You might have noticed that not all cannabis strains smell the same. Pine, berry, mint… There are more than a few distinctive fragrances in cannabis.
Cannabis has a unique smell. Some people find it unpleasant and overwhelming, while most weed enthusiasts find it very calming and enjoyable. Just like any other plant, pot has components that are responsible for its unique aroma and flavor.
Those components are terpenes, aromatic molecules secreted inside the tiny resin glands of cannabis flowers.
Terpenes produce a citrusy aroma in some strains, fruity and sweet notes in others and, while some may smell and taste like lavender, others can be more earthy and pungent. Certain strains even smell like cheese. But, it’s not all about the smell.
Terpenes also produce a wide range of medical effects and there are at least 80-100 terpenes unique to cannabis—the combination of terpenes, cannabinoids and optimal dosage is responsible for the entire success of medical cannabis.
What are terpenes?
Terpenes are organic chemicals constituents of essential oils produced by most plants, and even some animals such as swallowtail butterflies and termites. Terpenes are volatile aromatic molecules—molecules that evaporate easily.
Terpenoids are derivatives of terpenes that have additional atoms due to oxidation, which is what happens when a cannabis flower is dried and cured. The two terms are often used interchangeably and they are pretty much similar in a way.
Terpenes have two very important roles in every plant’s life: They are the primary component of resin and they protect the flowers from predators.
Many industries are using terpenes for making essential oils, health and beauty products—they are even used for making perfumes. Synthetic terpenes are used for flavoring and as food additives.
Here are a few more fun facts about terpenes: Natural rubber is made of them, as are many steroids. Maple syrup contains about 300 different terpenes, which is why it’s so yummy.
But what about cannabis?
Terpenes give each strain its unique smell and taste. Not only that but they also enhance the health effects of cannabis by influencing how we process cannabinoids.
Let’s explore this in more detail.
How terpenes influence the high?
What we usually consume from cannabis are flowers.
And just like all other flowers, cannabis flowers have their own recognizable scent.
As I’ve mentioned earlier, there are about 120 terpenes in cannabis.
They are synthesized in the tiny resin glands of cannabis flowers alongside cannabinoids like THC and CBD.
Some of the common cannabis terpenes can be found in other plants, while others are exclusive to cannabis.
But, it’s not all about the smell, as terpenes also have many therapeutic properties: They interact with the endocannabinoid system and assist cannabinoids in entering the bloodstream through a process called the entourage effect.
Myrcene, for instance, increases cell permeability and allows cannabinoids to get absorbed faster than they would get on their own.
Limonene is responsible for increasing serotonin levels, a neurotransmitter in charge of our mood. This explains why different strains may have different effects on our mood. The whole cannabis experience is suddenly starting to make sense, right?
Terpenes and the “Entourage Effect” explained
The “Entourage Effect” is a term coined by S. Ben-Shabat and Raphael Mechoulam back in 1998, to represent the biological synergy of cannabinoids and other compounds like flavonoids and terpenes. (1)
Simply put, when we ingest terpenes with cannabinoids (a likely scenario when consuming a whole-plant product), they form a synergistic relationship, playing off on each other’s strengths.
This symbiosis between cannabinoids and terpenes is what gives cannabis its special powers, as it improves the absorption of cannabinoids, overcomes bacterial defense mechanisms and minimizes side effects.
At what temperature do terpenes break down?
Every terpene breaks down at a different temperature: Some smaller terpenes will start breaking down at 21°C (70°F) and others may begin to break down at 37°C (100°F).
Boiling temperatures of terpenes also vary, but generally they start boiling at 155°C (311°F). For example, myrcene boils at 166°C (330°F).
What are the proven health benefits of terpenes?
Some terpenes are very effective in relieving stress, others are great when you need to relax, and some are awesome for boosting focus. There are many options here, as you’ll have a chance to see in the next few minutes.
Take myrcene, one of the most abundant terpenes in cannabis, which is responsible for inducing sleep. Or limonene, the citrusy messenger in charge for making us feel uplifted after smoking a joint.
