Why Terpenes Matter: A Full Introduction to The Effect-Drivers of Cannabis
If you’ve been involved in the world of cannabis in the last few years, you’ve likely noticed the growing popularity of Terpenes - these tiny molecules with powerhouse effects have become a hot topic in the cannabis markets maturing in legal US states, and consumers of all levels are starting to take notice. Farmers have begun to get their cannabis flower tested to determine the types and percentages of terpenes present, and producers of edibles, tinctures, and vaporizer cartridges are reflecting these compounds on their labeling more frequently than ever before. But what are terpenes, and why are they so important to the effects we get from consuming cannabis?
At Periodic edibles, we’re all about the Science of Cannabis, so we’ve compiled everything you need to know about the effect-driving molecules of cannabis so that you’re empowered to tailor your cannabis experiences to your needs. Read on to discover why terpenes are important in all cannabis consumption methods, and how to harness them to get the exact effects you want, whether that’s nuanced recreational highs or acute medicinal benefits, from your cannabis products.
Terps 101 - What They Are, Where They Come From, and Why Plants Make Them
“Terpenes” is a blanket term used to categorize a wide variety of secondary chemical compounds produced by cannabis, and nearly all other plants on Earth! A “secondary” compound is one that a plant makes as a by-product to help support the production of its primary compounds - sometimes that’s fruit, sometimes it’s flowers, and in the case of cannabis, the primary compounds are the cannabinoids we enjoy consuming, like THC and CBD. The secondary cannabis compounds of terpenes function in several ways to support the plant’s healthy growth - terpenes have a ton of different effects on external and internal stimuli that impact the plant, including bacteria, fungus, insects, cellular growth irregularities, and other sources of stress. Terpenes are also responsible for the distinctive smell of different plants and have some impact on their flavor as well - if you think back to your high school Biology classes, you likely remember that pleasant smells and tastes help encourage animals to spread the seeds and pollen of plants, thereby promoting widespread growth and reproductive success of that plant species. So these terpenes not only act as repellants to animals that might harm the plant - they also act as lures to those animals that can have symbiotic relationships with the plant as well!
Terpenes, like cannabinoids, are produced in the trichomes of cannabis - the sticky, pinhead-small ball-and-stalk protrusions covering cannabis leaves and buds, which wind up looking like coatings of frost on high-testing cannabis strains. Trichomes are able to release terpenes into the air thanks to the small and volatile nature of the molecules, giving cannabis strains their strong, distinctive smells - each terpene has a unique scent, and the combination of different types and amounts of terpenes in varied cannabis strains produces their signature scent profiles. In fact, with some dedicated training and time-tested experience, you can learn to pick out exact terpenes in your cannabis just from the complex smells given off by the flower. We’ll get into tips for identifying individual terpene scents in a later section, so that you can start to hone the basis of these skills right now!
An important point of distinction is that terpenes are NOT the same as cannabinoids - they are different compounds with very different impacts on our bodies. Cannabinoids interact directly with the CB1 and CB2 receptors of our Endocannabinoid System to induce psychoactive effects and changes in our cognition, mood, and physical feelings. THC’s effects are intoxicating and euphoric, with many medicinal benefits accompanying the pleasant recreational effects that made cannabis so prominent. CBD is often incorrectly cited as being non-psychoactive because it does not produce the powerful intoxication of THC along with its many medicinal benefits - however, because it does interact with our nervous system cells to induce a change in our mood, physical state, and sometimes our cognition, it is by definition psychoactive even if it is indeed non-intoxicating and safer for use when THC would be inappropriate.
Cannabinoids have very strong influences on our mental and physical states, while terpenes are different in that their effects -particularly their cognitive effects - are much more nuanced than those of cannabinoids. So while THC can make you feel very euphoric to the point of being silly or giggly, a terpene that typically produces mood elevation such as Limonene or Pinene is more likely to produce lighter effects, more similar to the uplifting boost of energy you get during cleaning the house or a light hike through the woods. Some people use the analogy of the mechanisms powering your car to help distinguish the effects of terpenes and cannabinoids - THC, CBD, and other minor cannabinoids are like the engine assembly that produces the power to get you going. They do most of the work, and the amount of them in your cannabis products typically correlates to the strength of experience you’ll get (we’ll get into more details on this momentarily). In this car analogy, terpenes are like the steering wheel and associated parts that control the motion and direction of the car - they mostly control whether the experience will be uplifting, relaxing, or any of the many other unique and distinct experiences that cannabis can provide us. For this reason, understanding how different terpenes affect you individually is key to getting the most predictable, repeatable, and desirable experiences from your cannabis products.
