What Are Terpenes and What Do They Do?

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Terpenes are the unsung hero of any good cannabis experience. They’re what give your cannabis that distinct aroma and flavor, and oftentimes, they’re also a contributing factor in how your cannabis makes you feel.

Terpenes are not unique to cannabis. You may know them as the essential oils secreted by the sticky resin glands of many plants, herbs, and fruits—the ones that make pine smell pine-y or citrus smell citrusy. But more than that, research has shown that naturally occurring terpenes in plants like cannabis can benefit our health.

What can terpenes do for you?

The medicinal properties of terpenes are distinct from those of cannabinoids—the compounds found in the cannabis plant like CBD (cannabidiol) or THC (tetrahydrocannabinol). But when cannabinoids like CBD and THC work in concert with terpenes a.k.a the “entourage effect,” the effect and efficacy can be altered.

As with all things research and cannabis, we’re still wading into the science, but what we know is that terpenes hold promise when it comes to relaxing the body and mind and acting as therapeutic agents. Just think of how you use terpenes in everyday life to trigger certain effects: You might use lavender, for example, to help get calm. This works because of the presence of a terpene called linalool—which also happens to be a naturally occurring terpene in cannabis.

Why is there a sudden interest in terpenes?

The idea with terpenes—and the case for more research—is that by carefully controlling cannabis formulations, we will be able to create very targeted benefits and experiences. Terpenes hold an incredible amount of power to do that.

As we move away from a categorization of cannabis based on strains—an antiquated taxonomy which experts have abandoned—the conversation around cannabis will change a lot. We will start to hear a lot more talk of terpene profiles and cannabinoid ratios (CBD to THC ratios, for example). And isn't that what we’re all looking for? A better way to predict an experience and an easier way to replicate it.

What terpenes should you look out for?

There are so many terpenes, but of the naturally occurring cannabis terpenes, these are some of the ones that we’re most excited about—either because we love the way they taste, smell and/or make us feel.

Linalool Commonly found in lavender, this is the terpene we’ve grown up associating with a good night’s sleep. It has a delicate floral aroma. It helps with:

  • Relaxation
  • Encouraging sedation
  • Managing pain

Bisabolol This terp is most commonly associated with chamomile and has a sweet, floral aroma. It's beloved for its anti-microbial, antibiotic, and analgesic properties and has even shown promise as a cancer-fighter in some studies. It may help with:

  • Relief
  • Inflammation

Pinene Commonly found in pine needles, rosemary, and basil, this is the terp we associate with that bright, fresh aroma of the outdoors. Users says it helps to:

  • Increase alertness
  • Improve memory retention
  • Treat as an antiseptic
  • Counteract some THC effects

Humulene Humulene is also present in clove, basil, and hops. It has an earthy, woodsy aroma. It may help with:

  • Suppressing hunger
  • Reducing inflammation

Limonene Commonly found in fruit rinds and peppermint, we know this terpene because it’s what gives citrus fruits that burst. It’s known for helping to:

  • Enhance mood
  • Reduce heartburn
  • Reduce gallstones
  • Treat as an anti-fungal and anti-bacterial
  • Treat gastrointenstical complications, heartburn, and depression

Myrcene Commonly found in mango, lemongrass, thyme, and hops. It has a spicy, earthy aroma and taste. It could help to:

  • Relieve muscle tension
  • Act as an anti-inflammatory
  • Produce a soothing effect
  • Increase the effects of THC

Caryophyllene Commonly found in black pepper and cloves, this terpene is popular for balancing the system. It may help:

  • Manage the symptoms of arthritis
  • Increase gastro-protectiveness
  • Reduce inflammation

What should you be looking for?

There’s a lot to absorb when it comes to terpenes. For one, there are naturally occurring terpenes and synthetic terpenes. Naturally occurring terpenes are one of two things: Either they’re the terpenes found in the cannabis plant, or they’re naturally occurring terpenes found in other plants but retroactively introduced to a cannabis product to elicit a certain taste, smell, and effect that might not be natural to cannabis.

What complicates understanding naturally-occurring terpenes is that even when a product uses terpenes exclusively found in cannabis, they will often extract the terpenes during manufacturing and reintroduce them at the end—a process known as reterpening. And while this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it does add some extra steps when it comes to how processed your end product is. There are plenty of products that don’t do this, however.

Where we start to wander off-piste is around synthetic terpenes, which can be genetically engineered to behave very similarly to a naturally occurring terpenes, but in the end, are not real. There’s no right or wrong answer here because we still don’t have enough research. But if you’re an all-natural type, be aware of the distinction, and the ways that brands can mislead you on this particular point.

This past year or two has put all sorts of new attention on cannabis and specifically, on CBD. But very little attention has been paid to other aspects of the plant like terpenes, flavonoids, and the hundred or so other cannabinoids. May this be the moment we all start to give a little more credence to a holistic view of both our health and the potential of this plant.