Terpenes and their Role in Cannabis

If you’ve ever taken a whiff of cannabis, you’ll notice it has a distinct fragrance. Some strains have a heavy, dank scent while others are more uplifting, even fruity. These aromatics can be attributed to terpenes, but don’t reduce these compounds to just a scent. Terpenes play an important role in the consumption of cannabis. 


What are Terpenes?

Terpenes are hydrocarbons (a compound composed of hydrogen and carbon) found the essential oil of a plant. Over 200 terpenes have been identified so far. In cannabis, these compounds are secreted in a resin through trichomes (tiny hairs). The resin also includes cannabinoids such as THC and CBD. 

Terpenes are not exclusive to cannabis. They are prevalent in many various plants including conifers and citrus trees. Even some insects have terpenes! Terpenes were developed to ward off herbivores and encourage pollinators. 

Once written off as just a “smell-good” compound, terpenes are now being recognized for much more than their aromatics.


Not only does the fragrance of cannabis play a part in the consumption experience, but terpenes play an even greater role in the effect of cannabis on our body. 


Moving from Recreation to Medication 

Cannabis consumers are paying more attention to terpenes than they have in the past. A decade ago, the industry was focused solely on THC content. THC, as we remember, is the intoxicating compound found in the cannabis plant. A higher THC content meant a more potent high. For consumers, recreation was the end goal. 

THC has also been the primary focus of cannabis research since Raphael Mechoulam isolated the compound in 1964. More recently, the potential benefit of other cannabinoids, such as CBD, has broadened the scope of cannabis research. 

Now, more so than ever, cannabis consumers and researchers are interested in the medicinal benefits of cannabis. In this, terpenes play a significant role. There is research suggests terpenes interact with our cannabinoid receptors to enhance or inhibit the effect of a cannabinoid. This means cannabinoids may interact with our body differently when consumed with terpenes than without. Described as the entourage effect, this interaction is of great interest to researchers of cannabis. 


The Entourage Effect: Synergy of Cannabinoids and Terpenes 

In perhaps the most significant study on the entourage effect, Ethan B Russo writes,


“[Terpenes] display unique therapeutic effects that may contribute meaningfully to the entourage effects of cannabis-based medicinal extracts.”


The consumption of both cannabinoids and terpenes improves the therapeutic properties of cannabis. Understanding this synergy may strengthen the clinical application of cannabis. According to Russo, high-terpene, high-cannabinoid cannabis may lead to new approaches to disorders such as


“treatment-resistant depression, anxiety, drug dependency, dementia and a panoply of dermatological disorders.” 


The initial research into terpene-cannabinoid interaction is promising. Still, terpenes remain understudied and more research is needed to fully understand the complexity of these compounds. 


The Individual Benefits of Terpenes 

In addition to supporting the action of cannabinoids, terpenes are beneficial individually. Terpenes do not have any intoxicating effects. Instead, they provide a myriad of benefits which are supported by human and animal studies. Here are four common terpenes found in cannabis and their individual benefit. 


Commonly derived from lemon and other citrus fruit essential oils, limonene is highly bioavailable and rapidly metabolized. In animal studies, it is shown to reduce stress and anxiety. In a human clinical study, limonene reduced depression. Essential oils with limonene are also known to have antifungal properties. 


Another common terpene in cannabis, myrcene provides a range of benefits. In addition to reducing inflammation and anxiety, myrcene is a sedative. In hops, it is used to aid sleep in Germany. Additionally, in animal studies, myrcene was shown to be a muscle relaxant. Together, this data suggests that myrcene is a prominent sedative terpene in cannabis. Along with THC, myrcene may be responsible for the “couch-lock” effect. 


The most common terpene found in nature, α-pinene is anti-inflammatory and antibiotic. Compelling research suggests α-pinene may aid memory and potentially counteract the short-term memory loss associated with THC. 


Common in lavender, the anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) activity of linalool has been studied in detail. In animal studies, it is shown to be sedative upon inhalation. Along with being a sedative and anxiolytic, linalool has anticonvulsant properties. 


The Benefit of Whole Plant Medicine 

The interaction of terpenes and cannabinoids provides a compelling argument for the benefit of whole plant medicine (consuming the whole plant rather than an isolated compound). Mechoulam writes, “This type of synergism may play a role in the widely held (but not experimentally based) view that in some cases plants are better drugs than the natural products isolated from them.” 

While consuming an isolated compound is beneficial in some instances (more on that here), the entourage effect may provide insight into when the whole plant is best received. 


Terpenes: Final Thoughts 

Although there is not enough research to fully support the entourage effect (yet), the benefit of terpenes should not be downplayed. Initial research has opened the door for new studies on the interaction between cannabinoids and terpenes. Until then, we can appreciate the individual benefit of terpenes and their role in the consumption experience. 


Do you have any additional questions about terpenes? Is there a terpene you find particularly beneficial? Leave a comment below! 



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