Understanding Cannabis Terpenes: What Are They And What Effect Do They Have?

Article contents:

  • What are terpenes?
  • What is the Entourage Effect?
  • What are the effects of terpenes? 
  • Most common cannabis terpenes

Have you ever wondered why your favorite strains smell and taste the way they do? How about why they affect you the way they do? All of these effects, flavors and aromas come from little organic compounds known as terpenes. Terpenes all have their own flavors, scents and effects, and can even affect the way cannabis makes you feel. Below, you’ll learn everything you need to know about terpenes, what they do, what kind of effects they offer, and how they work. 

What are terpenes?

Before we dive into the meat and potatoes of terpene information, we need to start with the basics. Terpenes are basically the essential oils found in plants. They are hydrocarbon chemical compounds that can be found in every plant on earth and even a few insects! They’re responsible for each plant’s unique taste and smell. However, they are each unique in their effects, flavors and aromas. In nature, they help plants to reproduce, ward off predators, pollinate and spread their seeds. 

Each unique smell or taste you experience in a fruit, nut, flower or leaf is made up of a combination of hundreds of different terpenes, monoterpenes, sesquiterpenes, and others — you’ll never just find one terpene on its own in nature. Take a look at a mulberry bush, for example. The fruits taste and smell much different to the foliage, which is different because of their different terpene profiles and other organic compounds. The same goes for cannabis! Cannabis flowers are extremely fragrant to attract pollinators and full of intoxicating cannabinoids to discourage animals from eating them. On the same plant, their water leaves are full of bitter terpenes to discourage insects and animals from eating them. 

In the last couple of years, terpenes have been getting a lot of attention from the scientific community largely due to the fast-paced growth of the cannabis industry. Their research suggests that terpenes interact with our bodies and endocannabinoid systems in a unique way that boosts the effects of cannabinoids, the naturally occurring cannabinoids found in our bodies, terpenes from foods we eat, and fats and lipids. This is all thanks to a documented phenomenon known as the entourage effect

What is the entourage effect? 

Back when cannabis was first being legalized for medical patients, most cultivators (and patients!) were focused on making and using plants that produced extremely high levels of THC. With a laser focus on one specific cannabinoid, their products became less and less effective, as well as less fragrant and flavorful. In the early 2000s, growers were scratching their heads trying to figure out why the potency was up but the effects were down. Around 2010, researchers discovered that full-spectrum cannabinoids and their terpenes were more effective than THC-isolates or THC-heavy strains alone. A strain with 17% THC and a full-spectrum of terpenes was way more effective than a 30% strain with fewer terpenes. 

Why do terpenes make cannabis more effective? It has to do with the entourage effect. The entourage effect is the documented phenomenon that terpenes make cannabinoids (and similar structures) more effective. It was discovered in 2006 by Dr. Ethan Russo, who was the Director of Research and Development at International Cannabis and Cannabinoids Institute and a Senior Medical Advisor to GW Pharmaceuticals. In his experiments, he discovered that CBD makes THC less effective by antagonizing the receptors in our endocannabinoid system that are stimulated by THC. With this discovery in mind, he set out to learn more about the relationships between different cannabinoids, and cannabinoids and terpenes, to study their effectiveness and potential therapeutic value. 

In his research, he studied the entourage effect between cannabinoids and cannabinoids, terpenes and terpenes, and cannabinoids and terpenes. In his report, he concluded that terpenes offer “complementary pharmacological activities that may strengthen and broaden clinical applications and improve the therapeutic index of cannabis extracts.” All in all, his studies suggest that the relationship between cannabinoids and terpenes is important. Without this relationship, the same level of effects could not be achieved.

From Russo’s discovery came hundreds more research reports, medical studies and scientific evaluation that backed up his findings. Extensive studies have been conducted on terpene isolates as well as collectives found in plants referred to as terpene profiles. However, the majority of studies have been conducted on cannabis. 

Since each strain has a unique terpene profile (a collective of hundreds of individual terpene isolates), each strain has a unique scent, taste and effect. Each terpene and each cannabinoid interacts with the endocannabinoid system uniquely. Cannabinoids like CBD, which are responsible for making you feel relaxed, are often found in strains with lots of Linalool terpenes, which also promote relaxation. Linalool and CBD make each other stronger, allowing you to experience the relaxing effect of CBD stronger than you would if you just took CBD or Linalool terpenes alone. 

Cannabinoids and terpenes in unison are responsible for the typical indica, sativa, and hybrid effects you recognize from certain strains since the effects are caused by the two compounds working together. In reality, there’s no such thing as an indica, a sativa or a hybrid. It boils down to the terpene profile of a strain and how it interacts with the cannabinoids. That’s why many citrusy strains offer energizing sativa-like effects even if they’re labeled as a hybrid or an indica based on their lineage. 

What are the effects of terpenes? 

Each terpene isolate offers a different effect. Here are some of the most common effects that terpenes offer. For more information, here’s an awesome resource about terpene effects and benefits

  • Antibacterial 
  • Antiviral
  • Antimicrobial
  • Antioxidant
  • Anti-inflammatory
  • Analgesic
  • Anti-nausea 
  • Mental effects (uplifting, relaxing, sedative, energizing, etc) 
  • Insect repellent 
  • Improve circulation 
  • Improve sleep 
  • Increase the effects of cannabinoids 
  • Cause programmed cell death (apoptosis) in cancer cells 
  • Reduce muscle spasms 

Most common cannabis terpenes 

There are several terpenes that make a repeat appearance in cannabis. These terpenes are responsible for a lot of the effects of cannabis.

  • b-Caryophyllene: b-Caryophyllene is a spicy, peppery terpene found in lots of kush strains as well as Candyland, Death Star and Gorilla Glue #4. It helps with pain and inflammation and can help you relax and sleep. 
  • Myrcene: Myrcene is an earthy and pungent yet citrusy terpene found in strains like OG Kush and Blue Dream. It’s on the sedative side and can help with inflammation, insomnia and pain. 
  • Pinene: Pinene smells like pine needles and can be found in strains like LA Confidential, Romulan and Chemdawg. It’s on the energizing side and can make you feel more alert as well as reduce pain and inflammation. 
  • Limonene: Limonene is a bright, citrusy terpene found in strains like Tahoe OG and Wedding Cake. It’s energizing, but soothing and helps reduce anxiety, inflammation, and blood pressure. 
  • Linalool: Linalool is a very calming, relaxing terpene that smells floral. It can be found in strains like Zkittlez and Do Si Dos and helps relax muscles, blood vessels, and nerve cells. 
  • Humulene: Humulene is an earthy terpene known best for its anti-inflammatory and pharmacokinetic effects. It can be found in strains like Pink Kush. 
  • Terpineol: Terpineol is known best for its lime scent and energizing effects. It can be found in strains like Jack Herer, White Widow and Girl Scout Cookies and can help with pain and inflammation. 

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