What are Cannabis Terpenes? Effects, Health Benefits and How They Compare to CBD

Terpenes are essential oils of a plant. They are responsible for the way a plant smells and tastes. The potential health benefits of terpenes are numerous and depend on the properties of each individual material. Some researches claim that terpenes can also help to enhance the “entourage effect” and by that, the therapeutic effects of CBD.
Written by 
Diana Rangaves, PharmD, Clinical Consultant, Google Scholar.
|Last Updated:

Cannabis legalization has been on the rise in the last few years. In 33 US states, medical marijuana is now legal. In 11 states, recreational marijuana is legal and these numbers are growing. This rush toward legalization has led to a broad range of investigation regarding potential therapeutic benefits of cannabis, both marijuana and hemp. Most of what people know so far about cannabis and its effects has to do with its principle cannabinoids: THC and CBD. Cannabinoids are naturally occurring compounds that may have significant health benefits as studies are slowly confirming. However, there is much more to the cannabis plant than cannabinoids. Cannabis, like all plants, create compounds called terpenes, which may be beneficial to humans as well.

What are terpenes?

Terpenes are essential oils of a plant. They are responsible for the way a plant smells and tastes. Lemons smell and taste like lemons because of terpenes. Rosemary smells and tastes like rosemary because of terpenes. Cannabis smells and tastes like cannabis because of terpenes. Plants make terpenes for practical reasons: to attract pollinators or to ward off predators. Aside from the fact that terpenes give plants their smell and taste, cannabis terpenes may have health benefits that rival those of CBD and THC. Aromatherapy researchers are already working to explore this role of terpenes from plants in general. More studies are needed to confirm the potential benefits of terpenes (including those from cannabis), but the information currently out there has been sufficient to influence how cannabis is grown.

Naturally, the terpene profile of each strain of cannabis is different. Cannabis growers try to imitate and enhance the terpene profiles of naturally occurring strains in order to create new strains that have particular desirable effects. Now, there are hundreds of cannabis strains, thanks to the growth in the industry and the efforts of cannabis growers and they all have different names. Take, for instance, Lemon Kush. Lemon Kush has a lot of the terpene limonene, which is also found in citrus peels. However, not all Lemon Kushes are necessarily the same, even though they come from the same seed strain. Terpene profiles differ based on whether a plant is grown indoors or outdoors due to factors like sunlight, temperature, and nutrients from soil that enter into the equation.

Even further, terpenes are now being isolated from plants, including cannabis, and sold on their own. Experts tout a variety of health benefits. Whether or not terpenes actually have health benefits on their own or when consumed in combination with cannabis remains to be seen. Keep in mind that terpenes are non-intoxicating, which means they do not get you high by themselves. This simple fact makes them, like CBD, much easier to sell in the mass market.


How do terpenes affect human physiology?

Terpenes bind to the brain’s receptors, just as cannabinoids (THC, CBD) do. When chemicals interact with those receptors, the body typically has a physiological response. Terpenes also can influence the body’s production of our neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine, which play a huge role in our physiology.

The potential health benefits of terpenes are numerous and depend on the properties of each individual material. Some of the posited benefits include relief from anxiety, pain, and depression, anti-inflammatory activity, anti-bacterial action, anti-cancer activity, the capacity to energize or sedate, and mood enhancement in general, to name a few.

There is also heavy speculation and some research regarding the ability of terpenes to enhance the intoxicating effects of marijuana as well as the therapeutic effects of both THC and CBD. This has been termed the “Entourage Effect”. This principle underlies claims that the benefits of active compounds obtained from the cannabis plant are enhanced when CBD or THC is consumed along with natural terpenes. In other words, terpenes can help to enhance the therapeutic effects of CBD and THC, making them significantly more effective than they would be on their own. Therefore, if CBD relieves anxiety, CBD with terpenes would be more effective at anxiety relief, for example.

