Cannabis is a wonderfully complex plant containing various chemical compounds such as cannabinoids and terpenes. While most people are familiar with the effects of THC and CBD, the two most researched and discussed cannabinoids, they may be less familiar with another variety of compounds housed in cannabis plants: terpenes.

Terpenes are present in all kinds of plants and are responsible for their smell.  Volatile substances, terpenes evaporate easily, and that’s what causes their perfumes to disperse.  Their olfactory ability is not simply aesthetic—terpenes provide plants with protection from a host of environmental predators including bacteria, fungus, and insects.

The 411 on Cannabis and Terpenes

There is a paucity of research on the relationship between terpenes and their therapeutic effects in cannabis.  Here’s what we do know.  A 2011 study conducted by Ethan Russo found that terpenes may have an inhibiting effect on THC intoxication which has the potential to make THC more therapeutically viable.

Terpenes are present in all kinds of plants and are responsible for their smellThis synergistic relationship between cannabinoids and other organic compounds found within the cannabis plant is known as the “entourage effect.”  Certain pharmaceutical companies have been exploring the use of isolated CBD, or CBD extracted from cannabis and purified of all other natural compounds of the plant.  The perceived advantage of this is that patients who wish to only experience the effects of CBD can avoid any psychotropic experiences by consuming CBD isolate. However, the entourage effect presents a compelling reason to opt for whole plant consumption instead.

Terpenes, for example, are essential in aromatherapy because they have been found to contain their own medicinal value.

The particular flavor and scent of a cannabis strain is determined by its terpene profile

According to Dr. Russo’s research, the cannabinoid-terpenoid relationship “could produce synergy with respect to treatment of pain, inflammation, depression, anxiety, addiction, epilepsy, cancer, and fungal and bacterial infections.”

Terpenes have different properties and can affect your high in various ways.  Some terpenes can increase the potency of your high while others can mitigate it.  While some terpenes may not directly influence the psychotropic aspects of cannabis, they certainly play a role in how the plant makes you feel.  Here are some of the most common terpenes found in cannabis and their effects.

Common Terpenes in Cannabis

Myrcene—Considered the most abundant terpene in cannabis, myrcene has been found to occasionally make up more than half of the terpene content in a cannabis plant.  It’s also the terpene responsible for the widely-held belief that eating a mango before cannabis consumption can lead to a longer lasting and more potent high.  Myrcene enhances the potency of THC by making it easier for the cannabinoid to cross the blood/brain barrier.

Therapeutically speaking, myrcene has anti-inflammatory, antibiotic, antimutagenic, and analgesic properties.

Myrcene has even been found to treat the symptoms of diabetes and insomnia

Caryophyllene and Beta Caryophyllene: This terpene has incredible health benefits and can even increase longevity.  Caryophyllene  has been found to relieve pain, symptoms of anxiety and depression, and oxidation (the root cause of lots of diseases including neurodegenerative ailments like Alzheimer’s disease and ALS).

Even cooler, caryophyllene has been found to relieve stress to such a great extent in C. elegans, worms that are remarkably similar to humans, that their lifespans lengthened.  The belief is that this effect can also be experienced by humans.

Multiple studies have shown beta caryophyllene to be a promising treatment for cancer.  The terpene has been found to enhance the effectiveness of chemo therapy and fight the proliferation of cancer cells.

Alpha and Beta Pinene: The most common terpene in the plant kingdom, pinene is known for its refreshing, crisp aroma.  The alpha version of pinene smells like pine while the beta version smells like parsley, dill, and basil.

This terpene has a host of therapeutic effects.  It has antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, anti-proliferative, and anti-oxidant properties.  It also has the interesting ability to enhance memory retention.

terpenes, The alpha version of pinene smells like pine while the beta version smells like parsley, dill, and basil.Like myrcene, pinene also has the ability to directly affect the potency of your high.  Unlike myrcene, it has an inhibiting rather than augmenting effect.  Pinene crosses the blood/brain barrier quickly, and once in the brain, it enhances memory and possibly mitigates the power of THC.  While this is something that many people may want to avoid, there are those who don’t particularly love THC but want to consume the whole plant rather than a CBD isolate.  In that case, a strong presence of pinene in your cannabis may provide the results you’re looking for.

Linalool: Found in in mint, cinnamon, rosewood, citrus, birch trees, and laurels, this terpene is known for its pleasant fragrance (it’s often used in perfumes) and its therapeutic qualities.

Linalool is a sleep aid and an analgesic and has been used as an alternative therapy for chronic and acute pain.  It’s also an anti-inflammatory, anti-depressant, and anti-convulsant

Linalool may help breast cancer patients by keeping tumors receptive to drugs.  This is extremely helpful since drug resistance is a major obstacle cancer patients face.

Limonene: Found in the rinds of citrus fruits, rosemary, peppermint, juniper, and pine needles, limonene is known for its use in perfumes, cleaning products, and medicines.

Its therapeutic benefits are numerous.  It has been used as an anti-inflammatory, antifungal and an antibacterial.  It helps alleviate bronchitis. It can reduce heartburn because of its ability to mitigate gastric reflux.  It also enhances the body’s ability to absorb other terpenes.   In addition to these wonderful physical effects, it is known to make people happy; It is a stress reliever and mood enhancer.

Limonene also has anti-cancer properties.  In fact, it may even kill off cancer cells

Additionally, its anti-inflammatory properties may prove to be cancer preventative since inflammation plays an important role in the development of cancer cells.

Terpene profiles vary per strain, so it’s a good idea to find out the content in your cannabis.  Whether it’s by enhancing or mitigating the potency of your high  or by creating their own therapeutic, non-psychoactive effects, terpenes impact the way that cannabis makes you feel.

You can find out the terpene profile of your flowers by purchasing labeled, lab-tested cannabis.  You can also try the sniff test; remember, terpenes are what give cannabis flowers their aroma.  If you like what you smell, try it out.  Trust the chemistry.

Dianna Benjamin

About the author: Dianna Benjamin is a freelance writer, teacher, wife, and mom horrified and fascinated by social justice and our inability--yet constant pursuit--to get it right.