Updated: Apr 7, 2021
It would be safe to say that unless you work in an industry that utilizes terpenes for manufacturing, you probably never heard of terpenes until recently. Massive growth in the cannabis/hemp industry has led to a surge of interest in terpenes and their potential therapeutic benefits.
So what exactly are they?
Terpenes (also called "terps" for short) are a type of aromatic organic hydrocarbons. In plain English, they are compounds that have specific smells. Terpenes are commonly confused with essential oils and for good reason; terpenes are actually one of many components of essential oils and are responsible for much of the smell and taste of essential oils.
Over 30,000 terpenes have been identified in nature so far. They are found in plants all over the globe (as well as some insects!) and serve several different functions. In plants, they attract beneficial insects while repelling others, allow for increased transpiration by evaporating at higher temperatures as well as allowing the plants to fight off infections of molds or fungi.
Terpenes in Cannabis
In the cannabis plant, terpenes, along with cannabinoids, are mostly produced in the trichomes which are the tiny glandular structures that give cannabis its frosty, crystal covered look and sticky feel. The most common terpenes found in cannabis plants are Myrcene, Pinene, Limonene, Linalool, Eucalyptol and Caryophyllene. We will dive into these individual terpenes and their potential benefits in separate articles.
Terpenes are used today for their flavor and aroma in a wide variety of traditional products like cosmetics, household cleaners, soaps, food products and more. Increasingly, terpenes are now being used in cannabis products like vape juice, pre-rolls, tinctures and topicals to enhance both taste, flavor and potential therapeutic effect.
As companies scramble to create new products and differentiate themselves in the rapidly growing cannabis industry, demand for terpenes has spawned a new side industry that is focused on creating isolated terpenes along with cannabis strain specific terpene blends made from these isolates.
Are cannabis terpenes different?
A common question is: “Are cannabis terpenes different than the same terpenes found in other plants?” The answer to this question is “No, they are chemically identical.” When a terpene is isolated in a laboratory, there is no difference between a terpene from cannabis when compared to the same terpene from another plant.
For example the terpene Myrcene is the most common terpene found in cannabis and the exact same compound is also found in hops and lemongrass. Have you ever wondered by some craft beers have that skunky weed smell? This is because they are heavy on hops which share a similar terpene profile.
We spoke with a representative at a popular terpene company in California who explained that the while the company does sell terpene blends named after famous cannabis strains, these terpene blends do not actually come from cannabis or hemp plants. They are produced by testing cannabis strains to understand their terpene profile, and then recreating the same terpene profile using terpenes from other plants.
The simple reason behind this is that terpenes derived purely from cannabis/hemp are a lot more expensive. Cannabis extraction companies usually collect terpenes as a byproduct of the cannabis extraction process since terpenes usually evaporate at high temperatures. These cannabis terpenes are sometimes added back to tinctures and other cannabis products but cannot come close to meeting the current demand for terpenes, and so are much more expensive than terpene isolates.
Therapeutic effects of terpenes
Now that we have an idea of what terpenes are, the big question is how they may benefit the human body. Thus far, there has been very little research into the therapeutic benefits of terpenes. Like most things cannabis related, we are in the very beginning stages of learning about the plant, its various compounds and how they work within the body. The only thing that we know with 100% certainty about terpenes is that they produce varied smells and tastes.
While some will claim that terpenes work together with cannabinoids to enhance their effects, scientists tell us that there is no concrete evidence to date that terpenes modulate the activity of cannabinoids. But even if terpenes do not directly contribute to the way cannabinoids affect us, there is growing evidence that terpenes may contribute therapeutic benefits on their own. Scientific research into the potential sedative, anxiolytic (anxiety reducing), anti-inflammatory, and analgesic (pain relieving) properties of terpenes is ongoing.
We don’t have much scientific evidence available yet, but anecdotal evidence is widely available. Cannabis enthusiasts can tell the difference between strains simply by the smell and by the effect produced. A common belief is that it is terpenes that are responsible for the difference in effect between one strain and another. This could potentially explain the difference in effect between a sedative “indica” strain and a more uplifting, energetic “sativa” strain. Others will say that it is strictly the cannabinoid profile that changes the effect of a strain and any perceived effect of terpenes is purely psychological. Believers in the