Certain terpenes may also either enhance or lessen the intoxicating effects of THC. The terpene myrcene, for example, is commonly found in marijuana. This terpene causes our cell membranes to be extra permeable. The translation is that when there is a lot of myrcene in a particular strain of marijuana, the THC is more quickly and easily absorbed, leading to a more intense, and longer lasting high. On the flip side, a different terpene, pinene, has been shown to inhibit the intoxicating effects of marijuana. The validity of these claims is still up in the air given the lack of conclusive clinical studies. However, what has been found appears promising.


What are the differences between CBD and terpenes?

Cannabinoids are naturally occurring chemical compounds produced by the cannabis flower. CBD and THC are examples of cannabinoids found in cannabis plants, though there are many more. Different cannabinoids elicit different bodily effects. The human body has an endocannabinoid system that seems to play an important role in brain, endocrine, and immune function, as well as mediating the secretion of hormones and stress responses. CBD binds to the body’s cannabinoid receptors CB1 and CB2 and stimulates the endocannabinoid system’s production of its own cannabinoids. It also interacts with several neurotransmitters in the brain and many of the body’s molecular processing pathways to allegedly deliver an array of health benefits.

The cannabis glands that contain cannabinoids are the same ones that secretes its terpenes, which appear as oils. Like CBD and other cannabinoids, terpenes also bind to cannabinoid receptors and can influence neurotransmitters in the brain, sometimes even affecting their production rate. It is thought, as mentioned, that terpenes exert a synergistic effect on cannabinoids like CBD, so consuming the two together seems to be ideal in terms of health benefits.


The most important terpenes in cannabis

Without terpenes, it is possible that the therapeutic benefits of cannabis could largely be lost. So far, more than 100 cannabis terpenes have been found, though most of them do not occur in substantial concentrations. Here are some of the most concentrated and common terpenes found in cannabis plants (both marijuana and hemp) and how they interact with the body and influence the function of cannabinoids. Keep in mind that none of these potential effects, both beneficial or otherwise, have been proven through rigorous clinical studies. Research is ongoing directed toward fully understanding and verifying the effects of terpenes on the human body.


Is the most abundant terpene found in cannabis. This terpene makes it easier for chemicals to cross the blood brain barrier, allowing a more rapid and perhaps a more powerful impact of cannabinoids like THC and CBD. THC’s psychoactive effects may be enhanced by myrcene as well, meaning the combination of THC and myrcene could intensify “high” feelings. Some studies indicate that myrcene may be helpful for pain relief and for treating insomnia. You can also find myrcene in thyme and lemongrass. Its flavor and scent is citrus-y and earthy.


People use Limonene for heartburn, acid reflux, and for its anti-inflammatory, antifungal, and antimicrobial activity. Some studies show it may also enhance mood and decrease stress. Limonene comes second to only myrcene in terms of the quantity found in cannabis plants. Many citrus fruits, such as lemons and limes, also naturally contain limonene. Unsurprisingly, it has a strong citrus scent.


Originally used for depression, anxiety, and sleep disorders in Ayurvedic medicine, one of the oldest known medical systems, originating in India thousands of years ago. Now, speculation is prevalent about linalool’s role in reducing some of the anxiety that THC can cause. This terpene is also used for pain relief and as an insecticide. Other plants containing linalool include lavender, birch, coriander, and cinnamon. This terpene smells and tastes floral, similar to lavender, with subtle hints of citrus.


Known for its anti-inflammatory effects as well as its antibiotic, gastroprotective, and anti-cancer activity. It can also act as a bronchodilator to help breathing conditions such as asthma, promote alertness, and help retain memory. With other terpenes and cannabinoids, it can create an effect of sedation (myrcene) rather than alertness. Some studies have shown it reduces the effects of THC. Pinene is also found in pine needles, basil, sage, rosemary, and dill. It smells and tastes like pine.


In ancient Chinese medicine, the terpene Humulene was used as an appetite suppressant. Some studies have found it to be as effective as an anti-inflammatory. It is also commonly used as an antibacterial and anti-tumor agent. Humulene is most commonly found in hops, though it can also be found in basil, ginseng, sage, and clove. Its aroma is earthy and its taste manifests as slightly spicy.


