In this article we’ll discuss:
What are terpenes? Terpenes are compounds found in plants, often offering protection by repelling predators and attracting pollinators. Terpenes are generally known, however, for their distinct aromas. They are the unsung heroes of cannabis (though they are not exclusive to cannabis plants and are found all across the plant kingdom).
However, these special compounds are much more than just something that makes your flower smell nice. They also make a big difference in how your cannabis affects you. Terpenes are also largely responsible for everything from the type of high you feel to any therapeutic effects cannabis provides.
If you’ve ever looked closely at a cannabis plant, you’ve probably noticed the sticky, clear crystals that cover the flower. All that gooey goodness is a result of trichomes, which are little factories that produce everything from different types of cannabinoids to terpenes. If you look at a trichome under a microscope, you’ll notice that it looks like a little hair with a rounded head at the tip. While there are different types of trichomes, it’s the terpenes they produce that are important.
Terpenes give cannabis very distinctive smells and colors, though they aren’t just produced for human enjoyment. The evolutionary purpose of this compound is to either attract or fend off insects that are drawn to or repelled by the scents the plant produces. Further, there isn’t just one terpene compound. In fact, scientists have identified more than 100 different types of terpenes in the cannabis plant alone. Each one has a unique smell, and more importantly, they each have a different effect on the human body.
On a very basic level, the so-called “entourage effect” is when all these different compounds work together to give the specific effect of each cannabis strain. A very simple example of the entourage effect is the cannabinoids THC and CBD. By itself, some find that THC can produce unpleasant feelings of anxiety and paranoia, in addition to the high it creates. But when combined with CBD, THC is tolerated much better by users because CBD has a counteractive calming effect. The two elements work to counteract each other for a more balanced effect. However, even this simple entourage effect between CBD and THC isn’t completely understood.
So where do terpenes fit into all this? Cannabis has over 400 different compounds, some more important than others. This means that terpenes don’t work solo. They combine with THC, CBD, and all those other compounds to produce what is called the entourage effect. THC is the compound that gets the most attention because it’s responsible for the “high” users feel. But all those unique effects from different strains of cannabis is a result of how THC interacts with all the other compounds, including terpenes. The science behind the entourage effect is not well known and is still being studied. Scientific progress is relatively slow in this field because of the continuing prohibition on marijuana in many places.
Every terpene has a unique profile that includes everything from the aroma to the many ways it affects the body. While over 100 different terpenes have been identified, there are a few common ones with distinct profiles that are more well known.
Myrcene is the most abundant terpene found in cannabis, it typically represents over 20% of a cannabis plant's terpene profile and has been seen to make up to 65% of a plant's terpene profile. Strains that contain .5% or more myrcene in their terpene profile are typically classified as indica strains and provide a more sedative effect. Myrcene is also commonly found in hops - a cousin to the cannabis plant!
For example, pinene is a terpene that smells like pine (pretty straightforward, right?). The profile of pinene seems to include many benefits like helping with asthma, pain, and anxiety. It is also known to give the user an energetic feeling, and to help with memory retention. Pinene can also counteract some of the more negative effects of THC, mainly anxiety. Another fun fact about pinene: it can also be found in pine needles, rosemary, orange peels, and basil.
Another common terpene is limonene, which has a fruity, citrus aroma. Limonene is known to elevate a person’s mood and relieve stress. This terpene can also help with anxiety, depression, and inflammation. It’s important to note that cannabis flower with a lemon smell doesn’t necessarily mean it contains limonene. This is why it’s important to buy lab-tested products that give the exact amount of limonene, when possible.
There are also terpenes that are believed to help relieve nausea in cancer patients caused by chemotherapy. Other terpenes can help a person relax at night, or even help with insomnia. Many work well against pain, seemingly making certain strains of cannabis a viable alternative to opioids.
The above terpenes are two very common ones, but are just the tip of the iceberg.
Without terpenes, your cannabis might get you high, but it wouldn’t have any of the other characteristic effects that many strains are known for. The next time you take a whiff of your flower and enjoy the aroma, remember that the terpenes responsible for that smell are doing much more work than your nose realizes.
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