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Terpene Guide

Understanding Cannabis Terpenes

Cannabis sativa L. is one of the best-known species in the Cannabaceae family and is the source of the cannabis products we know and love.

A few different compound groups are responsible for the euphoric and therapeutic effects exhibited by cannabis, but the two most important are cannabinoids and terpenes.

Learn more about terpenes: what they are, where they're found, what the research says, and patient- and consumer-reported effects and benefits.


Table of Content

What Are Terpenes and What Do They Do in Cannabis Plants?

Terpenes are a class of organic chemical compounds that are found in all plants, including cannabis. These aromatic compounds are also found in a wide range of animal tissues like egg yolks, fish scales, and feathers and are responsible for many of the distinct scents found in nature. There are over 20,000 known terpenes that play a variety of roles in the natural world, including attracting pollinators, deterring herbivores, providing UV protection, fighting pathogens like viruses and bacteria, and even influencing the local environment—and all of this is accomplished as terpenes send critical chemical messages within the plant and to surrounding organisms. In fact, terpenes are thought to be the most used chemical medium for communication in the natural world.

Terpenes are best known for giving plants, including cannabis, their distinctive fragrance, taste, and appearance. In fact, the very term "terpene" is derived from "turpentine," a resin made from pine trees that is rich in terpenes, particularly one called pinene. As each cannabis cultivar has a unique terpene profile, it will exhibit a unique flavor and aroma.

Therapeutic Benefits of Terpenes

Terpenes play several important roles in cannabis and other plants, many of them listed above. It is their role as chemical messengers that enables them to interact with other compounds and the human body itself once we consume them. Primarily, terpenes modulate cannabis’ therapeutic and psychoactive effects by working synergistically with cannabinoids like THC and CBD to affect the human endocannabinoid system (ECS).

These interactions with cannabinoids and the ECS have been the subject of much research in recent years, and researchers have found that terpenes show the potential to exert several therapeutic effects:

Anti-Inflammatory Benefits

Anti-Inflammatory Benefits - One of the best-known medical benefits of terpenes is their ability to act as anti-inflammatory agents. This can be helpful in addressing a variety of conditions caused by inflammation, including arthritis, asthma, and even certain types of cancer.

Pain-Relieving Benefits

Pain-Relieving Benefits - Terpenes may also have analgesic properties, which means they can help reduce pain. This is especially useful for people suffering from chronic pain conditions such as fibromyalgia and multiple sclerosis.

Anxiety-Reducing Benefits

Anxiety-Reducing Benefits - Terpenes appear to have anxiolytic effects, which means they can help reduce anxiety. Terpenes may prove useful for people who suffer from anxiety disorders or even those who experience anxiety because of stress.

Mood-Boosting Benefits

Mood-Boosting Benefits - Some research shows that terpenes may have mood-boosting effects. General mood-boosting effects can be beneficial for people with depression or other mood disorders.

Antioxidant Benefits

Antioxidant Benefits - Antioxidants help protect the body's cells from damage caused by free radicals, which are unstable molecules that can cause harm to the body. By neutralizing free radicals, antioxidant effects from terpenes may help prevent the development of chronic diseases such as cancer and heart disease.

Further research is needed to fully understand the full medical potential of terpenes, especially as they are used alongside cannabinoids. However, it is abundantly clear that terpenes have the potential to be an important part of a holistic approach to healthcare.

How to Identify Different Types of Terpenes

Identifying the various kinds of terpenes present in a strain of cannabis can be helpful for understanding its potential effects. However, there are hundreds of different terpenes found in cannabis, and each strain has a unique terpene profile. In addition to understanding the terpene profile of a strain, it is also important to consider the relative concentrations of the different terpenes present. For example, some terpenes may have a more pronounced effect at higher concentrations, while others may be more effective at lower concentrations. By understanding the balance of terpenes in a strain, you can better predict its potential effects and choose a strain that is best suited to your needs. 

So, how do you do it?

The primary way researchers and cannabis cultivators identify the terpenes present in a strain of cannabis is mass spectrometry or gas chromatography, both of which use devices to measure the presence and concentration of different compounds in a sample. Spectrometry and chromatography provide the most accurate and detailed information about the terpene profile of a strain, but both require specialized equipment and training. As a result, unless a cannabis cultivator chooses to print terpene information on the label, you may not have the benefit of this in-depth terpene profile.