While cannabinoids and terpenes are very different in the type of effects they produce and how exactly they interact with our bodies, they do work together naturally in some very interesting ways that cannabis scientists describe as The Entourage Effect. To summarize, the Entourage Effect describes the ways that terpenes and cannabinoids work together to interact with our nervous system’s cannabinoid receptors to induce effects that are very different, and usually much more powerful, than just the cannabinoids or the terpenes would on their own. Dr. Ethan Russo, one of the leading cannabis researchers of our day, describes the many ways individual terpenes interact with our physiology, as well as working together with cannabinoids, to produce unique effects on our mental and physical states in his renowned “Taming THC” paper. (Russo, 2011)
Now that you understand what terpenes are, where and why plants produce them, and how they are different from cannabinoids, we’ll get into details on how you can use this knowledge to discover your own individual terpene preferences. We’ll also give you tips on finding these terpenes in your various cannabis products so that you can get the exact cannabis experience you’re looking for, almost every time.
Terpene FAQs - How to Leverage Terpenes for the Best Experiences
To get started on how to best use terpenes in your cannabis products, let’s first cover some common questions about how terpenes actually work on consumption and how they wind up in cannabis products. We’ll then get into the details on the most common terpenes found in cannabis strains - including the smells to look for in your flower to identify common terpenes, how they impact your mind and health, & potential drawbacks to high doses of certain terpenes - as well as how to look for them in products next time you’re in the dispensary.
Once you finish this article, you’ll be a full-fledged expert on the basics of terpenes, ready to begin honing your terpene preference palate! Here are the answers to those first questions you might have…
Can terpenes get me high?
This one is complex, and boils down to Mostly no, but kind of, yes - Through the actions of the Entourage Effect, terpenes can definitely have an impact on your high, but they are not typically described as inducing powerful highs on their own. They do offer some mood elevation or relaxation similar to those effects gained from essential oil aromatherapy, and they can also boost your body’s uptake of its own natural endocannabinoids - which may produce something like a “runner’s high” in certain cases! This is because terpenes support the function of our Endocannabinoid System indirectly by encouraging binding of receptor molecules through positive influences on the binding environment. So in summary - while they will not get you as powerfully high as good-old THC, terpenes can definitely help you feel good!
How do terpenes work in the body?
Terpenes are very small naturally-occurring molecules that are able to cross the Blood-Brain Barrier - a thin membrane protecting your brain from dangerous foreign substances. Through this action, they are able to “chaperone” cannabinoids into the brain, escort them to the binding sites in our nervous system, and let them work their magic. A few very special terpenes like B-Caryophyllene can even bind to special sites on the receptors themselves to encourage chemical signal pathways of their own! Terpenes may be the supporting cast to the star of cannabinoids, but they are instrumental to the power and nuance of cannabis experiences.
How are terpenes isolated and added to cannabis products?
Obviously terpenes will be present in their natural percentages in normal cannabis flower for consumption and whole-plant infused products, but you may see processed cannabis products that include re-introduced “naturally-derived” or “cannabis-derived” terpenes in your dispensary. Processors are able to isolate out terpenes from either cannabis or other plant sources (lavender buds are a very common source of the calming terpene Linalool) using solvents, pressure, heat, or combinations of these factors to get purified solutions of only specific desired terpenes, which can then be used to infuse products and impart the terpene’s unique effects, scent, and flavor to the final product. This can be helpful for controlling the final effects of your cannabis product, particularly in infused goods like edibles, tinctures, and vaporizer liquids.
What are the effects of individual terpenes - What Terpenes Do What?
