What Are Terpenes and How Do They Affect Cannabis?

Different Type of Terpenes in Plants

You may have heard that cannabis contains terpenes. While terpenes are responsible for giving cannabis its distinct scent, the terpene profile of a specific strain can also affect your experience with cannabis in a variety of ways. Unfortunately, cannabis producers don’t always make the terpene profiles of their products easy to find, but cannabis information sites like Leafly carry this information, which can help you decide which strain is right for you. 

What Are Terpenes?

Terpenes are natural organic molecules produced in a wide range of plants, and even some animals. Terpenes are best known for their aromatic properties. Many of the most familiar natural smells come from terpenes or the closely related compounds, terpenoids. They’re responsible for the distinctive scents of plants like pine trees and lilacs, the smell of aromatic herbs like rosemary and mint, and the refreshing scent of lemons and other citrus fruits. 

Terpenese in cbd oilTerpenes in Cannabis

Terpenes are responsible for the aroma and flavor of cannabis strains, from the subtle chocolate notes of Bubba Kush to the pungent aroma of Sour Diesel. But there’s more to terpenes than just aroma — they can profoundly color the experience of a particular strain, in ways scientists are just beginning to understand. 

There is growing evidence that THC — the primary psychoactive compound in cannabis — works synergistically with other cannabinoids, such as CBD and CBN. Terpenes appear to further affect how the body responds to THC and other cannabinoids, potentially improving cannabis’ ability to treat pain, muscle spasms, inflammation, and other conditions. 

Together, terpenes, cannabinoids and other natural elements in cannabis produce the entourage effect, interacting with each other in complex ways that can alter both the subjective experience of cannabis and the way that cannabis interacts with the body.

Here are some of the most important terpenes in cannabis.



Myrcene is the most common cannabis terpene, with a distinctive earthy aroma that’s hard to miss. Myrcene can help cannabinoids cross the blood-brain barrier, allowing cannabis to take effect more quickly, and increasing the psychoactive effect. Myrcene also has a number of therapeutic uses. The compound helps combat pain and inflammation, and its sedative effects make it great for treating insomnia. There’s evidence that it may even help prevent duodenal ulcers.



As you may have guessed from the name, pinene is a terpene found in many pine trees, as well as other plants. It has anti-inflammatory, antiseptic and other medicinal properties as well as an anti-anxiety effect. It may also help lessen the effects of THC on short-term memory.



Limonene has a citrus smell and is found in orange and lemon rinds, and juniper, as well as in cleaning products and other goods. It can help combat anxiety and stress, and may even inhibit the growth of cancer cells.



Caryophyllene has a spicy or peppery smell and is found in culinary herbs and spices, including black pepper, Thai basil, and cinnamon. Unlike other terpenes, caryophyllene is known to interact directly with the endocannabinoid system. It has anti-inflammatory effects and is also useful for treating common pain.


Why Do Terpenes Exist?

While they have a number of benefits for humans, terpenes evolved because of how they can help plants. Terpenes can attract pollinators, and help fight off herbivores in a variety of ways. Terpenes can make a plant unappetizing or toxic for herbivores, combat bacterial and fungal infections that damage plants, and even attract parasites and predators to help defend the plant from herbivores. They can also attract pollinators and symbionts which play crucial roles in the plant life cycle. 

As herbivores develop a tolerance for existing compounds, plants evolve new ones, in an evolutionary arms race. As a result, terpenes are the “largest class of compounds produced in plants, and often the largest class of specialized compounds that each plant species produces.”


Getting the Most Out of Cannabis

There are hundreds of terpenes in cannabis. Some may profoundly improve certain therapeutic effects or alter the experience, while others may have very little effect. It will be a long time until scientists have completely studied these terpenes, and even longer until we know exactly how they all interact with each other. However, as a user, being aware of terpenes can help you choose more effective and enjoyable products, whether you use cannabis medicinally, recreationally or both.

One of the most important things to realize is that cannabis products can’t always be reduced to a single effective ingredient. A full-spectrum or broad-spectrum extract will likely affect you differently than a more highly purified extract of CBD or THC. 

Similarly, even if two strains have the same amount of THC and CBD, they may have very different effects on the consumer, based on the entourage effect. Listen to your body as you try different cannabis products. Over time, you’ll find the strains, extracts, tinctures or other products that have the right balance of terpenes, cannabinoids, flavonoids and other organic molecules for you. 


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