Studies on Ocimene show it to have strong anti-inflammatory effects. This terpene, also commonly associated with the Sativa strain of cannabis, may produce energizing effects as well as exerting a decongestant effect. Ocimene may work as an effective insect repellent and can be found in basil, bergamot, hops, mangoes, and pepper. Expect a sweet and herbaceous flavor and scent.


Is a terpene that directly interacts with CB2 cannabinoid receptors. No other terpene is known to do this. It may act as an antioxidant and antibacterial, protecting both the brain and the body from disease. In addition, studies have found that it may also help with managing pain. Caryophyllene occurs naturally in rosemary, oregano, cloves, and black pepper. It is spicy and woody in both aroma and taste.


Usually found in low concentrations in cannabis. While cannabis does not generally contain much terpinolene, its effects may still be powerful. It seems to act as an antioxidant and as a sedative, the latter contributing to its potential to produce relaxing and anti-anxiety effects. Nutmeg, apples, and tea trees all contain terpinolene. It smells and tastes of wood and pine.

The terpenes in cannabis seem to be a strong determining factor in the widely variant effects produced by different cannabis strains. As more information about terpenes is verified, the therapeutic effects of cannabis cultivated for specific results will become easier to control.


Other notable non-cannabis terpenes

Menthol is probably the most well known terpene out there. It is not usually found in cannabis, though sometimes it may be found in low concentration. Menthol is found naturally in mint plants. This terpene creates a cooling sensation. It is often used to treat sore throats as a result, though it has other uses too. Look for menthol in creams, as it is used as a topical analgesic. You can also find it added to cigarettes to provide a refreshing sensation and flavor while smoking.

The terpene Cymene is found in thyme, cumin, and coriander and is famous for having analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties. It can be found in cannabis plants but is not one of its more common or plentiful terpenes.

Camphor is not found in cannabis, though it is associated with many health benefits. It has been used since ancient times as a medicine to treat respiratory issues, improve circulation, prevent infection, and repel insects. It may also relieve anxiety and stress and act as an anti-inflammatory. Camphor occurs naturally in camphor laurel trees, but today it is often synthesized.


The best ways to consume terpenes

Because of the Entourage Effect, the best way to consume terpenes and make the most of their potential health benefits is presumably as part of cannabis products. They occur naturally in both hemp and marijuana, so you can easily consume terpenes in cannabis products where the CBD or THC has not been isolated. Marijuana products in plant form and manufactured into edibles, capsules, vape oil, etc. should provide the optimal synergistic effect of cannabinoids and terpenes. Different strains contain different terpenes as well as different quantities of terpenes. This accounts for the numerous and widely divergent effects of varying strains.

CBD products derived from either hemp or marijuana and labeled “full-spectrum” or “broad-spectrum” contain terpenes. CBD products are also available in isolated form. CBD isolate is pure CBD and does not contain terpenes. CBD distillate is about 80 percent CBD and contains a lower concentration of terpenes than occurs naturally.

You can also find terpene isolate sold in the form of vape liquids. The effects of terpenes in general, are still anecdotal at this point, and most scientists and researchers seem to agree that they are less beneficial when consumed in isolation. That being said, if you want to try vaping strictly terpenes, they are available.


The bottom line: are terpenes better than cannabinoids?

Terpenes and cannabinoids are separate components of the cannabis plant. They act in different ways on the body, though they seem to have similar effects. Because of the lack of clinical studies, it is hard to say whether one is better than the other. The consensus at this point seems to be that using terpenes and cannabinoids together creates a synergy that provides the most therapeutic benefits.



Terpenes infographic



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Diana Rangaves
Diana Rangaves
PharmD, Clinical Consultant, Google Scholar
Dr. Diana Rangaves is Doctor of Pharmacy (Pharm D). She graduated from the University of California, San Francisco and specializes in pharmacotherapy management. Diana has a broad range of acute clinical background and ambulatory care. She was an academic college professor; teaching critical thinking, ethics, pharmacology, addiction, behavior patterns, pharmacy, and nursing. As a Clinical Pharmacist, she is focused on chronic or disease state management.

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