The unique musky, skunky, and pungent aroma of hemp is unmistakable: Most people can smell it before they even see it. Terpenes are the aromatic compounds that determine the scent of many flowers and herbs, and that bestow different hemp strains with their distinctive odor and contribute to its flavor...and are being studied for their unique therapeutic properties.
Over 200 terpenes have been reported in the hemp (cannabis sativa) plant. They are behind the plant’s scent, flavor, and color. Small terpenes are able to quickly and easily evaporate into the air when we inhale them with our noses. They are thus the most fragrant and responsible for the distinct ways different varieties of the cannabis plant smell.
Let's Talk Terpenes
Terpenes are naturally occurring aromatic hydrocarbons found in plants and animals. With over 50,000 terpenes identified, they are arguably the largest and most diverse class of organic compounds. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes, which contribute to the roles they play in our bodies.
Terpenes are the aromatic compounds that fulfill unique ecological roles for plants in protection from predation, attraction of pollinators, and myriad other roles. They are mainly found in the same glands (the trichome) that produce cannabinoids like THC and CBD.
Terpenes may also play a key role in differentiating the effects of various hemp and cannabis strains – challenging standard beliefs held about indica vs sativa strains. For example, some terpenes might promote relaxation and stress-relief, while others potentially promote focus and acuity. However, more studies are needed to understand how and to what extent.
Terpenes share a precursor with cannabinoids and are synthesized by the same secretory cells inside glandular trichomes that produce cannabinoids. Like cannabinoids, the effect profile of any given terpene can change in the presence of other compounds, thus contributing to the phenomenon known as the entourage effect. These phytotherapeutic agents have been able to produce synergy with respect to the treatment of pain, inflammation, anxiety, depression, and cancer, as well as fungal and bacterial infections.
Despite existing at seemingly low concentrations in preparations, they have proven to be potent. In studies, even small amounts in ambient air produce marked behavioral effects to increase or decrease activity levels, even when observed serum levels are low or negligible.
The main hemp terpenoids include: limonene, myrcene, alpha-pinene, linalool, beta-caryophyllene, caryophyllene oxide, nerolidol, and phytol. Some of these are flavor and fragrance components we commonly experience in the human diet. For instance, high amounts of limonene are present in the essential oil of lemons and limes, while alpha- and beta-pinene are found in the essential oil of pine needles. These are associated with uplifting effects, while linalool, found in lavender oil, is known for creating feelings of relaxation.
The largest group of phytochemicals found in hemp, terpenes are very potent and display unique therapeutic effects. Some may have anti-inflammatory, analgesic and antibacterial properties, while others appear to simulate the effects of endocannabinoids and neurotransmitters. In topical products such as CBD lotion, terpenes can aid in moving other molecules across the skin barrier, helping to make cannabinoids more bioavailable in our bodies.
Terpenes also affect animal and human behavior when inhaled from ambient air and have been found to meaningfully impact the entourage effects of cannabis extracts.