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What Are Terpenes? – Understanding Cannabis Derived Terpenes

What are terpenes?

There are over 200 terpenes in the cannabis plant, but due to testing limitations only a few have been studied in great detail. Terpenes are largely responsible for the aroma or fragrance of the cannabis plant and give off unique flavors when tasted. Terpenes and cannabinoids are different yet work together to create a unique physiological effect via the entourage effect. Individually and as a group, they are more than likely what is responsible for the difference between “strains” of marijuana plants as well as a variety of proposed medicinal effects. Terpene essential oils (EO) are fast becoming the next big product market after CBD.

What is a Terpene?

Terpenes are unsaturated hydrocarbons present ubiquitously in plants and fruits. They are what gives the plant aroma, color and flavor. They have two important functions – to protect plants from predators and to produce resin. Chemically speaking, they are one or more five-carbon isoprene units.

What are Cannabis Terpenes?

Cannabis terpenes have the basic unsaturated hydrocarbon skeleton in their chemical makeup but are indigenous to the cannabis plant not only providing pungent aromatic smells but potential medicinal qualities as well. These unique cannabinoid/terpene profiles of cannabis plants are termed their “chemotype” and might be thought of as the plant’s personality and terpenes as the spirit or “the Fifth element.”

A chemotype is a chemical profile of the plant identifying specific cannabinoids and specific terpenes. Each plant has a unique chemotype.

How Many Terpenes are There?

Of the 200 or so cannabinoid terpenes identified to date, about 8 of them have been studied in detail. Total plant terpenes number about 20,000. Some common terpene derivatives are camphor or menthol ( terpene alcohols).

Where are Terpenes Produced?

Terpenes are produced in the secretory cells of the mature unfertilized female trichomes or resin producing structures of the cannabis plant. Trichomes are on the leaves and buds of the plant, are sticky and look like little crystals. Cannabinoids and flavones are produced here as well.

What is the Difference Between Cannabinoids and Terpenes?

There are about 480 active compounds within cannabis sativa and about 66 have been classified as cannabinoids. The two most well-known cannabinoids are THC and CBD. Cannabinoids are compounds that exert their effects through cannabinoid receptors (CB1 and CB2) while terpenes may or may not act on the CB1 and CB2 receptors but are known to have entourage effects on multiple related target tissues.

Other cannabinoids identified include Cannabigerols (CBG), Cannabichromene (CBC), Cannabinol (CBN), cannabinodiol (CBDL), cannabicyclol (CBL), cannabielsoin (CBE), cannabitriol (CBT) and other miscellaneous types. Cannabinoids are similar in chemical structure to our neurotransmitters. Chemically speaking, they are aromatic oxygen containing hydrocarbons.


Terpene Function

Terpene Function image 1

Terpenes in concentrations of 0.05% or above in the product are considered of pharmacological interest as possible drug treatment therapies.

One of the most important functions of the terpenes is to speed up the passing of the cannabinoids into our bloodstream. Terpenes also interact with THC to either antagonize its effects or stimulate it.

Terpenes and the entourage effect

While the literature is contradictory as to whether terpenes do or don’t act on the CB1 or CB2 receptors, it is clear that they do have the following functions as to the entourage effect:

    • Being lipophilic they interact with cell membranes, neural and muscle ion channels;
    • They interact with neurotransmitter receptors;
    • They function at G-coupled protein receptors;
    • They are active as second messengers;
    • They interact with enzymes.

Functions of terpenes independently of entourage effect


Terpenes have been found to have effects on their own accord aside from the entourage effect. They have far reaching antioxidant functions in both the cannabis plant and other terpene containing plants, fruits and vegetables. Oxidative stress diseases which terpenes may be effective for include atherosclerosis, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, Parkinson’s Disease and Alzheimer’s Disease.


Anti-depressant effects appear to be mediated through the interaction with the monoamines serotonin, dopamine and epinephrine. In addition, LNL induces sedative effects by acting on glutamate and GABA receptors. High GABA and glutamate are associated with anxiety.


Inflammation is diminished by the terpenes effect on prostaglandins, cell mediators which have been shown to cause dysfunction in organs and tissues. Studies have shown CBD to have a prolonged effect on inflammation as opposed to terpenes which act in a quicker and shorter manner leading authors to conclude that terpenes might be more useful in acute inflammation while CBD is more useful in chronic inflammation.


Prominent activity against methicillin resistant staphylococcus as well as other diseases have been noted, especially with PNE. The bacterial, antifungal and antiprotozoal functions of some terpenes make them excellent candidates for broad spectrum antibiotics and novel insecticides.


Skin permeability is enhanced making terpenes excellent delivery systems for medications such as hormones, medication, herbs or THC/CBD.


Potential Effects and Medical Value of the Most Common Cannabinoid Terpenes

Terpene Potential Effects Potential Medical Value
α-pinene (PNE) – This terpene is known for its pine tree aroma. It is found in other plants such as basil, rosemary, parsley, dill and pine needles. counteracts some THC effects, alertness, memory retention Asthma, pain, anxiety, ulcers diabetes
Caryophyllene (CYE) – The aroma associated with this terpene is spicy, woody, cloves. It is found in other plants such as black pepper, cloves and cinnamon. Stress relief anxiety, depression, ulcers, inflammation
Humulene (HUM) – Smells like hops or perhaps a woody aroma. Is also found in hops, coriander and basil. Anti-inflammatory Inflammation, asthma
Limonene (LME) – Exudes the aroma of citrus. Is present in fruit rinds, rosemary, juniper and peppermint. Limonene has been used in an animal model to control anxiety as well as depression through the use of aromatherapy. Mood elevation, stress relief, anti-inflammatory Anxiety, depression, pain, inflammation, Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)
Linalool (LNL) – exudes a floral scent common in lavenders Mood enhancement, sedation


