As a superfood, cannabis shares a lot of the same healing substances that other healing plants do. For example, cannabis contains phytonutrients just like sulforaphane-rich broccoli sprouts and resveratrol-heavy dark berries do. What sets cannabis apart, however, is the fact that, when it comes to healing, it is a true chameleon in the best sense of the word. The reason why it has such an effect on so many conditions is due in large part to the presence of terpenes within the plant and how these terpenes interact not only with other substances in the plant but with our own bodies through the endocannabinoid system.
What is a Terpene and Why Should I Care?
Terpenes in cannabis is a subject that is gaining significant attention in the medical world. It is now emerging that terpenes play an important and indispensable role in cannabinoid-based therapeutics. In simpler terms, terpenes are an integral part of medical cannabis. This is what makes it very important to understand terpenes for what they are and how to exploit their potential through the entourage effect.
Terpenes are what creates the unique aromatics of certain plants and gives them their “signature smell.” They are also the basis for essential oils therapy, another powerful healing modality.
Citrus fruits, for example, smell the way they do because of the limonene, a type of terpene that occurs within them. Cannabis strains that have limonene as a dominant terpene will have a dominant citrus smell. Lemon OG is a good example of such a strain.
Plants use terpenes to protect themselves from destructive insects, grazing animals, fungus and other harmful invaders. These “invaders” are put off by strong and unpleasant scents from some terpenes.
Terpenes are not only found in cannabis but they are also present in numerous other plants. Sweet smelling terpenes attract insect pollinators in plants that are pollinated in this way.
As essential nutritional substances, humans need terpenes as well to maintain health. Why do you think that nutritionists and doctors have proclaimed that the healthiest diet in the world is the Mediterranean diet? In part, it has to do with the terpene levels common in these foods.
Pinene can be found in pine nuts, caryophyllene in oregano and peppers and limonene in lemon zest. Because the Standard American Diet (SAD) is lacking in so many essential terpene substances, this is causing a deficiency in terpenes in most humans.
True to form, the cannabis plant does not just settle for one or two kinds of terpene to express, like rosemary or lavender does. Scientists, researchers and growers have discovered over 200 different kinds of terpenes in cannabis; some give off a unique odor and some do not. Of course, as growers and consumers get more specific in what kind of plants they want and need, the number of terpene combinations (i.e. strains) increases.
So why should you care about terpenes in cannabis? For two reasons. The first one is simple, terpenes influence how your body experiences the cannabinoids (such as THC and CBD) in cannabis. Allow us to use this “overused” example: if you are driving a car, the concentration of cannabinoids will determine how fast you go while the terpenes will determine how smooth the ride will be. So we ask, what’s the point of going fast if the ride is bumpy all the way?
For example, myrcene amplifies the effects of THC when it is present in a strain. Mangoes are a rich source of myrcene. Consuming mangoes an hour or so before using cannabis can result in a stronger THC effect.
The second reason is that terpenes have therapeutic benefits that can be harnessed to provide healing. On most occasions, the kind of terpenes within the plant usually correlate with specific healing effects of the cannabis strain. If you want to be targeted in healing your particular condition with cannabis, you will want to know what kinds of terpenes are in the marijuana you are currently using or are considering. The healing properties of terpenes in cannabis cannot be fully elucidated without a mention of the entourage effect.
The Entourage Effect
The “Entourage Effect” in cannabis therapy is the science of how terpenes and cannabinoids interact to treat specific diseases and conditions. The concept (and the phrase) was introduced in the late 1990’s by S. Ben-Shabat and Raphael Mechoulam of Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Several years back, pure isolates were considered as the gold standard for cannabinoid- based medicine. Having a pure and concentrated form of THC or CBD was the epitome of high-quality cannabis treatment. Recent research has however challenged this belief.
In 2015, researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem carried out a study to investigate the entourage mechanism. The study, which was titled “Overcoming the Bell-Shaped Dose-Response of Cannabidiol by Using Cannabis Extract Enriched in Cannabidiol” confirmed the value-addition that whole plant medicine has over pure isolates.
When a person’s starts consuming CBD or THC, the effects of the cannabinoid will increase progressively over time until a certain climax is attained. At this point, the effects plateau and they may even start decreasing with subsequent additions of the cannabinoid. Adding more CBD or THC will not have any added advantage. A bell shaped curve is formed which shows how the effects of cannabinoids taper off over time, after getting to a climax. However, when a whole plant extract is given, the effects are sustained and do not taper off. Therefore, this study proves that a full plant extract (containing extra cannabinoids and terpenes) provides a healing effect that is more powerful and prolonged than the one that is provided by an isolate. This forms the basis for the entourage effect.
