How Cannabis Terpenes Affect Your High

In the age of options and selections, if you’re still choosing your buds based on THC content alone, then you’re doing it wrong.

High-THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) strains are bomb, let’s not get that twisted… but it’s not always a case of more THC = better flower. There have been many occasions where strains with anywhere from 27 to 32 percent THC will be on sale – cheapest available – at my local dispensaries because they’re dry, lacking flavor, and just not that great overall. And despite the fact that it’s loaded with THC, you still barely feel anything.

So, what is it that really makes a good bud? It clearly goes much deeper than just cannabinoid content, but what is it about certain combinations of compounds that results in those “wow” strains? Much of it has to do with terpenes, which give plants their unique aroma and flavor profiles.

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What are terpenes?

Terpenes are a very large and diverse class of organic compounds that are produced by a wide variety of plants. In cannabis, they are secreted by the same glands that produce some of the more dominant cannabinoids including THC and CBD. Their role and effects are quite different, however.

Terpenes are aromatic plant oils that, when combined with other plant compounds, create a never-ending palate of scents and flavors. In nature, terps serve as a defense mechanism by deterring herbivores and by attracting predators and parasites that attack herbivores.

Chemically, terpenes are hydrocarbons, and they differ from terpenoids, which typically have added functional groups such as oxygen. The words “terpenes” and “terpenoids” are often used interchangeably but this is incorrect. Terpenes are also the major component of rosin, which a sap/waxy-like substance that is produced when cannabis buds are placed under high heat and pressure. Climate, weather, age and maturation, fertilizers, soil type, and light cycles can have an impact on the development of terpenes.

As far as cannabis goes, terpenes are the key to differentiating the effects and flavor of a strain. Some terpenes are relaxing, like those found in lavender, while others are energizing. Some smell fruity, some are piney, some are musky. There really is no limit to the variation. So far, over 100 different terpenes have been discovered in cannabis plants alone, and each strain typically has its own unique blend and composition of terps.

Terpenes have long been known to hold great therapeutic value, and some of the more common ones have been studied more extensively, considering they’re found in many different types of legal plants. More research is needed to determine the extent of their medicinal effects when combined with other cannabis plant compounds.

Common Terps found in cannabis

Caryophyllene

One of Caryophyllene’s main distinctions is that it’s the first known dietary cannabinoid. This means the FDA has recognized it as being “generally safe for human consumption”. In the recreational world, it’s known for its gassy, fuel, diesel-like flavor. It gives that pungent taste to popular strains like Chemdawg, Sour Diesel, and Legendary OG.

Research indicates many possible therapeutic uses for this terpene. Caryophyllene can help minimize the body’s response to pain, discovered in 2014 study of rodent subjects. It can also be used to reduce alcohol intake, and possible curb addiction to other habit-forming substances. It also has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, as well as the ability to treat anxiety and depression.  

Another interesting potential use for caryophyllene is anti-aging. Yes, this terp might be able to make you live longer. Not via the obvious methods, like in the treatment of certain diseases and conditions, but by actually reducing gene stress and making you “younger” on a cellular level.

Terpinolene

Terpinolene is referred to as a “lurker” terpene. It’s found in most cannabis strains, but it’s usually only present in small doses so it has the title of least-dominant terpene. That said, it still has a major impact on the overall smell, taste, and effects of the strains that it’s found in.

Terpinolene’s flavor profile is multi-faceted and is said to change based on the other compounds in the strain. Strains with ­­terpinolene can smell and smell piney, floral, earthy, and sometimes fruity. Because of its fresh and multidimensional smell, it’s a commonly added to soaps and other hygiene and cleaning products. Research indicates that the aroma can be used to repel pests like mosquitos, which are known to carry many diseases, some life-threatening. Other studies have contradicted this finding though, so more research is needed to confirm this theory.

Terpinolene also functions as an antibacterial and antifungal compound, based on findings from a 2006 study. Additionally, this terpene has demonstrated the ability to reduce the risk of heart disease when used in tandem with certain other nutrients, and it can block the growth of cancer cells.

Pinene

Pinene is an earthy, musky terpene, and the most abundant one on the planet. There are technically two subtypes of the terpene—alpha-pinene and beta-pinene—but the alpha type (which you’ll often see spelled “a-pinene” or “α-pinene”) is more commonly found in cannabis.

The dominant scent in pinene is, of course, pine. Just imagine a forest of lush, green pine trees high up in the mountains, and that amazing natural scent that that just makes you feel one with the woods… that’s pinene you’re smelling. In addition to conifer trees and pine needles, pinene can also be found in orange peels, turpentine, rosemary, basil, dill, and parsley.

