Cannabis is well known for its unique smell. It’s skunky, pungent aroma is nearly unmistakable especially when someone is smoking close by. The unique smell that cannabis produces is noticeable throughout the growth of the plant and still exists when you purchase it at the dispensary.
All plants express aromas, but very few, if any, express them in such numbers as cannabis does. To date, cannabis has been proven to express nearly 160 unique scent profiles. These scents are directly tied to “terpenes” that cannabis produces.
What Are Terpenes?
Terpenes are the chemical compounds responsible for the unique aromas that cannabis produces.
Terpenes are also found in nearly all plants, some common terpene sources you may have noticed in daily life are:
· Aromatic herbs like basil, thyme and sage
· Citrus fruits
· Pine trees
Let’s try an exercise! Imagine yourself walking amongst a vast forest surrounded by evergreen trees, take a deep sniff. That unmistakable smell of pine comes from the terpene “pinene,” and is also one of the most common terpenes found in cannabis. Now imagine you are cutting up a lemon and squeezing it into your water. The citrus scent you are smelling is being produced from the terpene “limonene,” another terpene oftentimes found in cannabis.
In cannabis, terpenes are located in the “trichome” of the cannabis plant. Trichomes the sticky mushroom-like hairs found all over the cannabis plant that contain all of the cannabinoid compounds and scent chemicals.
What Job Do Terpenes Perform?
Terpenes play a very important role in the survival, growth and evolution of the cannabis plant. Cannabis, like other plants, wants to attract pollinators while deterring destructive pests.
Many terpenes are only found in trace amounts, some of the most common terpenes combine together to create the complex scent profiles that cannabis produces. Many terpenes found in cannabis overlap with one another, creating common scent profiles between different strains. The gas scent that you find in Tangelope may be very similar to the gassy smells that you find in Sour Diesel.
When terpenes form in the cannabis plant, they are affected by certain variables in nature, or controlled by growers. Factors such as where the plant is grown (indoor or outdoor), nutrients used, growth medium (soil, rockwool, etc.), harvesting time and curing techniques all have an effect on what terpenes are produced and what remains in the final product.
How do terpenes effect the body?
What exactly terpenes do to humans is still somewhat of a mystery. There has been a large push from scientists to better understand how terpenes affect the cannabis consumption process, how they affect our bodies and the synergies that terpenes and cannabinoids produce when working together.
The main hypothesis is that the dominant terpenes of a cultivar (type of cannabis) work as a team with the cannabinoids, specifically, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabidiol (CBD), and other cannabinoids - to produce the effects people associate with different cultivars.
Many consumers have shared anecdotal evidence that two completely different cultivars (types) of cannabis with the same level of THC produce different experiences. Terpenes could be the reason for the differing experiences.
You may ask, “can terpenes get you high?” We can answer that as well! Some terpenes can be classified as “psychoactive” because they can affect the brain, but they do not get you “high” in the traditional sense.
Terpenes by themselves are not intoxicating, but they have been reported by consumers to have an impact on how cannabinoids (THC, CBD, etc.) feel when they are consumed.
There is preliminary research suggesting that terpenes have the ability to positively impact certain mental conditions, such as depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder. The research is still in its infancy and must be monitored closely, but it is interesting to say the least.
The “Entourage Effect”
Studies published primarily by Dr. Ethan Russo have displayed that isolated cannabinoids (THC, CBD) alone are less effective treatments than “full spectrum” treatments. (treatments that include cannabinoids, terpenes and flavonoids)
It is theorized that all of the cannabis plant’s compounds work together to create a harmonious interaction in the body known as the “entourage effect.” In other words, the entire plant works much better than the isolated compounds by themselves.
This study explores the entourage effect in a clinical setting - https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19896326/
Common Terpenes in Cannabis
Keep in mind that all of the studies and anecdotes surrounding the benefits and effects of terpenes are extremely limited. We still need to perform extensive scientific testing on humans to discover the effects of cannabis terpenes on the human body.
Listed below are some common terpenes and their potential effects:
Beta-caryophyllene. Also found in cloves, rosemary, and hops, beta-caryophyllene could be beneficial for managing symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Beta-pinene. Also found in coniferous pine trees, which could have potentially have anti-depression properties.
Humulene. This terpene is found in ginseng and hops.
Limonene. One of the most commonly found terpenes, limonene has distinct citrus notes and has shown the potential with anti-cancer properties.
Linalool. Also found in lavender, this terpene may help with creating a sense of calm for the consumer.
Myrcene. Also found in fruits such as the mango, myrcene is know to have sedative effects especially when inhaled. The “mango myth” posits that eating raw mango before consuming cannabis can increase the sense of “high,” this has not been proven by science as of yet.
How are Terpenes Used in Cannabis Products?
Terpenes are involved in producing not only the scent profile of the cannabis plant but the unique sensory (and physical) experiences found in the cannabis products you know and love. Early research shows that terpenes may affect the way cannabis interacts with our bodies by binding and modulating pathways and receptors.
Terpenes are “volatile compounds” which means they dissipate quickly into the environment. This also means that they are often easily lost when cannabis is extracted for use in products.
Certain extraction methods are better than others at preserving the terpene profiles. Products like live resin, rosin and C02 extraction preserve terpenes much better, resulting in a more aromatic, flavorful and robust cannabis extract.
Recently, there have been cannabis product manufacturers that have been adding terpenes into edible products. For example, food-grade terpenes are added to gummy candy products to enhance flavor and supposedly effects. There is not enough solid scientific evidence to support the claims that companies are making that edible terpenes can actually steer any effects.
What to Look For
When searching for new cannabis flower or terpene profiles there are a few techniques that we suggest using to maximize your experience. (and enjoyment)
Lower the heat – use devices such as vaporizers to dial in the heat to vaporize (boil, not combust) the cannabinoids and terpenes. This will allow you to experience the full taste and scent profile of the terpenes within the plant.
Check the date – make sure to check the cultivation date, packaging date and expiration date of all products. Make sure when you open the packaging, you give it a sniff to make sure that it is fresh and not stale.
Store it right – when storing cannabis flower, make sure that you are storing it in an sealed, airtight and opaque container. Make sure to store it in areas with low heat and out of direct sunlight as well. Time, temperature and being unsealed lead to terpene loss in the product. Proper storage goes a long way to preserving all of those beautiful scent profiles that the terpenes provide us!
Look at the label – not all legal cannabis states require terpene testing to be placed on the label. If you are lucky enough to shop in a state that requires testing, or if there are companies that test for terpene content shop, choose them first. Terpene testing labels can assist with finding unique terpene profiles and making sure your preferences in terpenes are met. Just make sure that you understand them and discover what works best for you.
Keep a journal – keeping a journal is essential to understanding your scent and taste preferences as a cannabis consumer. Keep a small journal that details the consumption method used, the strain/cultivar consumed, terpene profile, perceived smells/tastes and effects of the product. Use this journal to keep your experiences consistent or to discover new ones. It’s fun to keep your selection and sensory experiences fresh!
Terpenes play a very important role in the smell, taste and experience of cannabis. Although we are still very early in researching the synergy between cannabis and the terpenes within the plant, we can still enjoy using our senses to select a strain that speaks to us.
Use a few of the techniques discussed here to check out the cannabis that your local dispensary offers. Perhaps you can find some new aromas and terpenes you had never smelled before!