The Entourage Effect is described as the end result of combining the different bioactive components in cannabis which includes cannabinoids, terpenes, flavonoids, and nutrients. As research has shown, the entourage effect provides a powerful and sustained healing effect that is greater than the sum of the individual parts.
The chemical composition of different cannabis strains will vary greatly. This partly explains why one ‘strain’/cultivar might produce a different effect from another. This Entourage Effect is the notion that the phytocomplex (the group of chemicals in the plant) are more effective in unison rather than when used in isolation. A full-spectrum CBD product will provide a more powerful healing effect than a CBD isolate.
Terpenes are seen as playing the second most important role in the Entourage Effect. When we are talking about the entourage effect, think of the operating functions of a vehicle. Cannabinoids such as THC or in this case CBD act as the engine which will get you moving. Terpenes are the steering wheel to that vehicle steering you in the direction of where you want to end up.
There are over 400 chemical compounds in a typical cannabis plant so while terpenes aren’t the only factors in determining a particular effect, they are definitely “major stakeholders” needed to achieve targeted healing. Other compounds that play a part in the overall “Entourage Effect” include esters, lactones, ketones, fatty acids, alcohols and steroids, just to name a few.
Breaking down Terpenes and Terpenoids
Terpenes are naturally occurring hydrocarbons based on combinations of the isoprene unit. Terpenoids are related compounds that include oxygen functionality or some rearrangement. However, the two terms are often used interchangeably.
There are also hemiterpenes, monoterpene, and sesquiterpenes.
- Hemiterpenes – are derived from just one Isoprene unit
- Monoterpenes – are built by two isoprenes
- Sesquiterpenes – are built by three
There are many debates within the cannabis and CBD industry in reference to these three terpenes as the distinguishing difference in sativas versus indicas.
In nature, there are about 50,000 different terpenes. Cannabis sativa has close to 250 unique terpenes that have been identified to date. However, just a handful have been investigated for their therapeutic potential. These are about 25 terpenes that are divided into primary and secondary terpenes.
Primary and Secondary Terpenes
Cannabis strains can be divided into primary and secondary terpenes. Primary terpenes determine how the plant looks, taste, and the unique aroma it gives off. They also participate in the healing properties of the strain. Secondary terpenes support and enhance the qualities of the primary terpenes.
The interplay between the primary and secondary terpenes will determine how users will experience the particular strain of cannabis. When choosing a cannabis strain, it is important to know which primary and secondary terpenes are present and understand their qualities and how this will influence your experience of the strain. Below is a detailed overview of the primary and secondary terpenes in cannabis.
Primary Terpenes in Cannabis and What They Do
As mentioned above, primary terpenes provide the unique aromas and healing effects that are primarily associated with cannabis strains. Here is a list of 9 primary terpenes that you are likely to come across as you look through the terpene profiles of different cannabis strains.
Myrcene is the most dominant terpene in most cannabis strains. In some strains it makes up to 60% of the terpene profile. It is found in high concentrations in hops, mangoes, sweet basil and cannabis.
Myrcene Aroma: earthy, herbal, skink-like
Myrcene effects: it acts as a calming agent for the body; as such it is a helpful substance for fighting insomnia. It also determines how much THC will eventually arrive and “lock in” to our neuro-receptors. Some theorize that this is done through myrcene’s ability to change the permeability of cellular membranes in order to allow THC and CBD to leave the bloodstream.
Myrcene is also vital for the formation of other terpenes.
One of the most important therapeutic benefits of myrcene is its use as an antibiotic (it helps to catalyze this potential in other terpenes it comes into contact with as well).
It is also an analgesic, antispasmodic, antibacterial, can assist in balancing diabetic conditions, can aid in soothing inflammatory responses and shows promise as an inhibitor of cellular mutations like cancer.
Strains with high amounts of Myrcene:
- Purple Urkle
- Blue Dream
- OG Kush
Pinene is a common terpene that derives its name from its “piney” scent. The most common form of vegetation this terpene can be found in is, of course, pine trees. It is also found in high amounts in turpentine, rosemary and cannabis.
Pinene Aroma: pine-like, herbal
Pinene Effects: pinene is significant for the endocannabinoid system because it forms the basis for the CB2 ligand, according to a study published in the British Journal of Pharmacology in 2011. Other studies show that pinene is beneficial for respiratory conditions, pain relief, calming inflammatory responses, and for fighting cancer.
It also appears to play a role in memory retention. Several studies have linked improved memory retention in Alzheimer’s patients to THC in certain marijuana strains. Some speculate that the way in which pinene and THC works together plays an important part in this particular effect.
Strains with high amounts of Pinene:
- Double Dream
- Grape Ape
- Pineapple Express
- Citrus Sap
- Shark Shock
Limonene is most known for its presence in citrus fruit and for its one-of-a-kind tangy-bitter odor and taste. It is found in high amounts in fruits like lemon, orange and grapefruit, and spices such as rosemary, peppermint, and juniper. It can also be found in many different strains of cannabis.