Reputable cannabis dispensaries like Zen Leaf provide information about the primary terpene profiles of their products in what is known as a strain guide. With a bit of research, you can identify current strains that feature the terpenes most useful for addressing your needs. Then, visit a Zen Leaf dispensary to request concentration and other detailed information—and experience the terpene profiles for yourself.

That’s right—one of the most interesting ways to explore terpene profiles is through sensory evaluation. This involves examining a strain with a professional and evaluating the aromas and flavors it exudes to identify the presence of different terpenes. Sensory evaluation can be subjective and may not be as accurate as spectrometry, but it is a quick and straightforward way to get a general sense of the terpene profile of a strain. By taking the time to learn about the terpene profile of a strain, you can make more informed decisions about your cannabis use.

Top Terpenes Found in Cannabis

There are over 100 different terpenes that have been identified in cannabis, and each one has its own unique set of properties. Different strains of cannabis have unique combinations of terpenes, which contribute to their distinct aromas, flavors, and perceived effects. Some of the most found terpenes in cannabis include the following:

Pinene

Pinene

This terpene is found in pine trees and other conifers, as well as in rosemary and certain strains of cannabis. It has a woody, piney aroma and is thought to have anti-inflammatory and bronchodilator effects. Strains high in pinene include Berrylicious, Punch Cookies, Clementine, Sonny G or Green Crack.

In large, concentrated doses, pinene can cause an altered mental state and kidney damage.

Limonene

Limonene

Found in citrus fruits like lemons and oranges, limonene has a strong, refreshing citrus aroma. It is thought to have antidepressant and anxiety-reducing effects, as well as being an effective solvent for other terpenes and cannabinoids. Strains high in limonene include Berry Pop Tart, Grape Bubblegum, and Lemon Sorbet. 

Isolated forms of limonene can cause skin and eye irritation.

Myrcene

Myrcene

This terpene is found in thyme, mangoes, and hops, as well as in certain strains of cannabis. It has a musky, earthy aroma and is thought to have sedative and muscle relaxant effects. Strains high in myrcene include Sunday Brunch, Berrylicious, and Motorbreath.

Isolated myrcene is flammable. If myrcene concentration exceeds 10% in solutions, it could lead to irritation of the skin, eyes, and respiratory system. Ingesting such solutions might result in severe and potentially life-threatening complications.

Linalool

Linalool

This terpene is found in a variety of plants, including lavender, some types of mint, and many strains of cannabis, and has a floral, lavender-like aroma. It is thought to have sedative and anxiety-reducing effects, as well as being an effective pain reliever. Look for high linalool in strains G Purps, Heavy Hitter, and Cotton Candy.

Isolated linalool may cause skin, eye, and respiratory irritation and allergic reactions.

Caryophyllene

Caryophyllene

Found in black pepper, cloves, and cannabis, caryophyllene has a spicy, woody aroma. It is thought to have anti-inflammatory and menstrual pain-relieving effects and may serve as a potential treatment for addiction. Caryophyllene-rich strains include G Purps, Mag Landrace, and Jet Lag.

Concentrated caryophyllene may be a skin irritant or allergen.

Terpinolene

Terpinolene

This terpene is found in a variety of plants, including tea trees, conifers, nutmeg, and cannabis, and has a woody, floral aroma. It is thought to have pain-relieving effects and may promote healing of wounds. Strains high in terpinolene include Thai G and Fresh Powder.

Terpinolene is combustible both as a liquid and vapor. In isolated form, it can irritate the skin and eyes and may trigger allergic reactions. If swallowed or inhaled in its isolated or highly concentrated state, terpinolene can be lethal, leading to severe damage to the gastric mucosa or causing harm through aspiration.

Humulene

Humulene

The primary terpene found in hops, humulene has a woody, earthy aroma, humulene is thought to have anti-inflammatory benefits. Humulene-rich strains include Apple Fritter, Mag Landrace, and Thai G.

Concentrated humulene may be a skin irritant or allergen.

These terpenes are also found in cannabis, though not as commonly or in as high concentrations as others.

Ocimene

Ocimene

This terpene is found in a variety of plants, including basil and mint, and has a sweet, floral aroma. It is thought to have anti-anxiety and anti-seizure properties.

In isolated form, ocimene can cause severe eye and skin irritation and can be fatal if aspirated.

Phellandrene

Phellandrene

Found in eucalyptus and ginger, this terpene has a fresh, minty aroma. It is thought to have anti-inflammatory effects.

