What are terpenes and what do they do?

Terpenes are a large and diverse class of organic compounds found in animals and plants, including cannabis. They are responsible for the plants’ unique smells and flavors.

Terpenes are a vital but often overlooked aspect of cannabis therapy. Contrary to conventional thinking, the cannabis strain's effectiveness at treating a specific condition cannot be judged by its classification as Indica or Sativa or even solely by its cannabinoid percentages.

Terpenes play a significant part in the effectiveness of cannabis as a therapeutic plant. There are over 100 different terpenes that have been identified in cannabis plants. Each one offers its own set of benefits and effects. Some terpenes are known to have medicinal properties.


While the exact mechanism is not yet fully understood, it is thought that terpenes play a role in protecting the plant from predators and disease. They may also help the plant attract pollinators and improve its chances of reproduction. Certain insects (such as the maize weevil) produce them to either attract mates or fight off attackers.


Although the cannabis world is only recently discovering their importance, terpenes are well-researched, and their properties are well-documented in aromatherapy. Terpene-based aromas assist with physical ailments such as inflammation and mild aches and pains. 

For example, it has been known for hundreds of years that the essential oil of lavender will calm and relax. The terpene responsible for these relaxation and sedation effects is Linalool, which is also present in many strains of cannabis. 


Trichomes are the small, hair-like projections that cover the surface of the cannabis flower. They are responsible for producing and secreting terpenes and cannabinoids, which are the active ingredients in Cannabis. Trichomes also play a role in protecting the plant from pests and diseases.

The presence of trichomes is what makes Cannabis sticky when touched. When the trichomes are ruptured, they release the terpenes and cannabinoids into the air, which is why Cannabis smells so strong.


Terpenes have a wide range of applications, both in food and industry. They are used to produce perfumes and flavors and as solvents in the production of paints and varnishes. 

In the food industry, terpenes are used as preservatives and antioxidants. Some terpenes are also known to have medicinal properties.


Terpenes have a range of benefits on their own. However, they have also been shown to affect how your body utilizes cannabinoids, thereby contributing significantly to the therapeutic and medical benefits of Cannabis.

One terpene, caryophyllene, directly activates the CB2 receptor in the body's endocannabinoid system. Other terpenes such as alpha-pinene can effectively reduce or eliminate the short-term memory impairment classically induced by THC.

Terpenes also modulate the uptake of cannabinoids in the human body's endocannabinoid system, thereby determining the effects such cannabinoids will have when consumed.

The benefits of terpenes are vast and varied. Terpenes are thought to have a wide range of therapeutic benefits, including anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and antifungal effects. They are also being studied for their ability to improve cognitive function and memory and reduce anxiety and stress levels.

Some studies have shown that certain Terpenes can kill cancer cells while leaving healthy cells unharmed. As more research is conducted, we will learn even more about the therapeutic benefits of these fascinating compounds.


The six major terpenes that are found in the cannabis plant are as follows:

  • Myrcene: This terpene is found in high mangoes, lemongrass, and thyme concentrations. It's thought to have sedative effects and is used as a muscle relaxant.
  • Limonene: This terpene is found in citrus fruits and has a refreshing, lemony aroma. It's also been shown to have anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties.
  • Pinene: This terpene is found in pine needles and has a robust and piny smell. It's thought to have anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties.
  • Linalool: This terpene has a sweet, floral aroma and is found in lavender, coriander, and rosemary. It's thought to have anxiety-relieving effects.
  • Caryophyllene: This terpene is found in black pepper and has a spicy, woody smell. It's been shown to have anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties.
  • Humulene. This terpene is found in ginseng, which has long been used in folk medicine for energizing effects.


The terpenes in cannabis are essential for many reasons. They are responsible for the flavor and aroma of the plant, and they are also thought to influence the potency. They are also considered beneficial properties, including antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.

Cannabis is unique in that it contains a wide variety of terpenes, many of which have not been found in other plants. This makes cannabis a rich source of potential therapeutic compounds. As we learn more about these compounds and their effects, we may find even more medicinal uses for cannabis.

So far, we know that Terpenes have a variety of beneficial effects, including:

  • Antioxidant effects
  • Anti-inflammatory effects
  • Analgesic effects
  • Antibacterial effects
  • Antifungal effects
  • Cognitive benefits
  • Anxiety-relieving effects
  • Antidepressant effects


Terpenes are potentially risky because they can interact with other chemicals and medications. They can also cause skin and respiratory irritation, and some terpenes are known to be toxic. 

It's essential always to read terpene products' labels and avoid using them if you're pregnant or breastfeeding. Terpenes should also not be used by children without adult supervision.


When you consume cannabis, the terpenes interact with the cannabinoids in the plant to produce specific effects. This is known as the entourage effect.

The entourage effect is a pharmacological phenomenon whereby different chemicals in a drug work together to produce a greater therapeutic effect than any of the chemicals could produce on their own.

The entourage effect is responsible for the wide variety of therapeutic products that Cannabis can provide. Each terpene affects the body differently, and when they all work together, they create a synergistic effect. This means that the benefits of each terpene are amplified when they are used in combination with the others.

The entourage effect is also thought to be responsible for the different products that different strains of Cannabis can produce. Each strain contains a unique combination of terpenes, which determines the strain's therapeutic properties.

In this frequently cited cannabis study entitled "Cannabis and Cannabis Extracts: Greater Than the Sum of Their Parts[1]", Dr. Ethan Russo, states: "Some terpenoids act as serotonin uptake inhibitors (as does Prozac®), enhance norepinephrine activity (as do tricyclic antidepressants), increase dopamine activity (as do monoamine oxidase inhibitors and bupropion), and augment GABA (as do baclofen and benzodiazepines)."


Terpenes are a complex and fascinating topic, with much to be learned about their potential applications. So far, they've shown promise in the food, perfume, and health industries. As more research is done, we may find more uses for these incredible compounds.

It’s also important to note that, in addition to cannabinoids and terpenes, your physiology, past cannabis experience, and the setting in which you use cannabis can also affect how you feel. Terpenes are just one piece of the equation, but they can be an interesting way to play around with different products and find what you like best.

[1] Cannabis and Cannabis Extracts: Greater Than the Sum of Their Parts - John M McPartland and Ethan B. Russo

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