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What are cannabis terpenes?

If you’ve tried different strains of cannabis, you’ve likely noticed that no two are quite alike -- each strain has its own unique smell and taste. Some are citrusy with hints of fresh pine. Others have notes of blueberry, strawberry, and lavender. Still others smell like diesel fuel. 

 

A recent study found that there are at least 61 different scent and flavour notes in cannabis[*], which is an extraordinary amount of variety for a single plant. The differences aren’t limited to scent and flavour, either. Patients report that different strains have different health effects, and depending on your reason for using medical cannabis, certain strains may help you more than others. 

Those variations in flavour (and, potentially, the benefits that accompany them) are due to terpenes -- fragrant oils that give each cannabis strain its own unique profile. Patients report that terpenes in different strains may help relieve stress, promote relaxation, decrease pain, and more. 

 

This article will take a look at how terpenes work, the most common terpenes in cannabis, the possible benefits of each one, and whether or not terpene-rich cannabis may be right for you. 

What Are Terpenes?

Terpenes aren’t unique to cannabis. They’re present in a lot of different plants, where they serve as a natural defence mechanism against predators. Plants make strong-smelling terpenes to ward off herbivores and attract beneficial animals, like bees and other pollinators[*].

 

Terpenes are also the main component of most essential oils. Lavender, pine, fir, lemon, peppermint -- they all get their signature smells from terpenes. Many terpenes are strong antimicrobials[*] and antioxidants[*], and they may even have health benefits when you consume them[*].  

 

Cannabis is unusual because it has a wide variety of terpenes, including ones from lavender, pine, lemon, oranges, mangoes, hops, and several other plants. 

The Entourage Effect: Cannabinoids and Terpenes Work Together

New research suggests that terpenes could explain why each strain of cannabis feels different, even if the strains all have similar levels of THC and CBD. There seems to be a complex interaction between dozens of different compounds in cannabis. 

 

Researchers have dubbed this the “Entourage Effect.” They suspect that terpenes work synergistically with cannabinoids like THC, either enhancing certain benefits or preventing certain side effects of consuming cannabis[*,*]. 

 

While research into the Entourage Effect is still fairly new, a growing number of studies (and patient testimonials) suggest that whole-plant cannabis extracts with terpenes may relieve some symptoms more than THC or CBD alone. If you’re using medical cannabis for a specific health concern -- pain, for example -- you may want to try a terpene-rich extract or cannabis strain and see how you feel.

 

The good news is that as demand for terpenes increases, more and more cannabis producers are listing terpene content on their packaging. It’s easier than ever to find cannabis that’s high in a specific terpene. 

 

But which terpenes are best? 

 

The best terpene for you depends on the symptoms you want to relieve with medical cannabis. Let’s take a look at the most common terpenes in cannabis, as well as the potential benefits of each one. 

Here’s a guide to 10 of the most common terpenes in cannabis. 

 

Limonene

Found in: lemons, rosemary

Flavour/fragrance: citrusy, sour, bright

Patients report: improved mood[*], anxiety relief[*,*], relaxation[*]

High-limonene strains: Hindu Kush, Lemon G, Dirty Girl


Linalool

Found in: lavender, sweet orange

Flavour/fragrance: floral, citrusy, spicy

Patients report: anxiety relief[*,*,*], pain relief[*], deeper sleep[*]

High-linalool strains: Amnesia Kush, Lavender Kush, LA Confidential


Pinene

Found in: pine needles, rosemary, basil

Flavour/fragrance: piney, woody, fresh

Patients report: joint pain relief[*,*], overall pain relief[*]

High-pinene strains: UW, Pineapple Express, Blue Dream


Terpinolene

Found in: lilac, apple, nutmeg, cumin

Flavour/fragrance: piney, woody, herbal

Patients report: relaxation[*], anxiety relief[*]

High-terpinolene strains: Dutch Treat, Super Lemon Haze, Sour Tsunami


Myrcene

Found in: mango, lemongrass, bay leaves

Flavour/fragrance: earthy, fruity, musky

Patients report: sleep[*], mental relaxation[*], muscle relaxation[*], joint pain relief[*]

High-myrcene strains: OG Kush, Grape Ape, Blue Dream, Remedy

 

Beta-caryophyllene

Found in: black pepper, cinnamon, cloves

Flavour/fragrance: spicy, peppery, woody

Patients report: headache/migraine relief[*]

High-caryophyllene strains: Lavender Kush, Bubba Kush, OG Kush, Chemdawg


Caryophyllene oxide

Found in: lemon balm, cloves, pepper

Flavour/fragrance: spicy, peppery, woody

Patients report: improved blood flow[*], headache and pain relief[*]

High-caryophyllene oxide strains: Lavender Kush, Death Star, Blueberry Cheesecake


Nerolidol

Found in: oranges, ginger, lavender, tea tree

Flavour/fragrance: sweet, spicy, floral

Patients report: sleep[*], pain relief[*]

High-nerolidol strains: Skywalker OG, Jack Herer


Phytol

Found in: green tea, jasmine, lime

Flavour/fragrance: nearly odourless (which sets phytol apart from other terpenes)

Patients report: stress relief[*], anxiety relief[*,*], pain relief[*]

High-phytol strains: Sour Diesel, Cheese


Humulene

Found in: coriander, hops, basil

Flavour/fragrance: earthy, woody

Patients report: pain relief[*]

High-humulene strains: Headband, Girl Scout Cookies, White Widow

 

Should You Try Terpene-Rich Cannabis?

A lot of patients have good results using terpene-rich cannabis (or whole-plant, terpene-rich cannabis extracts). Patients report using high-terpene cannabis strains for:

  • Pain (including joint pain)
  • Low mood
  • Stress 
  • Anxiety
  • Sleep issues
  • Decreased appetite

If you have any of these symptoms and you’ve been seeing good results with normal cannabis, you may want to try a terpene-rich strain or extract. Use the list in the previous section of this article to find a terpene that looks good for your needs. This article provides recommended strains that are rich in each terpene, and you can also find breakdowns of terpene content in many cannabis products on the market today. 

 

Recent research also shows that terpenes in cannabis may have a future medical use in managing heartburn[*], asthma[*,*], inflammation[*,*], liver function[*], and even cancer[*,*,*,*], although much more research needs to be done before scientists establish a strong link between terpenes and these effects. For now, your best bet is to stick to terpenes for more well-established uses. 

 

As always, this is not medical advice, and you should talk to your doctor or healthcare professional before starting any new supplement or treatment plan. A lot of the research on terpenes is fairly new, and researchers are still learning how terpenes affect your body. 

 

That said, with so many people reporting positive results from high-terpene medical cannabis, it may be worth your time to try a few varieties. Pay attention to how you feel with each strain and see what works best for you.