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Smells Good: Terpenes Explained

By Tanya Davies

How terpenes give cannabis its smell and flavour – plus a whole lot more

Do you know how cannabis gets its aroma and flavour? It’s thanks to organic compounds called terpenes. But terpenes are more than just taste and smell enhancers: they are pharmacologically active compounds, which means that they can have medicinal effects. According to Dr. Ethan Russo’s 2011 report in the British Journal of Pharmacology, terpenes have many therapeutic qualities that can be effective treatments for a broad spectrum of ailments. In addition, Health Canada includes terpenes on its Drugs and Health Products list.

This overview will explain what a terpene is, list the primary terpenes found in cannabis plants and explain the related medical treatments.

Terpenes 101

Terpenes are fragrant oils secreted by plants, flowers and trees. These organic compounds evolved to attract pollinators, such as bees and other insects, with alluring scents to guarantee the plants are reproduced. We use the oils in food, for fragrances and in alternative medicines such as aromatherapy – and for brewing beer: hops contain terpenes that gives beer its taste and aroma.

When it comes to cannabis plants, there are over 200 individual terpenes, each with a unique smell and flavour. The terpenes are influenced by how the plants are grown. For example, the weather, the type of soil and the age of the plant can impact the terpenes’ development.

Photography by Northern Green Canada

Like essential oils from flowers and aromatic herbs, the terpenes in cannabis have distinct scents that will appeal and affect you in different ways. Some people are attracted and respond to musky aromas while others like citrus or more bright and clean smells.

Terpenes do more than just add flavour and taste to what would be a bland cannabis plant: they complement the cannabinoids found in cannabis, specifically the two main chemical compounds, THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol). When they all work together, they either inhibit or activate the physical and psychoactive effects of cannabis.

Medicinal properties of terpenes

It’s not only the aroma and taste of terpenes that can have a physiological effect on you when you use cannabis. Terpenes also have a range of medical actions that can help relieve pain or nausea as well as relax muscles and work as an anti-inflammatory.

Here are the top 10 primary types of terpenes in cannabis, with the main medicinal effects:

Limonene – Has a lemon, citrusy aroma

  • Anti-depressant
  • Enhances your mood
  • Helps with digestion

Myrcene – This is the most common terpene in cannabis and has a clove or musky smell

  • Helps you sleep
  • Sedative
  • Pain reliever
  • Muscle relaxant

Linalool – Has a citrus, floral scent

  • Anti-depressant
  • Sedative
  • Anti-inflammatory
  • Anti-anxiety

Photography by Danielle Marroquin

Caryophyllene – Has a spicy, black pepper aroma

  • Pain reliever
  • Can enhance the efficacy of some well-established chemotherapy drugs
  • Relief from inflammatory bowel disease

Alpha bisabolol – Has a floral scent

  • Heals wounds
  • Anti-inflammatory

Borneol – Has a camphor and mint scent

  • Fatigue and stress reliever
  • Pain reliever
  • Helps you sleep
  • Helps increase airflow to the lungs

Delta-3 Carene  – Has an earthy smell

  • Anti-inflammatory; especially helpful for fibromyalgia, arthritis and bursitis

Photography by Kyle Ellefson

Eucalyptol – As the name suggests, smells like eucalyptus leaves

  • Pain reliever
  • Anti-inflammatory
  • Can be a part of a strategy to treat Colorectal cancer

Nerolidol – Has a woodsy scent

  • Antifungal
  • Helps you sleep

Pinene – As the name suggests, smells like a pine tree

  • Anti-inflammatory
  • Helps increase airflow to the lungs
  • Helps to clear mucus from the airways

Written by: Tanya Davies

Tanya is a Toronto-based editor and writer who specializes in health-related content.

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