What are Terpenes?
Terpenes are the scent molecules produced by a variety of plants, including cannabis. These molecules are responsible for the unique aroma and flavor of different cultivars, which interact with the body’s olfactory receptors to elevate mood and promote emotional well-being.
How Cannabis Terpenes Affect People
In addition to creating a complex and flavorful bouquet, terpenes interact with and activate cannabinoids in cannabis, enhancing the “entourage effect,” or the theory that these compounds work together to increase the therapeutic effects of the plant. As with cannabinoids, terpenes are secreted in the flower’s resin glands and are believed to have been originally developed to attract pollinators and repel predators.
The Science of Smell
Our sense of smell is closely linked to memory and emotional centers in the brain, triggering the vivid images and sensations we experience when breathing in the scent of freshly mowed grass, the cologne or perfume worn by a former flame, or the aroma of crisp veggies plucked fresh from the garden.
Olfaction, or our sense of smell, plays an essential role in our mental state, triggering feelings of anxiety, relaxation, fear, and happiness. When we breathe, we inhale scent molecules which bind to corresponding olfactory receptors. Once the molecule binds to the receptor, it initiates an electric signal which notifies the olfactory bulb. Once the olfactory bulb processes the message, it passes on the information to the limbic system, known as one of the body’s major hubs of mood, memory, behavior and emotion. Sense of smell is one of the quickest ways to influence the limbic system, or our caveman, intrinsic sense of wellbeing and survival.
For a more in-depth understanding of the science of smell, check out this helpful video from 2-Minute Neuroscience.
Most Common Terpenes found in Cannabis
While cannabis has over 100 known terpenes, these eight compounds are the most commonly recognized in popular varietals.
Myrcene is one of the most abundant terpenes found in cannabis. Known for its earthy, musky aroma, it is also found in hops, lemongrass, parsley, mango, and thyme. Ancient remedies including lemongrass tea and hops have been used for centuries to aid relaxation and promote restful sleep. Recent studies suggest that high doses of myrcene may have a pain-relieving effect in rodents. Cannabis varieties, or “strains,” high in myrcene may more effectively promote mental and physical relaxation to help us “wind down” after a long day.
Due to its uplifting citrus aroma, limonene is commonly used as an ingredient in food flavorings, cleaning products, and skincare. This terpene is also found naturally in oranges, peppermint, fruit rinds, rosemary, juniper, and (in trace amounts) cannabis.
Limonene is thought to be both antifungal and antibacterial in nature and it’s believed to be the main protectant from insect invasions. In studies involving very high doses of limonene (much higher than the amount found naturally in plants), there’s promising evidence for limonene’s therapeutic use in cellular function, mental health, and for maintaining a healthy digestive system. In cannabis, it’s known to elevate mood and reduce stress.
Caryophyllene, more formally known as beta-caryophyllene or β-caryophyllene, is another common terpene, known for its peppery, spicy aroma. In addition to cannabis, caryophyllene is also found in oregano, black pepper, cloves, basil, and rosemary. This terpene is a larger molecule than myrcene and limonene and is the only terpene known to act as a cannabinoid. Caryophyllene’s unique molecular structure allows it to primarily interact and bind with the CB2 receptors in our endocannabinoid system to provide anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects.
This terpene is most commonly recognized for the spicy floral scent produced by lavender. It’s believed that linalool may be the primary source of lavender’s stress-relieving properties. In addition to promoting relaxation, it is also known to support the immune system and may be a helpful sleep aid. When combined with pinene (see below), linalool can produce an effect similar to antidepressants.
Pinene is the most common terpene in the natural world and is also found in pine trees, pine needles, basil, orange peels, dill, parsley, and rosemary. There are two types of pinene– alpha-pinene (α-pinene) and beta-pinene (β-pinene). α-Pinene’s aroma is similar to pine needles, while β-pinene is reminiscent of a more herbal scent, such as parsley or rosemary. Cannabis contains the α-pinene variety. This terpene is believed to promote alertness and sharpness of the mind. It’s often found in varieties of cannabis designed to provide focus and energy.
This terpene produces an earthy and woody aroma, recognized in the scent of hops and in herbs such as cloves, coriander, and basil. Humulene is found in highly concentrated levels in the hops used during the beer brewing process, ranging from around 20-50%. It is also found in many cannabis strains and has shown potential to provide anti-inflammatory benefits.
Ocimene is a monoterpene found in a variety of plants. It’s believed to play a role in a plant’s defense system against predators (especially those pesky aphids). Its sweet, herbal aroma with undertones of citrus and wood makes it popular for use in fragrances and perfumes. While ocimene is rarer to find in cannabis strains, it is abundantly found in mint, parsley, pepper, basil, mangoes, orchids, kumquats, and bergamot. Studies have shown ocimene to have antifungal, anti-inflammatory, and antiviral properties.
Our sense of smell adds dimension to our lives and plays an essential role in our physical and mental health. The terpenes produced in cannabis and various other plants are powerful scent molecules which not only give each plant a unique aroma, but also work hand in hand with cannabinoids to provide therapeutic qualities. Many analysis labs now test terpene content, which allows us to further target specific wellness needs with cannabis products. As always, be sure to check the Certificate of Analysis for this information, as well as to confirm potency and accuracy in cannabinoid content. As cannabis research further develops, we look forward to learning more about how cannabinoids and terpenes work with our bodies to provide beneficial effects and how they may further enhance alternative medicines and therapies.