. Some of the popular cannabis strains that contain humulene are Sour Diesel, Atlantis, and Gelato.

This terpene may also have various therapeutic benefits. For example, one study published in Frontiers in Pharmacology noted that humulene may have the potential to prevent asthma attacks and allergic reactions

During the study, experts found that this terpene reduced allergic reactions in the airways of animal models. 

In another study from Food and Chemical Toxicology, experts found that this terpene may have a protective effect on various cells in the human body. This effect may guard the cells against cancer, too. But, like anything associated with cannabis, research is lacking in this area as well. 

Common Secondary Terpenes Found in Cannabis

Common Secondary Terpenes Found in Cannabis

Apart from the terpenes listed above, many cannabis strains also contain other terpenes, albeit in lower quantities. Some of the common secondary terpenes found in cannabis are as follows:

1. Borneol

Borneol is the terpene that gives some strains their minty flavor profile and aroma with a metallic undertone. Experts believe that this terpene may be anti-inflammatory and analgesic. And this terpene is commonly found in cannabis strains like Golden Haze, Amnesia Haze, and K13-Haze.

2. Eucalyptol

If you come across a cannabis strain with a cool, menthol, or minty flavor profile and aroma, it is probably due to the terpene called eucalyptol. And this is mostly found in cannabis strains like ACDC, Girl Scout Cookies, and Headbands. 

So far, experts believe that this terpene could help fight bacteria and fungal infections in users, but more research is required to make any conclusive claims.

3. Phytol

Phytol lends its floral aroma to many cannabis strains like Sour Diesel, Cheese, and Blue Dream. And when paired with cannabinoids, this terpene enhances relaxation in the user thanks to the entourage effect due to its sedative and anti-anxiety properties. Additionally, this terpene could also be anti-inflammatory, but research is still pending.

4. Alpha-Bisabolol

Also known as levomenol or simply bisabolol, alpha-bisabolol is a terpene that lends a floral aroma to cannabis and can also be found in candeia and chamomile. It is commonly found in cannabis strains like Pink Kush, OG Shark, Harle-Tsu, and ACDC.

Thanks to its floral scent, this terpene is commonly used in cosmetics, but recently, scientists are looking into this terpene for its medicinal benefits. For example, in one study, alpha-bisabolol was found to be effective in treating wounds and bacterial infections with analgesic and anti-irritation properties.

5. Sabinene

While sabinene is not commonly found in most strains, it does give some strains (like Super Silver Haze) a distinct peppery or spicy aroma. And for many users, this terpene also makes the flowers smell like pumpkin pie! 

This terpene is touted to be quite an effective antioxidant and anti-bacterial compound but is only recommended in small quantities. 

6. Terpinolene

One of the least common terpenes discovered in cannabis, so far, is terpinolene. Despite its low concentrations, this terpene offers a pronounced effect on the buds. Along with cannabis, this terpene is also found in nutmeg and apples, giving these fruits and flowers their floral and herbaceous aroma with a pine undernote.

Terpinolene’s effects depend on the overall entourage effect but are often referred to as a sedative or relaxing terpene. And experts believe that it could also help deal with other conditions like insomnia and bacterial infections. 

How to Maximize the Benefits of Terpenes?

How to Maximize the Benefits of Terpenes?

Again, research on the benefits of terpenes is pending, but if you want to try these compounds for yourself, you should. Cannabis is super safe to consume and terpenes found in the buds are hardly in significant quantities to cause any kind of side effects. 

But when consuming, you must maximize their effect on your body for the best results. Follow the tips on maximizing the benefits of terpenes.

  • Always read the labels on the cannabis products you purchase

Lab-tested products will list the number of terpenes (including the most dominant terpenes) present and, ideally, the terpene content in the buds should be around 2%.

  • Be careful when using cannabis oil

Oil-based cannabis products, especially vape juices, may contain synthetic terpenes. It’s not clear whether these synthetic terpenes are effective, but the same compounds are also used to create solvents and may not be safe for you to consume even in moderate amounts. 

To be on the safe side, avoid products with synthetic terpenes.

  • Don’t heat the terpenes too much

Like cannabinoids, even terpenes can be degraded by high temperatures. Additionally, heat can degrade synthetic terpenes and can give birth to other harmful byproducts — another reason why you should avoid synthetic terpenes.

  • Keep a track of the terpenes you consume

If you want to find the best and most effective terpene for you, you should keep a track of the terpenes you consume. Don’t forget to note down the ingestion method and the effects you feel after consumption.

Over time, this will help you narrow down your favorite terpenes, whether it is for flavor, euphoria, or relaxation.

  • Be careful when harvesting cannabis

If you are growing cannabis, you must be meticulously careful during the curing and extraction process. This is because terpenes are volatile and can be easily lost if you are not careful with the buds. 

Summary: Terpenes in Cannabis: What Are They, And What Can They Do?

Terpenes are compounds that give cannabis (and other flowers and fruits) their distinct aroma and flavor profile. But apart from that, terpenes also protect the plant from predators and attract pollinators.

Some of the most common terpenes found in cannabis include myrcene, caryophyllene, limonene, pinene, and linalool.

Once you pluck the buds and roll them into a joint, the same compounds give you a distinct experience and may also help alleviate various conditions like bacterial infections, viral fever, cancer, anxiety and depression, pain, and many more. 

But do note that the research regarding terpenes’ medicinal use is still in its infancy and more research is required.

You can still try terpenes for yourself and see if they work for you. When you do, ensure you follow the tips listed above to maximize their effect. 



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A great taster... pun not intended but I'll take it. Now I want to go read more on terpenes. ✌️