Have you ever thought about why walking through a forest is often described as a “breath of fresh air.” Sure, it makes sense logically, but have you thought about it on a deeper level? The way that the fragrances of ferns, pine trees, flowers, and moss harmoniously come together to infuse a sense of calm restoration. But, where do all of these smell comes from? As it happens, many of these plant-related scents arise from naturally-occurring chemicals known as terpenes.
In the world of cannabis, psychoactive cannabinoids like THC have always taken the spotlight. But now that the marijuana industry is maturing, an increasing number of consumers have heard of terpenes, as well as the important role that they play in cannabis therapy. Over the last few years, terpenes have been talked about in a lot more frequency among cannabis users.
If you asked a botanist what terpenes are, they would probably tell you that they are in the essential oils of plants. Moreover, they are aromatic organic hydrocarbons. Terpenes can be found in a variety of plants and even some insects. Nowadays, most people use the term “terpenes” when referring to cannabis. In this article, we will talk about everything that you need to know when it comes to terpenes.
What are Terpenes?
Terpenes are oils that are secreted by exactly the same weed plant glands that produce CBD and THC during flowering. To date, over 20,000 terpenes have been identified, and at least 100 are produced by the cannabis plant. Each has its own unique smell, flavor, and medicinal properties. Do you like the sweet, fruity taste of Pineapple Twist? That is the terpenes. The same goes for the skunky smell of Sour Diesel.
The fact is, terpenes have a wide range of tastes and smells, including the common berry, mint, citrus, and pine. They are a groovy feature of the cannabis plant but aren’t unique to indica, sativa, and ruderalis – all plants contain terpenes. This is why all aromas and flavors that are associated with terpenes are named after plants.
For instance, when bred correctly, the terpenes that give the unique flavor to cherry can be produced in your favorite fruity marijuana strain, like Cherry OG. Furthermore, combining terpenes can yield novel tastes and smells like diesel fuel and skunk.
On a more scientific level, terpenes are simple organic compounds that are made up of hydrogen, carbon, and occasionally oxygen in different arrangements. There is a more complicated chemical version of terpenes, and these are terpenoids. While very similar to terpenes, terpenoids are, in fact, terpenes that have been denatured by oxidation.
The interest in cannabis terpenes is about a lot more than just the scent. Research suggests that when terpenes interact with cannabinoids receptors, the can either assist or hinder the effects of cannabinoids. Consequently, terpenes are also known to create an entourage of health benefits.
The Chemistry of Terpenes
The term “terpene” is used to describe a large group of chemical compounds that affect flavor and smell – it’s kind of like the terms “fruit” and “vegetable.” However, terpene molecules can be further divided into two types; monoterpenes and sesquiterpenes.
Monoterpenes are “light” terpenes (think weight) and include the likes of limonene, myrcene, and terpinolene. These are the terpenes that are responsible for more floral scents that the cannabis plant gives off, such as jasmine, rose, apple, and kiwi. Sesquiterpenes, on the other hand, are “heavy” terpenes and include caryophyllene and humulene. These are the terpenes that are responsible for the more pungent and sandalwood scents given off by the cannabis plant, like musk, skunk, tea tree, and diesel fuel.
Since monoterpenes are lighter, they evaporate more quickly once the live plant has been cut from its growing medium. A study done by the University of Mississippi found that dry curing and decarboxylation can reduce the monoterpene count from between 55-85%.
The reduction in monoterpenes means that the heavier sesquiterpenes that are left behind more readily influence aroma, flavor, and medicinal impact of the end product, whether it’s wax, oil, shutter, or bud.
Therefore, for the most part, products that are made from decarboxylated cannabis will skew more toward the pungent side of the aroma because monoterpenes have already evaporated.
Terpenes and the Entourage Effect
Multiple studies have found that terpenes work together to help cannabinoids, such as THC and CBD, to pass through the bloodstream more easily and lower the blood-to-brain barrier. Essentially, you feel more or less of a strains effects based on what terpenes are found in it.
Furthermore, because terpenes come with their own medicinal effects, they also help to either amp up or chill out the dominant effects produced by other cannabinoids. This is known as the “entourage effect” because of the way that the different components work together, play off each other, and downplay or enhance the end effects.
If terpenes and cannabinoids are combined together and work together towards the same goal, you will feel stronger effects.
By using terpenes to moderate the adverse effects of other cannabinoids, cannabis producers can now create super-strains that are laser-focused on producing the best experience possible for as many people as possible.
Whether this means doubling the anti-depressant qualities of a CBD-rich strain or tempering a THC “high” with anti-inflammatory or anti-anxiety properties of a particular terpene, there are extensive opportunities for medicinal purposes. However, research in this field is still ongoing, and the industry is still investigating how terpenes function singularly and also together in different strains.
Different Types of Terpenes
There are so many different terpenes, but here are the most common varieties that are found in the marijuana plant.
Limonene has a very distinct citrus scent which makes it an important component in the grapefruit varieties of cannabis. The body absorbs limonene very quickly, and it even helps to boost the absorption rate of other kinds of terpenes. Limonene is also a strong anti-microbial and could even have potential as an anti-cancer agent. It’s also known to treat bronchitis and help with weight loss. Limonene is often used in skin ointments and medical creams.
Myrcene is present in just about every strain of marijuana. It has an earthy scent of musk and cloves and is an important contributor for the infamous “couch-lock” effect that is associated with many indica strains. If you have fallen asleep after smoking a spliff, then you’ve probably experienced the effects of Myrcene.
Not surprising, because of its sedating effects, Myrcene makes for the perfect marijuana pain-reliever. In mother nature, Myrcene is manufactured in thyme, mango, sweet basil, and parsley.
Pinene has a classic pine scent. It’s found in pine trees and other conifers, along with some citrus fruits and balsa trees. It’s an exceptionally reactive terpene and often combines with other cannabis terpenes to create new varieties.
Pinene is an antiseptic and has anti-inflammatory properties which give it the ability to loosen muscles and reduce airway constrictions. It could also have some anti-cancer qualities and has been used for that very purpose in Chinese medicine.
For centuries, linalool has been used as an aromatherapy aid because of its classic lavender scent. It has powerful anti-inflammatory qualities, especially in lungs that have inhaled smoke. It has such strong anti-inflammatory properties that it’s been studied as an Alzheimer’s treatment. In addition, it’s thought to be a powerful immune booster.
Final Thoughts on Terpenes
There isn’t yet enough research on the effects that specific terpenes have when combined with cannabinoids. Research thus far points to the potential effects but doesn’t give conclusive evidence. However, many users feel that extracts containing the full spectrum of terpenes combined with cannabinoids are more effective than isolate cannabinoids.
This is why cannabis connoisseurs are not only checking for CBD and THC levels on lab reports, but also terpene percentages.