Ask the Elegant Stoner: What exactly are cannabis terpenes?
Welcome back to our semi-regular advice column, Ask the Elegant Stoner! Every once in a while, we’ll get a question from a reader (you can drop us a note any time on our contact form), and we’ll answer it right here on the site for everyone to enjoy. As always, this advice is given by a cannabis expert, not a doctor — you should always follow the advice of a medical professional if you have a question about your health. And obviously, you should only buy and consume cannabis where it is legal to do so.
On to the question! Today, we’re hearing from Karen P, who asks about a word that we’re seeing pop up more and more lately around cannabis.
What are terpenes? I keep hearing them mentioned in regards to flavor, but I thought cannabinoids were what made cannabis do its thing? What’s the difference, and what do terpenes do?
First, you’re right — cannabinoids are definitely what makes cannabis “do its thing.” Cannabinoids like THC or CBD are what actually attach to your cannabinoid receptors when you smoke, eat, or vape cannabis, and they’re what make you feel the “high” you feel (or if you’re using CBD, what might make you feel relaxed or calmer). Your cannabinoid receptors are part of your endocannabinoid system, which connects up to the parts of you that manage pain, mood, appetite, and memory, and when THC or CBD connects up with those receptors, that’s the high of cannabis.
But THC and CBD aren’t the only compounds found in cannabis. Terpenes are also in there — in fact, they’re in lots of different plants, and even some kinds of insects. Unlike THC or CBD, you don’t even need to do anything to terpenes to experience them (like burn, vaporize, or extract them, like you do THC or CBD). Sometimes you can smell terpenes right on a plant itself (the smell won’t likely be as powerful as actually ingesting the terpene — though sometimes even the smell can affect you).
Terpenes are a large group of organic compounds, so usually a specific strain of cannabis will have a larger part of one specific terpene, or a mix of a few of them. Here are a few of the more common terpenes.
Myrcene is most common — it’s found in most natural cannabis strains, and it provides an earthy, clove-like smell. It’s also found in hops (which is used to make beer) and lemongrass, and it’s that sort of musky flavor that myrcene provides. Actually ingesting myrcene can sometimes provide sedative or relaxative effects, though the science isn’t completely clear on that yet: Some cultures use myrcene-enhanced tea for relaxation, but tea is pretty relaxing by itself, so the actual effect isn’t very clear. Mangos are also full of myrcene, and there’s an old stoner’s tale that you should eat mango 40 minutes before you smoke to get extra high (because presumably the extra myrcene will help you take in the THC more easily), though the science doesn’t quite hold up on that one. Still, you can try it yourself — the worst that happens is that you have had a tasty mango, right?
Limonene is another popular terpene — as you might guess from the name’s connection to a soury fruit (a lemon, stick with us here), the terpene provides a citrus-like smell, which makes sense because it’s found in the oil in the peels of lemons. Limonene is also used as a fragrance in cleaning or cosmetics products, and can even be used as a solvent in some glues and paints. Air fresheners usually contain limonene — it’s responsible for that slightly acrid, very citrusy smell. In your body, limonene has sometimes been found to increase seratonin levels in your brain, which can be a mood booster in some ways, and limonene has also been suggested for use in fighting cancer, though the science is a little fuzzy on that front. If the mango thing works for you when smoking a strain with myrcene, you can try drinking some lemon water when trying a strain with limonene and see if the same thing happens.
Those are two of the most common terpenes in cannabis, but there are as many out there as there are strains. Caryophyllene is a terpene found in spices like oregano, cinnamon, and cloves — it’s shown some properties that might help alcoholics quash the urge to keep drinking. A variant called beta-caryophllene has also been found to connect up to cannabinoid receptors like actual cannabinoids, which can possibly give it some anti-inflammatory properties.
Pinene is also pretty popular — it’s found in pine trees (no surprise, given the name) and provides a pine-like smell, also found in rosemary, parsley, and basil. Pinene reportedly improves respiratory functions, though that’s undercut a bit when you’re breathing burning plant material into your lungs.
There’s eucalyptol, which is found in eucalyptus trees, humulene which is common in hops (a main ingredient in beer), and geraniol, which gives roses and geraniums their scent (that’s right — there are cannabis strains like Afghani that have a rose-like smell). You can also buy terpenes separately sometimes, though be careful: Most health effects of pure terpenes are overstated, and usually you’re better off just eating the food that terpenes come in naturally. If you want the health effects of limonene, for example, you’re probably better off just eating an orange than buying limonene pills.
Essentially, terpenes are the compounds that give cannabis its scent, and as you can see, sometimes bring in some other effects, or combine with THC to enhance its effects. The full science around terpenes isn’t entirely clear yet, but they’re also very complex, and they’re constantly changing — a certain strain of cannabis might contain multiple terpenes, and as growers are combining and developing strains, they’re mixing and matching terpenes to create different profiles, both in terms of smell and flavor, and in how cannabis interacts with your body.
Because science doesn’t exactly understand how terpenes interact with cannabinoids and vice versa, the actual mechanism of a cannabis high is currently called “the entourage effect” — that is, an entourage of compounds interact with your body to create the effect. That’s not a very final answer (and most scientists don’t really consider “the entourage effect” to be a conclusive finding), but that’s where we’re at right now. With more research (made easier by legalization), we’ll learn more about exactly how all of the compounds in cannabis interact to make it “do its thing.”
If you like the smell or feel of a certain strain, odds are good that terpenes are playing a role there, so you can look up what terpenes are found in the strain you like, and maybe look for those terpenes in other strains (or even in other foods or interactions). Or if you haven’t tried a specific terpene before, you might look up a strain with a high percentage of that terpene to see how you feel about it.
Terpenes won’t make or break your cannabis experience, but they are the compounds that give cannabis its smell and flavor, and according to the entourage effect, they might play a role in your high or reaction. Terpenes aren’t yet an exact science (sometimes growers will just combine strains to see what they can create), but understanding them can help you better appreciate the reaction of all of your senses to cannabis, and better comprehend the plant’s effect on your body.
If you have a question for The Elegant Stoner, ask away. Thanks for reading!