Craft cannabis breeding and research into the chemical make-up of different cannabis strains has elucidated the specific effects and medical benefits of many terpenes. We also understand the medical impacts of terpenes thanks to hundreds of years of herbal medicine inadvertently leveraging the effects of naturally occurring terpenes in essential oils of plants to remedy common symptoms of illnesses. We know of many terpenes that have proven effects against things like inflammation, nausea, pain, sleep disorders, seizures, cancer cell growth, and even asthma - and the list goes on!
Obviously, much research is still needed to fully understand how each terpene interacts with our body and different disease states, and there are far too many terpenes in cannabis (hundred that we know of today!) for us to cover the effects of all of them in this article - however, we will give you a quick overview of the main terpenes in cannabis. You can also visit our Terpene Education page for more insights into the effects of the 10 major cannabis terpenes, and follow us on Instagram for our “#Terpene Time” posts, diving into details of new minor cannabis terpenes every Sunday night.
Myrcene - Myrcene is the most abundant cannabis terpene, found in high concentrations in most cannabis strains, and is responsible for the signature “dank” musky earth smell associated with cannabis. This terpene is most commonly associated with the “couch-lock” effects that sedating cannabis products can produce, and works as a sleep aid for this reason. Like most terpenes, it has anti-inflammatory effects that make it helpful for the treatment of pain and muscle soreness.
Limonene - Limonene is another very common cannabis terpene, contributing bright citrus aromas to the cannabis scent profile. Also found in citrus fruit rinds, this terpene is prized for its mood-elevating potential, making it common in strains that produce energizing feelings. Limonene is also a great terpene to look for if you need digestive protection, as it helps to prevent ulcers, reduce heartburn, and promote healthy digestion.
Linalool - This terpene may already be one of your favorite scents if you’re a fan of lavender! Linalool is the main component giving lavender essential oil its iconic scent, and it is also one of the most medically beneficial terpenes. This sweet-floral scented terpene can be used for controlling everything from pain and depression symptoms, to epileptic seizures and sleep disorders, making it a fast favorite among medical marijuana patients of many needs.
Pinene - If you’re local to Periodic edibles’ home-state of Oregon, then you’re no stranger to the smell of Pinene. This terpene is most abundant in the forest trees that cover the Pacific Northwest, and contributes to the improved airflow and deeper breathing you feel on a hike through the woods, making it great for treating symptoms of asthma or other respiratory illnesses. This terpene is also mood elevating, and can help reduce the memory impairment usually associated with using THC.
B-Caryophyllene - B-Caryophyllene, sometimes just called Caryophyllene for short, is a very unique terpene with a spicy, peppery scent like black peppercorns. This terpene is typically very calming and sedating, and can even counteract the anxiety-producing effects of too much THC consumption. B-Caryophyllene is also the only terpene science has currently identified as being able to interact with the CB2 receptor of our brain to cause direct medicinal benefits like reduced pain and swelling.
Terpinolene - Terpinolene is technically a minor cannabis terpene, but its effects on our cognition are so pronounced and unique, even at small doses, that we felt compelled to include it in our short-list of important cannabis terpenes. Terpinolene can have some of the most divergent effects of any terpene in different people, with some finding it very centering and focusing, some finding it to give them speedy energy, and some almost guaranteed to feel uncomfortably anxious after ingesting it - a far cry from those who feel less anxious when ingesting it! Though it has great medical benefits, the hard-to-predict actions of this terpene underline the importance of learning how each individual terpene impacts your body.
What are the possible drawbacks of terpenes?
Ending on the potential anxiety-causing effects of divergent terpenes like Terpinolene brings up the next natural question - what are the negative side effects of using terpenes? The good news is that, because they are naturally occurring compounds found abundantly in the safe plant-based foods we already eat, most terpenes are pretty much entirely harmless at normal concentrations where they actually have positive health impacts.
It is important to specify normal concentrations, as some terpenes can cause irritation, allergic reaction, nausea, headache, and/or acute toxic effects at very high doses - but these doses are much higher than you would ever consume in the course of using cannabis products, even if you’re having a particularly lifted 4/20 celebration. You would need to directly inhale or drink large quantities of terpenes to incur negative side effects, unless you have an existing biological hyper-sensitivity. Hyper-sensitivities to terpenes present much like any other environmental allergic reactions - itching skin or eyes, respiratory disruptions, possible headache, nausea, or vomiting in extreme cases. If you experience these symptoms, discontinue use of that terpene or products with noticeable concentrations of it, and consider having an immunologist perform a skin allergen test with essential oils containing that terpene to verify the presence of an allergic response.
