What are Cannabis Terpenes and Terpenoids? And What do They do?


When you start to really develop a deep appreciation for cannabis, you will soon start to realize that there’s a lot more to your favorite herb than its cannabinoid content. You’ll gain admiration for the aesthetic differences between the ever-expanding variety of strains, the subtle difference in effects each strain provides, and the unique tastes and smells that accompany consumption.

And while there are many constituents that cause strains to differ, when it comes to smell and taste, we have terpenes to thank. Without terpenes and terpenoids, cannabis wouldn’t have the distinct, heavenly smell that all we all know and love so well. There would be no sweet-smelling Zkittles, no lemony Lemon Haze, and no cheesy Cheese.

In fact, terpenes offer more than pungent aromas and mouth-watering flavors. They can also provide a range of medical benefits as well as augmenting the effects of cannabinoids like THC and CBD. But before we get into all that, let’s explain just what terpenes are, how they work, and why they are good for us…

What are Terpenes

Terpenes and terpenoids are forms of organic oils that are secreted by many plants, not just cannabis. As the building blocks for essential oils, many other herbs, fruits and plants also produce terpenes. They are a defense mechanism protecting the plant from various environmental stresses such as bacteria, fungus and insects, as well as a means for survival by attracting pollinators.

When it comes to cannabis, terpenes are secreted from glands located in the trichomes – which are the small crystal-like structures that can make up kief. It is here where cannabinoids like THC and CBD are also produced.

Why Terpenes Matter: The Entourage Effect

We all know that consuming cannabis can cause euphoria, short-term memory problems and a desire to eat every sweet thing in sight. These effects are caused by THC, the most famous cannabinoid. CBD, on the other hand, produces anxiolytic and antipsychotic effects without any intoxication. We know a lot about both of these chemicals (although there is still much to learn) as they have been extensively studied.

What we don’t know much about, however, is how other components of cannabis (such as terpenes and flavonoids) work together with cannabinoids to produce an enhanced therapeutic effect. An effect that cannabis scientists have termed the ‘entourage effect’.

You see, cannabis contains hundreds of compounds, many of which have received little attention from researchers as of yet. However, not only do they need to be studied individually, they need to be tested alongside all the other components of cannabis for us to really understand how cannabis works in the human body.

This is one of the main reasons why cannabis as a medicine is approached by governments with such trepidation. They tend to prefer single molecule preparations that have been well-studied.

But this synergistic effect might just be what makes cannabis so uniquely valuable to the medical world. This is the viewpoint of preeminent cannabis researcher Dr Ethan Russo. Russo has demonstrated that plant compounds such as terpenes can, in fact, mitigate the intoxicating effects of THC, which in turn could make it a much more accessible medicine (not every patient wants or needs to get high).

His research suggests that, by utilizing the entourage effect, cannabis and cannabis-based medicines have the potential to offer novel, safe and natural treatments for a wide number of conditions. Some of the conditions he mentions are depression, anxiety, addiction and dementia, but there are many more that cannabis could help with.

Terpenes and Terpenoids – What’s the Difference?

Terpenes and terpenoids are essentially the same – the two terms are often used interchangeably – except for a slight molecular difference; Terpenes are organic hydrocarbons, meaning they are comprised of just carbon and hydrogen atoms, while terpenoids contain additional atoms that have been altered during a process called oxidation, which is basically a chemical reaction in which a molecule or atom loses electrons. Oxidation in occurs in cannabis when it is dried and cured.

How do Terpenes Work?

Terpenes have been found to work in a similar fashion to cannabinoids – by binding to certain receptors in the human body. In doing so, they have the ability to influence neurotransmitters (the brain’s chemical messengers) such as dopamine and serotonin, as well as other molecular pathways that have various physiological effects.

For example, limonene, the terpene that gives strains a citrus smell, can increase serotonin production in the brain, which in turn elevates mood and reduces symptoms of anxiety. Other terpenes, like myrcene – known for its musky smell and also found in mangoes – can aid cannabinoids like THC in penetrating the blood-brain barrier, making them more efficient. This is the reason why certain strains can be more or less effective than others, despite similar cannabinoid profiles.

Medical Benefits of Terpenes

There are hundreds of cannabis terpenes, and many have been shown to have wide-ranging effects. These include the ability to reduce inflammation, relieve pain and improve sleep. Others have antioxidant, antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral properties.

The Terpene Wheel

What are Cannabis Terpenes and Terpenoids? And What do They do? 4

Credit: Greenhouse Seeds

Most Common Cannabis Terpenes

Myrcene – Musky, earthy, clove-like smell. Very common in cannabis. Sedating effect.

Limonene – Strong citrusy aroma. Can improve mood. Possible anti-cancer effects.

Alpha-pinene – Piney smell. Is an anti-inflammatory and bronchodilator.

Caryophyllene –  Peppery, woody, or spicy aroma. It’ an anti-inflammatory that works well with CBD to relieve pain.

Linalool – Floral smell. Very common in the plant world. Promotes relaxation and can help with sleep.

Beta-Caryophyllene – Peppery, spicy aroma. Relieves stress and anxiety. Can help with pain.

Humulene – Woody, earthy smell. Reduces inflammation.

Ocimene – Sweet, herby aroma. Has antiviral, antifungal, antiseptic, and antibacterial properties.

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