This is a story about you.
You, the one who wants to know ahead of time whether one hit will give you couch-lock or spark your creative spirit.
You, the one who has never tried cannabis before because you just don’t know what might happen.
You, the one who has dabbled with dabs and passed a joint in the past, but has never had the experience with cannabis that you’ve heard stories about — the soothing calm, the blissed-out peace, the elusive flow state.
You want more control over the way you feel, and little plant compounds called terpenes, on their own, or paired with other cannabinoids can make it happen. Here’s what you should know about terpenes, plus how you can use them to choose your own adventure.
Table of Contents
What Are Terpenes?
If you’ve ever smelled the bright, vivid citrus scent of an orange, the woodsy aroma of pine, or the relaxing fragrance of lavender, you already know about terpenes.
Terpenes are the chemical compounds that give plants their aroma and flavor. They’re made in the trichomes on stems and leaves. Trichomes are the stuff that looks like tiny crystals on the plant. In nature, plants use terpenes to ward off predators, like insects and mold, and attract pollinators, like bees and butterflies.
Terpenes are present in a lot of the food and drinks you’re familiar with, like spices, fruits, and beer. They’re what make spices like cloves and rosemary so aromatic, essential oils so potent and therapeutic, and beer, especially hoppy.
There are literally tens of thousands of terpenes in nature (that we know of). Tons of factors can impact the types and amount of terpenes in a plant, from where it was grown to the kind of soil it called home. That matters because terpene profiles (the types of terpenes in a plant) make a big difference in the final product. That’s an even bigger deal when it comes to the way plants make you feel.
You know this is the case if you’ve ever used CBD to manage pain and anxiety or an Indica strain to relax and unwind. Yeah, they both come from the cannabis plant, but they’re entirely different products with totally different effects. The actual components that affect the way you feel are called cannabinoids, and terpenes play a big part in determining how they work.
When you’re armed with a little knowledge, you gain a lot in terms of transforming your cannabis experience into something you can shape and make your own. You can choose a couch-lock if you want or not.
Different Types of Cannabis Terpenes and Their Effects
Terpenes are a crucial ingredient in essential oils, and they’re also commonly found in skin and hair care products — not to mention food. For example, the terpene myrcene is found in mangos and lemongrass. Limonene is what gives citrus its bright, uplifting aroma. Thank linalool for lavender’s relaxing fragrance. And if you love the taste of basil on your pizza or blitzed into pesto, you’re a fan of ocimene.
Terpenes play a significant role in cannabis (which we’ll get into later). And they have medicinal qualities on their own that proves one thing: Mother Nature is pretty amazing.
Here’s a quick rundown of just a few benefits of terpenes:
Myrcene has also been associated with neuroprotective effects6.
Terpene Profiles in Cannabis
Terpenes are present in a lot of plants, but cannabis is pretty unique because it has one of the most complex terpene profiles12. You might be used to picking cannabis strains solely based on potency levels of THC and CBD. In reality, every strain of cannabis is unique, and its fingerprint is its terpene profile.
Take Indica and Sativa, two different species of the cannabis plant. Within these species are tens of thousands of different strains. The thing is, Mother Nature doesn’t care about product consistency. Cannabis grown indoors in Los Angeles will be radically different than the same plant grown outdoors in Santa Cruz. Every strain has a different ratio of cannabinoids (the active chemicals in marijuana) and terpenes, which is why a strain like Sour Diesel may make you feel focused and alert. In contrast, Cinex may make you feel euphoric. They’re both THC (tetrahydrocannabinol)-dominant strains but have different terpene profiles.
This variability isn’t a bad thing. When you think about it, it’s kind of beautiful. The cannabis you get from one part of the country can have radically different effects than the same strain grown in another part of the country. It’s like this: You can have red wine or white wine, but terpenes are what make the difference between a cabernet or pinot grigio.
Let’s take that example a step further. What if you prefer pinot grigio? What if you want a glass of cabernet with dinner one night, but pinot with lunch the next day?