Limonene Aroma: Citrusy, sweet
Limonene Effects: Limonene is a powerful healer by itself and also has a great effect as part of the “Entourage” for cannabis therapy. Therapeutic effects include digestive relief, anti-fungal, a natural treatment for anxiety and depression, and a powerful stimulator for the immune system. This last effect makes it a powerful ally in healing cancer, something that scientists have been studying for years.
Strains with high amounts of Limonene:
- Lemon Haze
- Durban Poison
- Jack the Ripper
- Lemon Meringue
- Lemon OG
- Black Cherry Soda
Linalool is a terpene that is most known for its presence in the relaxing herb lavender, which has been used as a sleep aid for thousands of years. It is abundant in Kush strains where it offers mood-elevating qualities.
Linalool Aroma: lavender-like, tropical, floral, spicy
Linalool is vital for the production of many essential elements in the body, including vitamin E. Besides its ability to calm the nervous system for stress reduction, Linalool is known as an anti-inflammatory. It has also shown promise as an anti-seizure/anticonvulsant agent. A 2010 Brazilian study of three types of linalool terpenes in mice found that all three helped dissipate convulsive responses. Could the presence of linalool in some strains of cannabis add to its known effectiveness for pediatric seizures and seizures in adults? Hopefully time (and research) will tell.
Strains with high amounts of Linalool:
- Kosher Kush
- Grandaddy Purple
Humulene is most prominently found in hops as well as sage, coriander, ginseng and cannabis. It is similar to Myrcene in many ways.
Humulene Aroma: herbal, musky
Humulene Effects: this is a sesquiterpene and, as such, is a powerfully healing substance. Like many terpenes, it also has anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects. It has shown to be an appetite suppressant and can help with allergies.
Humulene may also have an effect on promoting cancer cell apoptosis (cell death) through something called the Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS). More studies are needed to determine just how humulene affects this process to help fight cancer.
Lastly, Humulene has antiinflammatory effects on the respiratory tract which makes it suitable for treating allergic inflammation of the airways.
Strains with high amounts of Humulene:
- Candy land
- Original Glue
- Death Star
- Girl scout cookies
- White Widow
This is a unique terpene that provides a spicy twist to cannabis strains. It gives cloves and black pepper their rich smell and taste. Structurally, it is similar to Humulene.
Caryophyllene Effects: Like many cannabinoids, beta-caryophyllene binds to the CB2 receptor, found mostly in the immune system. Beta-caryophyllene is antibacterial and antiseptic, and it eases inflammation, nerve pain, ulcers, and depression.
Strains with high amounts of Caryophyllene:
- Sour Diesel
- Bubba Kush
- Girl Scout Cookies
Ocimene is a terpene that is common in sativa strains. In nature, it is also present in spices such as mint, tarragon, parsley, and marjoram.
Ocimene Aroma: herbal, spicy
This terpene has potent cerebral effects that are useful in clearing the mind and easing away stress and tension. It also decongests the respiratory tract and acts as an expectorant.
Strains with high amounts of Ocimene:
- Super Lemon Haze
- White Fire OG
- Strawberry Cough
- Space Queen
This is a sweet smelling terpene that is common in lilacs, apples, and cumin. It is also common in Haze strains of cannabis and because of its sweet smell it is often used to scent soaps and perfumes.
Terpinolene Aroma: sweet, lilac, spicy
Terpinolene is mostly used as an insecticide. It is also used as a sedative.
Strains with high amounts of Ocimene:
- Ghost Train Haze
- Super Lemon Haze
- Dutch Treat
- Jack Herer
- Orange Cookies
Camphene is a pervasive terpene that has the smell of damp woodlands. Apart from cannabis, it is also present in camphor oil, valerian root, mangoes, and cypress oil.
Camphene Aroma: woody, herbal
It is most useful in lowering bad cholesterol levels and therefore be incorporated in the treatment of cardiovascular disease.
Strains with high amounts of Camphene:
- Sweet Tooth
- Wonka Bars
- Pink Kush
- Bruce Banner
- White Cookies
Secondary Terpenes in Cannabis and What They Do
Secondary terpenes exist in smaller quantities in cannabis strains, in as much as they are not as prominent, they still offer significant benefits by supporting the entourage mechanism.
This terpene is common ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine. It occurs naturally in camphor, thyme, ginger, and rosemary.
Borneol Aroma: herbal, minty
Borneol Effects: this terpene has antiinflammatory properties and can be used topically to relieve pain. It has also been used to improve blood circulation and aid digestion.
Strains with high amounts of Borneol:
- Amnesia Haze
- Golden Haze
Phytol is a terpene that has very faint notes and exists in minute quantities in cannabis strains. It is also found in green tea, seaweed, and spices such as tarragon and basil.
