As aromatherapy enthusiasts know, scents can change our mood and cause physiological effects. For instance, makers of massage oils and bubble bath formulas trade on lavender’s soothing qualities. Citrus oils, such as those found in lemon and orange rinds, are often incorporated into cleaning products and are experienced as uplifting and energizing. Countless other naturally occurring scents are used in various products and modalities to promote health and well-being.
What aromatherapy enthusiasts may not know is that the plant compounds, or terpenes, responsible for these scents are also found in cannabis.
Terpenes are produced by trichomes, the sticky, crystal-like resin nodes covering the cannabis flower.
Cannabis exhibits around 200 scent-rich terpenes responsible for the way it makes itself known to our noses — from the distinctive “skunky” smell many associate with the plant, to the varied fruity, floral and culinary fragrances often present. Since THC and CBD are both odorless, it’s the terpenes you’re smelling.
In fact, some cannabis educators claim that sniffing cannabis flowers in search of one that is most appealing to your senses may actually be an effective way to find your best medicine.
Terpenes are known to contribute to the entourage effect, or the mechanism through which various cannabis compounds work together to provide relief.
In the British Journal of Pharmacology, neurologist Dr. Ethan Russo investigated whether terpenes in cannabis “could produce synergy with respect to treatment of pain, inflammation, depression, anxiety, epilepsy, cancer, fungal and bacterial infections,” and found largely encouraging results.
[Image of a hemp flower by Evan Anderson.]
Here are five of the most commonly occurring terpenes in cannabis and their therapeutic uses:
When present in cannabis, the terpene responsible for lavender’s floral scent has anti-anxiety properties. In conjunction with THC, linalool promotes sedation, sleep and pain relief. CBD and linalool enhance one another’s anti-convulsant effects—increasing their usefulness for those with epilepsy. Strains related to Grand Daddy Purple usually test higher in linalool. Pink Kush and LA Confidential are two more linalool-rich choices.
Naturally occurring in hops, thyme, mangoes and lemongrass, myrcene is the most common terpene found in cannabis. Its scent is described as earthy or smoky, and its effect is both anti-inflammatory and deeply relaxing. Indica or hybrid strains known for their “couch lock” effect, such as White Widow and Special Kush 1, are high in myrcene. In addition, this terpene has pain relieving and anti-inflammatory properties that work in harmony with CBD and CBG.
The sharp citrus scent of limonene is associated with the energizing and mood-boosting properties of certain strains. It’s also thought to have antibacterial, antifungal and anti-cancer effects. In conjunction with CBD, its mental benefits are well-observed, from anti-depressant actions to support for anxiety. Combined with THC, it’s thought to help with acid reflux or GERD. High-energy sativa like Super Lemon Haze and Durban Poison have larger concentrations of limonene.
One of the most abundant terpenes in nature, commonly found in pine needles, rosemary and sage, pinene acts as a bronchodilator, increasing airflow to the lungs and therefore helpful for those with asthma. It promotes alertness and energy, and has been used medicinally as an anti-inflammatory and antiseptic. Additionally, pinene is thought to help offset anxiety, paranoia and short-term memory loss associated with THC use. Strains like Jack Herer and Trainwreck are both high in pinene.
Found abundantly in high-CBD strains, b-caryophyllene also gives its spicy scent to black pepper, cloves and hops. Combined with CBD, it’s known to provide pain relief; in conjunction with THC, it may have protective effects on the gastrointestinal system. It’s also been found effective in reducing alcohol cravings in mice. Its ability to bind to the body’s CB2 receptors gives it an advantage in treating inflammation and autoimmune disorders.
In addition to their own health benefits, terpenes have been shown in some cases to enhance, and in others to mitigate, the psychoactive properties of THC. Many cannabis strains have similarly high THC percentages, so the differences in each strain’s effects may come more from its terpene makeup than from its THC content.
Labs like California’s Werc Shop are able to identify a strain’s genetic identity through analyzing its terpene “fingerprint” and thereby help producers make, and consumers choose, the most beneficial strains for different purposes.
Because terpenes tend to burn off at fairly low temperatures, many CBD oils and vaping products probably don’t contain naturally-occurring terpenes. Some companies choose to add terpenes after the extraction process in order to enhance the flavor and benefit of the oil. For now, the best way to benefit from cannabis’ full terpene profile is to smoke or vape flower, so-called “whole plant medicine.”
Yet as incremental legalization progresses through the U.S., it’s likely that greater variety and specificity in cannabis products will become available. In the future, it may be possible to find CBD oil as well as extracts rich in terpenes and tailored for your individual needs. With the astonishing variety of health benefits to cannabis, that day can’t come soon enough.
Danielle Simone Brand
Danielle Simone Brand, an independent journalist based in California, writes about cannabis, homesteading and parenting. Her work appears on TheWeek.com, Kveller.com and ChopraCenter.com. She is writing for Carolina Cannabis News as Part of our "Voices from the Green Side" series.