Bring it back to the cannabis experience. You don’t always want couch-lock, just like you don’t always need to feel energized and euphoric. Knowing a cannabis product’s terpene profile is empowering. It gives you permission to be comfortable trying something new because you have an idea of the way it’ll make you feel.
Sure, you could just eat an edible and not know what will happen. Or you could choose your own adventure and pick a strain that has higher levels of certain terpenes that you know will make you feel relaxed, focused, or social. Here’s how that works.
How Terpenes Work
Cannabinoids are active compounds in cannabis that give the plant its medicinal properties. You might already be familiar with two cannabinoids: THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the primary active cannabinoid) and CBD (cannabidiol, which you can learn more about here). And terpenes have their own distinctive medicinal benefits. But when brought together in cannabis, cannabinoids and terpenes are basically best friends. They work together with the natural endocannabinoid receptors in your body. This is called “the entourage effect.” Basically, you have innate receptors in your body that allow molecules like CBD and THC to get to work, whether you use cannabis to chill out or manage inflammation.
Early research shows that terpenes actually change the way cannabinoids work. Like we talked about earlier, on their own, terpenes may help manage anxiety, inflammation and promote sedative effects — and they can improve the therapeutic effects of cannabis13.
Like most things cannabis and research, the science we’ve seen the tip of the iceberg. Because of this, most of what you read about terpenes is based on preliminary research or anecdotal evidence. We know, broadly speaking, that strains like OG Kush and Cherry Pie promote a feeling of relaxation. That’s because these Indica strains are high in myrcene. What this means is that growers can build terpene profiles based on the qualities of specific strains. They can craft formulas that give you the same effect (and flavor) every single time.
It’s like grabbing a can of your favorite soda or your go-to drink at Starbucks: you expect it to taste the same every time, whether you’re buying it in California or Oregon. Terpenes give you consistency in the final product. That’s why you’ll see some newer products on the market that say they specifically promote feelings like bliss and energy. They’ve been developed with a specific terpene formula in mind.
One big caveat here: Everyone responds to cannabinoids and terpenes a little bit differently, so you might have to experiment to find what’s right for you.
So, you know what terpenes are and how they work. How does that translate to what you’re buying?
Terpene Benefits In Cannabis
There are TONS of terpenes, but we’re going to talk about the most common ones you’ll hear about when you speak to your budtender at your local dispensary. More and more cannabis growers are now listing terpenes on their products so you can make a more informed decision about what you’re buying. Here’s a quick rundown of a few of the most common types of terpenes in cannabis and what they can do:
Aroma: Earthy, musky
Aroma: Pine needles
Aroma: Herbal, green
Therapeutic Benefits: Relaxation22
Aroma: Spicy, peppery
Aroma: Floral, citrus
Therapeutic Benefits: Sedation25
Aroma: Woodsy and spicy, like hops
Therapeutic Benefits: Anti-inflammatory26
The Big Takeaway
It used to be that THC content was the major deciding factor in which bud you wanted to buy and enjoy. As it turns out, THC and CBD aren’t the end-all, be-all. Terpene profiles are poised to become the next big thing to help you make an informed decision when you’re buying cannabis products.
Keep in mind that not everyone reacts the same way to terpenes (and cannabis in general) because of body chemistry. There’s a little bit of experimentation that goes on to figure out what’s right for you, and you can and should talk to your budtender to figure out what terpene profile meets your needs.
Above all, you don’t have to think of weed as a single entity; you have the power to pick and choose what you want if you wish to feel relaxed or creative. Terpenes are a way to add more depth to cannabis, and that’s what makes them pretty amazing — your high is in your hands, all thanks to the complexities of a little plant.
- Russo EB. Handbook of Psychotropic Herbs: A Scientific Analysis of Herbal Remedies for Psychiatric Conditions. Binghamton, NY: Haworth Press; 2001
- Anti-inflammatory activity of oleoresin from Brazilian Copaifera. Basile AC, Sertié JA, Freitas PC, Zanini AC, J Ethnopharmacol. 1988 Jan; 22(1):101-9.