Phytol Aroma: grassy, floral
Phytol has antiseptic properties and is therefore used in wound care and antibiotic therapy. It is also used to ease stress and anxiety. Phytol is a common ingredient in antiseptics, detergents, cosmetics, and shampoos. Lastly, it is used as a diluent for cannabis vapes.
Strains with high amounts of Phytol:
- Sour Diesel
- Banana Kush
- OG cheese
Terpineol is a secondary terpene that is present in most strains that contain pinene. It is made up of a combination of four monoterpene alcohol isomers. It also occurs naturally in lilacs, eucalyptus, pine trees, and lime blossoms.
Terpineol Aroma: sweet, piney, lilac
This is a relaxing terpene that is used to enhance aromatherapy. It also offers antimalarial properties. It has potential abilities as a sedative, antibiotic, antitumour, and anxiolytic.
Strains with high amounts of Terpineol:
- Blue Dream
- Skywalker OG
- Girl Scout Cookies
- Jack Flash
Phellandrene is a terpene that is common in eucalyptus. It exists in two forms: alpha and beta and these two forms are often mistaken for Pinene and Limonene respectively. It is also found in dill, black pepper, ginger grass, and parsley.
Phellandrene Aroma: spicy, herbal
This terpene is commonly used to relieve digestive issues. It has antifungal properties and since it is easily absorbed through the skin, it is used in topical antifungals. Phellandrene also has strong analgesic properties.
Strains with high amounts of Phellandrene:
- Jack Frost
- Dog walker OG
Delta-3-carene is a common terpene in juniper, cedar, pine, and cypress oil. It occurs in small amounts in cannabis strains.
Carene Aroma: sweet, herbal, spicy
Carene Effects: this terpene has anticholinergic effects and may be used to dry out secretions in the chest. However, it can cause irritation. It also facilitates bone healing.
Strains with high amounts of Carene:
- Cherry Pie
- Green Mountain
- Dragon Fruit
- Super Silver Haze
This is a “minty” terpene that is common in peppermint and spearmint. It has a cooling and calming effect and is therefore useful in aromatherapy.
Pulegone Aroma: peppermint
Pulegone Effects: this terpene has anti-fever and sleep promoting effects. It also boosts nerve function and counters the short-term memory loss triggered by the consumption of high amounts of THC.
Strains with high amounts of Pulegone:
- Auto Lavender
- Kaya 47
- Pineapple Kush
This is a “forest terpene” that is common in forest trees such as Holm Oaks and Norway Spruce.
Sabinebe Aroma: warm, citrusy, peppery
Sabinene Effects: it has anti-inflammatory as well as anti-oxidative properties. It also promotes saliva secretion and promotes digestion.
Strains with high amounts of Sabinene:
- Red Dragon
- Green Dragon
This terpene is a common ingredient in mouth washes and cough medications. It is abundant in eucalyptus trees. It is also referred to as cineol.
Eucalyptol Aroma: minty, fresh
This terpene can be used to clear the airways and relieve symptoms of asthma. It also has immunosuppressive properties that make it useful in managing auto-immune conditions.
Strains with high amounts of Eucalyptol:
- Dutch Treat
- London Pound Cake
- Ace of Spades
- GMO Cookies
Geraniol is also called lemonol and it is abundant in geraniums. It is a sweet and pleasant terpene and commonly used in bath foams, beauty soaps, and scented cigarettes.
Geraniol Aroma: fruity, sweet
It has insecticidal properties and is used to repel mosquitoes. It also has antioxidant and antibacterial properties. One study has demonstrated geraniol’s anti-tumor effects.
Strains with high amounts of Geraniol:
- OG Shark
- Amnesia Haze
- Master Kush
- Master Kush
CBD Terpene Tinctures
You are probably thinking to yourself, “OK, this is interesting but what does this have to do with me?” While it may not seem useful to you, here’s why it should matter.
CBD Terpene Tinctures may have some health benefits. If you’ve ever gotten a massage with scented oils or taken a bath with lavender, or used aromatherapy products, then terpenes matter to you. They affect your mood, can alter your mental state, and help you to relax and remain calm. Topically applied, terpenes may also have some benefits by helping to relieve discomfort in muscles and joints.
So there you have it, yet another component of the miraculous healing plant called cannabis. As this series comes to an end, we hope that you now have a better understanding of how cannabis works with the body through the endocannabinoid system as well as how the various substances — namely THC, CBD and terpenes—work together to create balance and healing in your body.
When choosing the right strain of cannabis for your health needs, you should consider terpenes as well as cannabinoids. Many medical cannabis dispensaries list the terpene content of each strain, and a trained budtender can help you find a strain that has higher amounts of the terpenes that will help you most.