Anxiety, depression, insomnia, pain, inflammation, arthritis, neurodegenerative disease.
Myrcene (MYR) – Smells of cardamom, cloves, musky, herbal. Can also be found in mango, lemongrass, hops. Sedating, relaxing, anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant Insomnia, pain, inflammation

Anti-oxidant, diabetes

Ocimene (OCM) – Has a sweet woody aroma. Is found in parsley, kumquats, mangos, orchids, parsley, mint. Antiviral, antifungal, decongestant, antibacterial Asthma, gargle, colds, diabetes, insecticide, anti-inflammatory
Terpinolene (TPE) – Smells piney, floral, herbal. It is also found in tea tree, nutmeg, lilacs, apples. sedating Antioxidant, sedative, anti-viral, antibacterial, wound healing, insect repellent

Other terpenes of importance with less scientific knowledge include trans-ocimene, guaiol, β-eudesmol, fenchol, nerolidol, caryophyllene-oxide and phytol.


What is the Difference in Terpene Chemotype in the Various Cannabis Strains?

When we talk about strains, we are primarily talking about 4 strains of cannabis:

    • Indica
    • Sativa
    • Hybrid
    • Cannabis ruderalis

Until just recently we have relied on popular literature and botanical differences to classify the strains. Technologically we now can test the chemotypes of the different strains to see if they are chemically different and, surprisingly, there is a lot of crossover.

A recent study showed that cannabis was effective regardless of strain for a wide range of conditions. For example, indica strains appeared better than sativa at improving emerging and appetite but no statistical difference was found between indica and sativa for pain, mood, nausea, muscle spasms, seizures, ocular issues, insomnia, awareness or neuropathy.

A difference in the chemotype was found, however, between the indica and sativa strains. Hybrids were not tested in this study.


Popular literature separates these strains based on both morphology and effects. Morphologically speaking, an indica strain is short and bushy and yields sedating, pain relieving effects.

The chemotype in the indica plant was found to have a dominance of myrcene with limonene or α-pinene as the second most dominant terpene present. In this study the conclusion was that there is a lack of evidence to recommend an indica or sativa strain to a patient, but evidence is lacking to support those recommendations and a new classification system should be developed based on a strain’s individual chemotype.


Sativa strains are tall and lanky with more of an energizing effect. They are thought of as the strain to smoke in the am when you need to be alert and on the go.

Scientifically, “mostly” sativa strains were profiled as having a more complex array of terpenes with α-terpinolene or α-pinene as dominant and some strains having myrcene terpenes dominant with terpinolene or ocimene as second most dominant.

Industrial hemp is made from the cannabis sativa strain and has been used around the world as a source of fiber and hemp seed oil.


Hybrids are just that, a mixture of indica and sativa traits with each individual hybrid said to have its own unique “chemotype”. Scientists do not consider it to be a separate strain.


Cannabis ruderalis is a said to be a wild form of cannabis believed to be a direct descendant of the indica plant. Ruderalis was identified in 1924 where it was widespread in central Europe and Russia.

The primary difference between ruderalis and the other strains is that the budding cycle is initiated by maturity and not by photoperiod, or light dependent, meaning it will flower regardless of the light cycle. This is called auto flowering. The THC content is low while the CBD content is relatively high.It would make an excellent hardy source of CBD for the avid cannabis grower.

New Strain Classification System?

Present studies suggest that there is a lack of evidence to recommend an indica or sativa strain to a patient but that a new classification system should be developed based on a strain’s individual chemotype.


Terpene Products

Hemp seed oil vs CBD oil

Terpene products in general

Terpenes help carry other molecules through the skin’s barrier membrane to act on deeper tissue layers in medicinal elixirs and are added to topical lotions. Lilac aromatherapy has been known to have an antidepressant effect by acting on olfactory receptors carrying messages directly to the brain and is just one example of a novel terpene based aromatherapy product. New and safer insecticides are being patented using terpenes as its base.

Cannabinoid terpenes

Terpenes can be obtained as single terpene additives or as part of CBD products that contain a full or broad spectrum part of plant. Cannabinoid based terpenes are being added with great fervor to all kinds of edibles, beer, soda, teas, vaping cartridges, oils, bath bombs, topical lotions and encapsulated products. It is being utilized for a multitude of reasons – to enhance flavor, for health benefits, for taste, for aromatherapy treatments and as a carrier for cannabinoids or other medicinals in topical lotions. Using cannabinoid terpenes preserves the chemotype of the individual plant. CBD or THC oils in vape cartridges need to be thinned down to smoke the product. New terpene based thinning agents are being produced that can replace more toxic thinning agents like polyethylene glycol (PEG). The product market is virtually exploding!


Are Terpenes Safe?

Of all the chemicals in the cannabis plant, terpenes are probably the safest. Terpenes are on the Generally Recognized as Safe list put out by the US Food and Drug Administration as well as on the safety list for the Food and Drug Manufacturers Association. Terpenes are recognized as safe worldwide.



The study and application of terpene-based therapies is evolving at a rapid pace with many new products arriving on the scene with new technologies to prove their effectiveness in an evidence-based manner. Consequently, the use of such products have rapidly become a multi-billion-dollar industry, one that admittedly needs more study, but is fast proving its place in the wellness industry.

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