Aside from acute physical symptoms, it is very possible to be sensitive to the cognitive effects of a certain terpene that does not work well with your body chemistry as we described with those who feel anxious after consuming Terpinolene. Everyone has a unique group of terpenes that work the best for their body in different situations, so it’s vital to experiment with varied products, take note of your experiences with different terpenes and cannabinoid percentages, and begin to hone in on what terpenes you need in your cannabis products at different times of day and for different situations.
Best Ways to Shop for Cannabis Products with Terpenes
So now that you’re up to speed on the What and Why of terpenes, it’s time to figure out the Where and How - as in, Where can you find the terpenes on your cannabis products, and How do you find the right product with your preferred terpenes? This is honestly the hardest part of the whole terpene-embracing journey, as we’re still at the forefront of the terpene science wave, and not all flower or processed cannabis products will include information about their terpene content.
Here are the 4 main tactics to find cannabis products with the right terpenes for your needs:
Show Me The Test Results! - Did you read that in a hyped-up Jerry McGuire voice, or is that reference too dated? Regardless, you should be amped about cannabis test results, because they’re the best way to find a product with the terpene profile you need! When in doubt, always ask your budtender if the dispensary has terpene test results for the product type you’re considering - if they do, they will show them to you, and you can see the exact matrix and amounts of terpenes and cannabinoids in the product, giving you a clear picture of what to expect based on your previous experiences with those compounds.
Check Packaging Labels - if a cannabis company is going the extra mile to pay attention to terpene content in their products and test to verify it, they are likely also going to include that information on their packaging so that you do not have to rely on asking for test results. Ask to see the final packaging of a product you’re considering to check the terpene information listed there. That can help you predict the direction of the effects you’ll feel, based on the top 2-4 terpenes present in the product, and can help you steer clear of terpenes that you’ve had less-than-savory experiences with in the past.
Follow Your Nose - For cannabis flower, in states that allow you to smell strains before purchase, one of your first and best indicators of terpene content is the smell you get off the buds. Clear your nose before smelling each strain, and take a few good deep whiffs to really examine the complex notes of the aroma - what scent do you smell most strongly at first? Is there a more understated scent or two that you detect beneath the highest note? Is there a lingering smell that changes once the bulk of the buds leave your nose? Train your nose to consider these questions, and link them to the experiences you’ve felt from similar-smelling strains. Soon you’ll have developed a more acutely-trained nose for cannabis terpenes, and you’ll have a near-intuitive sense of what cannabis strain will be best for your needs at that moment.
When in Doubt, Ask your Budtender - Any time you’re considering a new cannabis strain or product, leverage the greatest tool you have at your disposal to get a sense for the experience you’re likely to get - ask your budtender if they’ve tried it themselves, and how it made them feel. Though everyone’s body is unique and you can have a very different experience with certain compounds from other people, general anecdotal trends in experience are still a good way to guide your early experimentations - so if all the budtenders in the shop felt very relaxed from a new batch of OG Kush they just got in, it’s likely to effect you in the same direction. If you frequent a dispensary or two with consistent budtenders working there, ask several whom you routinely work with for their experiences with the products you’ve tried before, and see if you can find a budtender who reliably has similar experiences to yours - they may have a similar type of body chemistry to you, and can be your semi-personalized “tour guide” on what cannabis experiences to expect from new products, which the budtender gets first access to try and report on.
We hope that these insights on the complex world of cannabis terpenes have empowered you to better choose cannabis products for your unique and personal needs. If you’re interested in learning more about how cannabis works together with our bodies to support our health in many ways, check out our write-up on the Human Endocannabinoid System. If you’re nervous about experimenting with cannabis for the first time, especially edibles, read our blog post on preventing and combatting the negative side effects of THC overconsumption.
*DISCLAIMER: These opinion pieces are personal experiences of the individual authors, and are not medical recommendations, medical claims, or usage recommendations from the company. Our products are not approved by the FDA to treat, cure or prevent any diseases. Periodic edibles supports responsible cannabis use in accordance with all local laws.