When we talk about the cannabis plant’s medicinal properties, we often refer to the various types of flower, cannabinoids, strain names, and forms of administration like tinctures and topicals. Beyond these factors, experts cite another medicinal property of cannabis to consider: terpenes.

What Are Terpenes?

Terpenes (or, more accurately, “terpenoids”) are the fragrant aroma that a plant emits which shapes the cannabis strain medicinal profile. Terpenes naturally occur in various plants, most notably hops, trees, and fruits. Beyond their natural occurrences, manufacturers today isolate terpenes to create flavors and scents of everyday products. Botanical terpenes are extracted from many common plants such as cloves, citrus, lavender, and even pine needles. Cannabis terpenes are widely associated with cannabis, perhaps because the plant contain unusually high concentrations of them.

Terpenes exist to protect plants from predators and to lure pollinators. Each different strain or variety of cannabis contains its own signature blend of terpenes and cannabinoids. Different cannabinoids (THC, CBD, CBG, etc.) that exist in varying concentrations in the cannabis plant can help predict how a strain of cannabis might affect you. Scientists have more recently learned that, like cannabinoids, terpenescan also help determine a strain’s potential effects. 

Cannabis purchased at the dispensary gets tested by a third party laboratory that records the levels of cannabinoids and terpenes present in the plant. By paying attention to the various terpenes on the label of your cannabis product, you can likely determine which produce the most therapeutic benefit for you. For instance, the terpene myrcene is associated with reducing anxiety, whereas the terpene caryophyllene is known for its anti-inflammatory properties. The effect varies based on the concentration of the terpene in the plant.

Which Terpenes Should a Medical Cannabis Patient Look For? 

Every unique cannabis strain combines a unique mix of terpenes to produce different effects. Over 100 different terpenes exist in the cannabis plant in varying amounts. When purchasing medical marijuana products at the dispensary, you’ll often see terpenes listed in addition to cannabinoid percentages. Some terpenes to be on the lookout for: 

  • Pinene is thought to provide a cerebral boost due to its ability to inhibit the enzyme acetylcholinesterase. This inhibition results in extra protection in the brain for the molecules transmitting information. Some pharmaceutical drugs used to treat dementia use pinene as cholinesterase inhibitors.
  • Myrcene is the most abundant terpene in modern commercial cannabis. A particularly potent terpene, myrcene gives off a spicy, earthy, musky scent with a mildly sweet flavor profile. Studies of mice have suggested that, given at high doses, myrcene may have muscle relaxant effects. Myrcene has historically been used as a sleep aid in folk medicine.
  • Limonene is the second most common terpene in nature and a prominent terpene in cannabis. Studies have found limonene reduces anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder-like (OCD) in lab mice. Human studies have been scarce, but one small study of 12 hospitalized patients with depression revealed promising results.
  • Caryophyllene is found abundantly in black pepper, cinnamon, and hops. A potent component in anti-inflammatory salves and topicals, caryophyllene is thought to have potential anticancer, antibacterial, antifungal, and antiseptic properties. Caryophyllene is unique because of its ability to bind to CB2 cannabinoid receptors in the endocannabinoid system after being consumed orally.
  • Linalool is responsible for the recognizable marijuana smell with its spicy and floral notes and is known for its strong sedative properties. Linalool is also found in lavender, mint, cinnamon and coriander. Patients suffering from arthritis, depression, seizures, insomnia and even cancer, have reported success with linalool.

Websites like Leafly and Weedmaps can help you learn more about the presence of terpenes in your cannabis strain. Journaling your effects when trying a new cannabis product can be a good way to observe which terpenes make up the most therapeutic profile for you. Journaling is especially important for new patients, but can be of great benefit to experienced users, too. Cannabis can produce widely varying effects from person to person. The best way to find what works individually is to keep close records about what you’re using and the resulting effects. 

Safety Issues To Watch For

When making concentrates and vaporization devices, ethanol is used to extract CBD from the whole plant material. When the ethanol is removed, the plant’s naturally-occurring terpenes are stripped out, so companies often reintroduce terpenes into their final products.

Many cannabis processors aim to replicate the terpenes in cannabis flower at ratios that occur naturally. But not all manufacturers do it well, raising both quality and safety concerns. The smell and taste of the terpenes, which can be quite bitter, can overpower whatever other flavor is in the product. For this reason, some processors find a benefit to removing terpenes. 

Whether stripping and re-adding botanical terpenes to cannabis makes a difference to its medicinal qualities is still very much unknown. To make sure you are getting only naturally occurring terpenes in your cannabis, talk to your dispensary budtender about any additional information on terpenes before purchasing cannabis products. 

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Author

  • Medicate OH's Founder and Publisher is a native of Cincinnati, Ohio and holds an undergraduate degree in journalism and a master's degree in public administration, both from Northern Kentucky University. She has more than 20 years of experience writing and editing professionally for the medical and wellness industries, including positions with The Journal of Pediatrics, Livestrong, The Cincinnati Enquirer, and Patient Pop.