In isolated form, phellandrene can cause severe eye and skin irritation.

Eucalyptol

Eucalyptol

As you might expect, this terpene is primarily found in eucalyptus and has a strong, medicinal aroma. Eucalyptol has shown to provide anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving effects and appears to be an effective cough reliever.

Isolated eucalyptol can cause skin irritation and gastrointestinal upset if ingested.

Bisabolol

Bisabolol

This terpene is found in chamomile and has a sweet, floral aroma. It is thought to have anti-inflammatory and skin-soothing effects.

Concentrated bisabolol may be a skin irritant or allergen.

Camphene

Camphene

Pine and fir are major sources of camphene and its musky, earthy aroma. Studies suggest that camphene may have anti-inflammatory and cholesterol-lowering effects.

Isolated or concentrated camphene powder is highly flammable and has the potential to cause eye, nose, and throat irritation. Regular use of diluted forms may lead to headaches. The isolate is extremely harmful to aquatic life.

Geraniol

Geraniol

This terpene is found in a variety of plants, including roses and lemons, and has a sharp, floral aroma. It is often used as a natural mosquito repellent and may have antioxidant effects.

Depending on the concentration, geraniol can cause eye, skin, and respiratory irritation.

Nerolidol

Nerolidol

Found in a variety of plants, including ginger and jasmine, nerolidol has a woody, floral aroma. In animal studies, it has been shown to have potential antifungal, anti-anxiety, and sedating effects.

Depending on the concentration, nerolidol can cause eye, skin, and respiratory irritation.

The Effects of Different Terpenes on the Body and Mind

The effects of terpenes on the body and mind are complex and not fully understood, but research suggests that they may have a variety of therapeutic benefits. Some terpenes, such as limonene and pinene, have been shown to have antidepressant and anxiolytic effects, while others, such as linalool and myrcene, may have sedative effects. These effects may occur because terpenes influence critical neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, key components of the body’s reward system and benefactors of elevated mood and reduced anxiety.

In addition to their effects on the brain, terpenes may also have a range of physiological effects on the body. As mentioned, some terpenes have been shown to have anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties and may be useful in the treatment of chronic pain and other conditions. These effects may be related to some terpenes' interference with nociceptors and other receptors in the central and peripheral nervous system, reducing these receptors' ability to pass along pain signals and inflammatory responses.

Terpene information from above, summarized in a visual image.
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Tips for Using Terpenes to Improve Your Health and Well-Being

Now that you know the effects the various terpenes may have on your body, here are some tips to begin using them well. 

  • Choose strains with specific terpenes for desired effects. As mentioned, different terpenes have different effects on the body. Look for strains with a terpene profile that features a few of the terpenes best known to provide the benefits you desire.
  • Try using terpenes in aromatherapy. Aromatherapy is the practice of using essential oils, which are concentrated plant extracts, to promote health and well-being. Terpenes can be found in essential oils, which can be used in a diffuser or applied topically to the skin.
  • Experiment with different terpenes. Different terpenes may have varied effects on different people. Try experimenting with different combinations of terpenes to find a strain that addresses your needs. 
  • Ask a cannabis professional for recommendations. Your best resource may be right here at your Zen Leaf Dispensary. Ask a cannabis professional for strains recognized to provide the therapeutic benefits you seek.

Terpene FAQs

Continue your terpene education with these frequently asked questions.

Learn More About Terpenes

Terpenes can be a useful tool for improving health and well-being. By choosing strains with certain terpene profiles, you may be able to reap the benefits of these powerful plant compounds. Understanding the role of terpenes in cannabis and consulting with the cannabis experts at Zen Leaf can help you identify strains that may be more suitable for your needs.

To keep discovering more about the secrets of terpenes in cannabis head on over to our Cannabis Terpenes 101 post, where we take a closer look at what makes these natural compounds so powerful, and why they are essential to the cannabis experience. Already feel like a terpene pro? Test your knowledge with our terpene quiz - dive into the world of terpenes now!

Terpenes 101

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Cannabis Contraindications:

Consumption of medical cannabis may impair your ability to drive a car or operate machinery. Please use extreme caution. There may be health risks associated with cannabis use, especially during pregnancy or breast-feeding. Accidental consumption of cannabis by children or animals may result in severe adverse reactions. Keep cannabis out of the reach of children and animals.

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