If you’ve ever sat at your in-law’s dinner table with an awkward waft of stinky, sticky bud coming from your pocket, you already know what terpenes are. They’re responsible for cannabis’ pungent aroma and they’re the reason your mouth waters when you open a bag of freshies. But more than just providing cannabis its glorious perfume, terpenes play a significant role in the survival of the plant, and in its benefits and effects.
Terpenes are aromatic oils that naturally occur in herbs, fruits and plants, particularly ones with a strong odor – think lavender, lemons, pine trees, ginger, etc. Terpenes serve a variety of roles including encouraging pollination and helping to protect the plant from environmental stresses such as insects, bacteria and fungus. Thankfully, a higher concentration of terpenes can be found in unfertilized female cannabis flowers.
In cannabis, terpenes are developed in the trichomes of the plant – the crystal-like coating found on the leaves and buds. But while all cannabis produces terpenes, the types and their prevalence vary from strain to strain, and are highly dependent on how the plant is grown, harvested, dried and stored. For example, the prevalent terpenes in Sunset Sherbet include Caryophyllene, Limonene and Humulene, while Blueberry Kush is high in Terpinolene, Myrcene, Ocimene and Caryophyllene.
But wait, there’s more! Terpenes bind to receptors in your brain and are believed to have various pharmacological effects such as pain relief, aid in sleeping and reduction of inflammation, among others. This is why it’s important to select concentrates that come from the whole plant and include the cannabis-derived terpenes. Without them, you’re not getting the full benefit of cannabis.
Terpenes don’t work alone, however. The Entourage Effect is the theory that cannabinoids and terpenes work synergistically creating an effect greater than the sum of its parts. For example, the myrcene terpene (which is also prevalent in mangoes) can reduce resistance in the blood-brain barrier, enabling easier transport of other beneficial chemicals. These fragrant, hard workers are also largely responsible for the differences in a strain’s effects.
Studies on individual terpenes have been collected for decades, but in 2011 Dr. Ethan Russo published a landmark analysis of the collective terpene research as it relates to cannabis and cannabinoids. This study is primarily why eight of the more than 100 identified cannabis terpenes are the most common and understood:
While Russo focused on these eight terpenes in his study, there is an increasingly larger body of research building up behind each cannabis terpene. This year, a team at the National Institute of Health started the process to study terpenes in depth, focusing on their impact beyond the typical THC psychoactive effects of cannabis. The science behind the complex cannabis plant is still evolving, and we are entering a period where can expect significant revelations about the tangible effects.
So, the next time you curse your stash for giving you away, just remember, if it wasn’t for that pungent aroma, cannabis wouldn’t survive, thrive, lift your mood or alleviate those aches and pains.