Terpenes are organic compounds found in a variety of plants – they are a class of molecules typically made up of either ten-to-fifteen carbon atoms. These atoms are built from isoprene, another organic compound also produced by plants. Terpenes are volatile, meaning they evaporate fairly easily. This helps their aroma reach your nostrils. In short, their volatility is why flowers smell nice.
While dozens and dozens of different terpenes are present in cannabis, there are hundreds of different variations. This is true for terpenes in other things as well. Lemons and oranges both contain the terpene limonene, for example, but in different amounts, which is why lemons smell tart while oranges give off more of a sweetness.
Terpenes are found in varnishes, such as those applied to violins or certain types of furniture, and foods (particularly those high in beta-carotene like carrots, spinach, lettuce, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, broccoli, mangoes, and peaches). Herbs and spices have them too – rosemary, mint, and basil contain some of the highest levels of terpenes.
Terpenes in Cannabis
Cannabis is a wonderful source of terpenes. Anecdotal evidence suggests that different strains of marijuana have different types of terpenes (which is why different strains offer different benefits, different flavors, and different aromas). Below are a list of common terpenes found in cannabis and the benefits that are thought to be associated with them:
This terpene activates the CB2 receptors of the endocannabinoid system. It’s non-psychoactive and the first FDA approved dietary cannabinoid.
- Found in: Pepper, hops, rosemary and lavender.
- Common Usage: Anti-inflammation, pain relief, and anxiety reduction.
- Effects: Stress relief, potential sedative, and non-psychoactive.
- Aroma: Woody, spicy, and cloves.
- Vaporizes at: 264 to 266° F (128.89 to 130C)
- Strains with Beta-Caryophyllene: Dutch Treat, Jack’s Girl, and GG4.
Found in cannabis and herbs like sage and rosemary, it’s useful on the skin as a topical antiseptic. It even increases mental energy and acts as a natural bronchodilator as added bonuses. Ergo, smoke some pot with a strain full of this terpene and breathe a little better.
- Found in: Coniferous Trees and Rosemary
- Common Uses: Anti-inflammation, increases airflow, and helps with memory loss.
- Effects: Helps with memory, focus, and energy.
- Aroma: Pine
- Vaporizes at: 313.1° F (156.2 C)
- Example of Strains: Bubba Kush, Chemdawg 91, and Trainwreck.
Also known as alpha-caryophyllene, is the main terpene of hops. Like beta-caryophyllene it has a lot medicinal potential. It could potentially act as an appetite suppressant according to anecdotal evidence, but we could find no scientific sources to back this up.
- Found in: Hops, sage, and ginseng.
- Common Uses: Anti-inflammation, Pain Relief, antimicrobial.
- Effects: Needs more research
- Aroma: Hoppy, Woody, Earthy
- Vaporizes at: 223 to 225° F (106 to 107 C)
- Example of Strains: Green Crack, Critical Mass, and Shishkaberry.
This terpene, named after lemon peels, smells like its namesake. While it is thought to have many benefits, it may cause irritation and restrict airways. Chronic exposure to limonene in rats produced tumors, but it’s thought this data is irrelevant to humans. Inversely, it’s also thought to protect against cancers.
- Found in: Citrus fruit peels, peppermint, juniper berries.
- Common Uses: Heartburn relief, gallstone relief, and anti-carcinogenic.
- Effects: Relax
- Aroma: Lemon
- Vaporizes at: 348 to 349° F (175.6 to 176.1 C)
- Example of Strains: Super Lemon Haze, Lemon Kush, and Lemon Skunk.
The terpene that makes up menthol and lemongrass, it’s used heavily in the perfume industry too and is said to be one of the most abundant terpenes in cannabis.
- Found in: Mangos, hops, and ginger.
- Common Uses: Anti-inflammation, anti-catabolic
- Effects: Sedating
- Aroma: Earthy and fruity
- Vaporizes at: 348° F (167 C)
- High levels found in: Mango Kush, Blackberry Kush, and U Pink Kush.
If you like the smell of lavender or mint, then you have linalool to thank. Linalool is found in 60-80 percent of perfumed hygiene products due to its pleasing odor. Pubchem warns that linalool can cause skin irritations and allergic reactions. When inhaled it can cause sedation and , in some cases, dizziness. There is some evidence that it could work as an anticonvulsant.
- Found in: Lavender, mint, and cinnamon.
- Common Uses: Anticonvulsant, antifungal, and antimicrobial.
- Effects: Sedation
- Aroma: Floral, Spicy, and Woody.
- Vaporizes at: 388.4° F (198 C)
- Example of Strains: Amnesia Haze, LA Confidential, and Purple Kush.
Terpinene is the term for a group of four terpenes. γ-Terpinene and δ-terpinene (commonly referred together as terpinolene) are two of the ones found in cannabis. Studies on mice found it to have sedative effect. It also might inhibit cell proliferation in-order to reduce cancer risk.
- Found in: Allspice and essential oils
- Common Uses: Insomnia
- Effects: Sedation
- Aroma: Pine
- Vaporizes at: 368.6° F (187 C)
- Example of Strains: Jack Herer, Pineapple Kush, and Pineapple Jack.
Science of Terpenes in Cannabis
During our research we stumbled on countless websites that seem to make all types of claims when it comes to terpenes. Do a little Googling and just look at the amount of articles claiming that a terpene will reduce inflammation, without ever citing any solid science or pointing out the contention in the scientific community.
For example, one site claimed that limonene prevents cancer. This misrepresents the fact that limonene was found to prevent cancer in mice. A finding that is very problematic when applying to humans consuming cannabis. In many of these studies, the scientists are injecting pure limonene into the mice or putting large quantities into their drinking water. Unless you plan to consume pure terpenes (which can be very hazardous and kill you, don’t do that), it’s impossible to tie that study directly into human cannabis consumption.
There are theories, but we really have no idea how terpenes work with cannabis, let alone how they work on humans.
One theory is that terpenes work together with the other compounds of cannabis to create what is known as the entourage effect. The entourage effect is the idea that THC alone doesn’t provide symptom relief, it’s the harmonization of every chemical in cannabis. This theory contradicts science’s long-held belief that THC is the primary molecule that influences how pot affects people.
Proponents of the entourage effect point to CBD’s medicinal benefits as proof of THC not being the primary factor in symptom relief. They also point to a few studies that suggest that cannabis use is more effective than pure THC at treating symptoms.
However, there have been no studies that prove that the entourage effect is real. In 2017, The Scientific American wrote an article that encompasses this very issue. It revealed that there has never been any double-blind studies on the entourage effect and that the science is simply lacking.
Although thousands of people attest to anecdotal experiences that the entourage effect is real, many scientists cite anecdotal evidence as not being enough.
“People have preconceived notions that a terpene will work for them…they have to do randomized clinical trials, where random people get real terpenes and the fake terpenes,” said Barth Wilsey, a medical cannabis researcher at the University of San Diego, in an interview with The Scientific American.
Final Thought on Terpenes
Hopefully, if cannabis ever becomes federally legal, scientists will be able to get the funding to figure out whether or not terpenes have all of the affects we feel they do. Until then, we simply don’t know and that’s okay.
Just because we don’t have all of the answers, doesn’t mean you have to stop looking for strains that have specific terpenes. Feel like myrcene helps you sleep? Go ahead and toke up some Mango Kush.