The effects of pinene on the human body and psyche include: anti-inflammatory, bronchodilator, anti-anxiety, pain relief, and it can also help protect against short-term memory loss that is sometimes associated with THC use. Both alpha and beta pinene have exhibited anti-tumoral and anti-bacterial properties, although more studies are needed to see how this can be applied practically.

Myrcene

Myrcene is present in many cannabis strains, plus in hops, lemongrass, and other herbs. It has a slightly spicy aroma but is also a little citrusy. Myrcene is the most predominant terpene in cannabis. It can vary greatly, but on average, myrcene represents over 20% of the terpene profile in most modern commercial strains that you would find at a dispensary.

A common misconception is that “Strains with more than 0.5% myrcene by weight will produce ‘indica’ (relaxing) effects, while strains <0.5% myrcene by weight will produce ‘sativa’ (energizing) effects.” This is NOT true. Myrcene is found across the board, in indica, hybrid, and sativa strains. Not to mention, most strains these days are hybrids. It’s rare to come across a 100 percent pure indica or sativa.

Since the 1990s, myrcene has been observed to see how much it can help on the pain-relief front. There is one published study from Brazil, claiming that myrcene can reduce pain by “increasing the brain and spinal cord’s own opioid production”. This theory has been debated but not yet debunked, meaning that much more research is needed.

Much like the other terpenes on this list, myrcene can fight cancer, in this case, by blocking the damaging effects of aflatoxins on our DNA. Myrcene also protects our DNA from many other toxins, including butyl-hydroperoxide, a compound well-known to cause oxidative stress. Myrcene also has antioxidant, antimicrobial, and anti-inflammatory effects.

Limonene

Limonene is one of the most popular terpenes, not only in regards to cannabis, but in the plant world in general. In case it wasn’t obvious from the name, it’s found in large quantities in lemons and other citrus fruits. It gives them their sweet, tangy scent and flavor, and it does the same thing in cannabis. Keep in mind that just because a strain doesn’t smell like lemons, that doesn’t mean there is no limonene in it. You will need a lab test to know for sure.

One of the main topics of interest, as far as medicinal benefits go, is limonene’s anti-tumoral properties. According to a systematic review of this terpene, published in 2018, “Limonene and its metabolites have demonstrated numerous biochemical effects as chemotherapeutic agents. They are recognized as anticancer agents owing to their ability to induce apoptosis by up-regulating of pro-apoptotic factors and down-regulating anti-apoptotic factors.”

In addition, limonene is believed to have numerous other therapeutic uses, although studies in cannabis are extremely limited. Some potential benefits include: Elevated mood stress relief, antifungal properties, antibacterial properties, may help relieve heartburn and gastric reflux, improves absorption of other terpenes and chemicals by way of the skin, mucous membranes, and digestive tract.

How terpenes get you higher

When it comes to cannabis, the way it works in our bodies is much more complex than many people realize. As someone who smokes hemp, marijuana, and concentrates regularly, I’ve noticed some drawbacks to always going for the products that are higher in THC.

For example, when I use concentrates like wax, shatter, sauce, etc. – all of which range from 75 to 90 percent THC – I build up a tolerance quicker than with flower. Sure, I get extra stoned at first, but by the time I’m done with a gram of concentrate, I’m definitely not feeling it as strongly as I did when I first bought it. Tolerance happens with marijuana too, but not so rapidly.

The reason for this is a process known as the Entourage Effect. Simply put, the entourage effect refers to the way different cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids work together to offer health benefits that you can only get when consuming the entire plant in its natural state. In addition to health benefits, the many different compounds in cannabis plants also work together to affect your high.

When you use isolated cannabinoid products, you’re missing out on all the medical and psychological goodness contributed by terpenes. Not that isolates don’t have their place in the medical-cannabis realm, they certainly do, but often times it’s best to utilize the synergistic effects of everything cannabis has to offer.

Final thoughts

If I were to drive one point home from this article, it’s that terps are AMAZING! Don’t overlook these miraculous compounds just because they’re not marketed as heavily as cannabinoids. If it wasn’t for terpenes, cannabis wouldn’t be full of the delicious flavors that really contribute to the overall experience of smoking pot.

Not only do they help make pot more enjoyable, but they can take your high to the next level, and they boast a myriad of health benefits to top it off. If you’d like to learn more about terpenes, cannabinoids, and all things relating to cannabis, make sure to subscribe to the CBD Flowers Weekly Newsletter.

Alexandra Hicks
Alexandra is the managing editor and lead writer at CBDFlowers.co. She has always been interested in alternative and natural remedies, and the versatility of cannabis as a healing plant is something that greatly appeals to her. It's for this reason that she decided to work as a cannabis industry journalist and editor, to help spread accurate information about the benefits of this plant.

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