Terpenes are a class of hydrocarbon-based compounds that give cannabis its unique smell. In our piece on beta-caryophyllene, we showed that terpenes (the smell of the cannabis plant) and cannabinoids are not separate, but work together to impart unique effects (the entourage effect). You will also see the term terpenoids used. Terpenoids are a class of terpenes, but are modified chemically in some way to act differently when ingested. (Usually the terpene is oxidized, meaning combined with oxygen.)
Cannabinoids and terpenes share the same chemical precursor, geranyl phosphate, and beta-caryophyllene is both a terpenoid and cannabinoid. This means that terpenes and cannabinoids are linked. Check out our cannabinoid-terpene table if you would like a handy reference to go back to whenever you need to look up what effect a particular cannabinoid or terpene/terpenoid has. Or you can download it directly!
Free Cannabinoid and Terpene Guide
Terpenes can control the amount of THC that crosses the blood-brain barrier (BBB). This just goes to show that cannabinoids and terpenes have a complex relationship and that the two should be seen as important as each other. In fact, alongside cannabinoid ratios, terpenes will give you the best indication of what effect a particular product will likely have.
This is important because the huge range of products and strain names will end up bamboozling you. Whilst there are some differences between some varieties of cannabis from certain gene pools, hybridization and mislabelling has bought many of them closer together. This means it is possible to get a wide range of cannabinoid and terpene profiles from a single variety or strain of cannabis.
Free Infographic Guide to Cannabinoids
Some of the Most Common Terpenes Found in Medical Marijuana / Cannabis
Alpha and Beta Pinene
Pinene is what gives some cannabis varieties its “pine” like smell. Pinene is also found in pine needles, dill, parsley, rosemary, and basil. Pinene’s effects include alertness, memory retention, and counteracting some of the negative effects of THC. Useful for asthmatics due to pinene’s bronchodilator effects. Pinene also has antibacterial and antiseptic properties and could be used for superbug treatment and antibiotic resistance.
Myrcene is an antioxidant, anticarcinogenic, anti-inflammatory and antidepressant. Myrcene is found in hops, mango, lemongrass, and thyme, and can have sleepy effects. Myrcene may combine with THC and CBN to increase this sleepy effect. Myrcene also seems to target TRPV1 (vanilloid) receptors, which may help contribute to cannabis’s anti-inflammatory effects.
Limonene is responsible for that “citrus” or “lemony” aroma and taste found in some strains. Limonene is found in fruit rinds, juniper berries, peppermint, and rosemary. Limonene can elevate the mood and provide stress relief. Limonene, when combined with other of the “sleepier” terpenes, can actually help aid sleep. In higher doses and mixed with pinene, THC, and THCV, and the effect becomes more energetic. In this sense, terpenes and terpenoids can have biphasic effects, just like cannabinoids, i.e. the same compound can have different effects at different dosages.
Linalool is a terpene also found in lavender and jasmine, giving an air freshener-like smell. Linalool is useful for anxiety relief and sedation, and also has anticonvulsant, antidepressant, and anti-acne properties. Combined with THC, some CBD, CBN, and myrcene, and you have something that can be very useful for chronic pain and insomnia! Linalool could be a positive allosteric modulator of the GABAA receptor, which could be why it has sedative effects (i.e. it turns up the GABA receptor’s volume, allowing GABA to have even greater effects).
Beta-caryophyllene, sometimes just called caryophyllene, has antinociceptive (pain-blocking), neuroprotective, anxiolytic, and antidepressant effects. Beta-caryophyllene is a selective agonist of the CB2 receptor, making it a cannabinoid as well as a terpenoid. Beta-caryophyllene can be used for the treatment of pain, cancer, inflammation, addiction (particularly alcohol and opiate/opioid addiction), anxiety, depression, epilepsy, and fungal and bacterial infections.
Earthy, woody, spicy aromas and flavors are usually associated with humulene and occur naturally in clove, basil, and hops. Due to its smell, humulene is sometimes also referred to as alpha-caryophyllene. Humulene has antibacterial, antitumor, analgesic, and anti-inflammatory properties. Humulene may also combine with THCV and have appetite-suppressant effects.
Terpineol is a monoterpene alcohol that can be found in pine, tea tree, cajuput, and petitgrain oil. Monoterpenes are a class of terpenes that consist of two isoprene units and have the molecular formula C10H16. Terpineol has a lilac, floral, peach, or pine smell with a taste that has been described as fruity, minty, lime-like, or anise-like. Terpineol can combine with other cannabinoids for anti-inflammatory effects, as well as act as a gastroprotective and kill bacteria. Terpineol can also combine with CBD and CBDV for its anticonvulsant effects, which could be useful for epilepsy.
Many terpenes in cannabis can have a sweet, citrus, flowery smell, and bisabolol is one of them. Chamomile and candeia trees contain high quantities of bisabolol. Bisabolol has anti-irritant, antitumor, antioxidant, antimicrobial, and analgesic properties. Bisabolol can have a light psychoactive effect and could combine with THC to produce more powerful effects. Bisabolol could be useful for reducing inflammation associated with skin problems.
Trans-nerolidol has antiparasitic, antifungal and antimicrobial properties, and could well inhibit the growth of leishmaniasis (a disease caused by protozoan parasites spread by sandfly bites). Nerolidol has also exhibited strong antimalarial activity.
The Effects of Terpenes
Terpenes have a significant impact on how cannabis users feel and the effects medical marijuana has on a person’s symptoms and overall quality of life. A combination of terpenes like limonene, pinene and beta-caryophyllene with THC, CBD and THCV can provide more energizing effects, whilst a combination of myrcene, humulene and linalool would be more relaxing.
There are so many variables that affect what sort of cannabinoid and terpene profile shows up in a particular strain. The environment the plant was grown in, when it was harvested, how long it has been curing for, and much more. The end result can be that an indica variety can have a sativa effect, as those are the sorts of cannabinoids and terpenes expressed!
With all this being said, there are some breeders who take their genetic lineage seriously, and what is on the label is true (or as true as possible considering that the cannabis plant has been passed throughout the world). Some breeders do breed for specific attributes, but they cannot control for the environment you are growing in, let alone the genetic drift that cannabis plants go through every time a new seed is grown out.
This means that you cannot guarantee a certain terpene profile from a particular strain of cannabis. You may get broad similarities, but the terpenes present in a particular variety of cannabis can change from generation-to-generation.
If you would like to learn more about how cannabinoids and terpenes can be used for a specific condition, check out our conditions page.