In recent years, cannabis terpenes have become an important subject of scientific research.
It was Jürg Gertsch who first noticed the ability of beta-caryophyllene to bind to CB2 receptors, calling it “a dietary cannabinoid”. (2)
He also concluded that all green vegetables that contain this terpene are extremely beneficial for human use.
Shortly after that, Dr. Ethan Russo published an article in 2011, in the British Journal of Pharmacology, and pointed out to the therapeutic properties of terpenes in cannabis, especially those missing in cannabis products that only contain a single molecule (CBD oil as a primary example). (3)
Dr. Russo also described the cannabinoid-terpene interaction as a “synergy with respect to treatment of pain, inflammation, depression, anxiety, addiction, epilepsy, cancer, fungal and bacterial infections”.
Further research discovered that terpenes, terpenoids and cannabinoids all have the ability to kill respiratory pathogens, for instance, the MRSA virus.
List of 15 most commonly found terpenes in cannabis
Since there are around 120 terpenes in cannabis, it would take us a while to go over each of them in great detail.
Instead, here are some of the most abundant terpenes found in cannabis flowers today.
Myrcene is the most abundant terpene in cannabis, which is where it’s mostly found in nature. In fact, one study showed that myrcene makes up as much as 65% of total terpene profile in some strains. (4)
The smell of Myrcene often reminds us of earthy, musky notes, similar to cloves. It also has a fruity, red grape-like aroma.
Strains that contain 0.5% of this terpene are usually indicas, packed full of sedative effects. Myrcene is also supposedly useful in reducing inflammation and chronic pain, which is why it’s usually recommended as a supplement during cancer treatments.
Strains that are rich in myrcene are Skunk XL, White Widow, and Special Kush.
Bonus tip: If you want to experience a stronger buzz from marijuana, eat a mango about 45 minutes before smoking. Mango contains a significant amount of myrcene, so eating it before consuming cannabis will strengthen the effects of THC and increase the absorption rate of other cannabinoids.
Limonene is the second most abundant terpene in cannabis, but not all strains necessarily have it.
As the name itself says, limonene produces a citrusy smell that resembles lemons, which is no surprise as all citrus fruits contain large amounts of this compound. Limonene is used in cosmetics and also in cleaning products.
When it comes to its therapeutic purposes, limonene is a mood-booster and a stress-crusher. Researchers also found it to have anti-fungal and antibacterial properties, with one study even announcing that limonene may play a role in reducing tumor size. (5)
Getting a hold of this terpene is easy — strains that have “lemon” or “sour” in their name are usually rich in limonene.
Some good examples of these are O.G. Kush, Sour Diesel, Super Lemon Haze, Durban Poison, Jack Herer, and Jack the Ripper.
If you’ve ever wondered what makes cannabis smell the way it does, myrcene and linalool are to blame. With its spicy and floral notes, this terpene is one of the most abundant in the majority of strains out there and, together with myrcene produces that pungent and spicy scent.
Linalool can also be found in lavender, mint, cinnamon, and coriander. What’s interesting is that just like those aromatic herbs, linalool also produces sedation and relaxation.
Patients suffering from arthritis, depression, seizures, insomnia and even cancer, have all found relief with this amazing terpene.
Some well-known linalool strains are Amnesia Haze, Special Kush, Lavender, LA Confidential, and OG Shark.
Best known for its spicy and peppery note, caryophyllene is also found in black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, and spices like oregano, basil, and rosemary.
Beta-caryophyllene binds to CB2 receptors, which makes it an ingredient in anti-inflammatory topicals and creams. Caryophyllene is the only terpene that binds to cannabinoid receptors.
Besides its analgesic and anxiolytic properties, some studies have found that caryophyllene has a very promising role in alcohol rehabilitation.
A group of scientists performed research on mice and found that this terpene reduces the voluntary intake of alcohol. They even recommended caryophyllene for treating alcohol withdrawal symptoms. (6)
Strains like Super Silver Haze, Skywalker and Rock Star are all rich in caryophyllene.