CBD’s been getting a lot of attention recently.
And that’s both good or bad. Good, because it’s an amazing compound…but bad, because hemp’s other active ingredients are getting overlooked.
It’s true. There’s a whole class of compounds that make hemp tick: the terpenes.
Think of terpenes as the hemp plant’s scent molecules. But terpenes do more than just smell good; they’re actually one of the biggest contributors to hemp’s entourage effect that there is.
Before we get into the details, here’s an outline:
- Terpenes 101
- What Terpenes Are
- The Many Types of ‘Terps’
- Cannabinoids vs. Terpenes
- 10 Common Terpenes in Hemp
- Terpenes and the Entourage Effect
- Specific Terpenes = Specific Results?
- How to Take Terpenes for Yourself
Terpenes are the scent molecules of nature. Chances are some of your favorite natural smells are caused by them, whether we’re talking about lavender’s signature calming aroma or lemon’s zesty overtones.
Terpenes get their unique name from shortening the word turpentine, a term for resin derived from pine trees. As you might expect, turpentine is full of terps — especially one called pinene. But we’ll get to specific terpenes later. For now, just know that these compounds are ever-present throughout nature.
How present? There are more than 20,000 terpenes throughout the natural kingdom. Even some insects produce terpenes! First and foremost, terpenes benefit the plants and insects that produce them. Trees even use terpenes to alter their environment. “Terpenes are the most popular chemical medium on our planet to communicate through,” researchers from the Netherlands have stated.
Almost like a fitting afterthought, these natural chemical mediums also benefit us.
What Terpenes Are
That’s all great, you might be thinking…but what are terpenes actually made of, from a chemical perspective?
Good question. Scientists have found that most terpenes are hydrocarbons, which basically just means hydrogen and carbon-containing linked structures. Terpenes are also very small, smaller than most other molecules. This delicate design means they evaporate out into the atmosphere — and often right into the noses of their admirers. How convenient!
The chemical makeup of terpenes also means they can enhance the absorption of other substances. And when terpenes are ingested, things get really exciting…
The Many Types of ‘Terps’
In addition to being so commonplace, terpenes are also pretty diverse. They are eight different types of in total, each one characterized by how many small hydrocarbon units it’s made of. If that sounds confusing, don’t worry — many of the dietary fats we ingest are classified in a similar way.
What are these eight types? Here’s a list:
- Hemiterpenes | Made up of 1 isoprene “unit”
- Monoterpenes | Made up of 2 isoprene “units.” Example: limonene
- Sesquiterpenes | Made up of 3 isoprene “units.” Example: farnesol
- Diterpenes | Made up of 4 isoprene “units.” Example: cafestol
- Sesterterpenes | Made up of 5 isoprene “units.” Example: geranylfarnesol
- Triterpenes | Made up of 6 isoprene “units.” Example: squalene
- Tetraterpenes | Made up of 8 isoprene “units.” Example: lycopene
- Polyterpenes | Made up of many isoprene “units.” Example: natural rubber terpenes
Another thing to note: terpenes that are chemically altered, whether in the lab or by nature herself, are referred to as terpenoids. Just be aware that some people use the terms interchangeably.
Out of all the terpenes mentioned above, Monoterpenes (and monoterpenoids) are the most common type of terpene in nature; they’re also the most common type in hemp and cannabis.
Cannabinoids vs. Terpenes
If you’re familiar with cannabis and hemp you might already have another question in your mind: what are the differences between cannabinoids and terpenes?
Basically, not much. Some natural chemists have argued that cannabinoids are what they call “terpeno-phenolic compounds”…and they’re right.
But cannabinoids differ from most other terpenephenolic compounds in more than a few ways. For one, they’re bigger. Cannabinoids’ molecular weight tends to clock in around 300 g/mol; terpenes usually come in around 100. Some cannabinoids are so big (as far as molecules go) that they barely squeeze through the brain’s blood-brain-barrier after being ingested.
CBDa and THCa are good examples. These ‘raw’ cannabinoids have to be decarboxylated by heat, a process that reduces their molecular weight, in order to absorb well. Eating a raw cannabis plant won’t get high, nor will eating a raw hemp plant give you access to CBD’s best benefits.
Terpenes don’t have this problem. They’re easily absorbed in many different ways, including through the skin and sublingual glands.
One more similarity for now: terpenes and cannabinoids come from the same place, chemically speaking. When a hemp/cannabis plant is super young it doesn’t actually contain any cannabinoids or terpenes at all. Instead it produces something called olivetolic acid, which then converts to geranyl phosphate, which then-and-only then gets converted to the specific cannabinoids and terps we’ve come to know and love.
Speaking of which, let’s take a look at 10 of the hemp’s most well-known terpenes next.
10 Common Terpenes in Hemp
One of the biggest reasons we love hemp actually relates back to its terpene content. The concept that plants produce terpenes is nothing new…but hemp is a little unique.
Why? Because it contains nearly endless combinations of terpenes, combinations not found anywhere else in the nature kingdom.
For example, hemp often contains the lemon terpene limonene, the pine terpene pinene, and the lavender terpene linalool. It might even contain all three of these in high concentrations. Most strains of hemp contain several primary terpenes and dozens, if not hundreds, of trace ones.
How hemp manages to be so chemically diverse is anyone’s guess — call it a miracle of evolution or symbiosis if you want. Here are ten of the most common terpenes in hemp:
This terpene is most commonly found in citrus fruits like lemons, limes, and oranges. It’s been tied to everything from reduced stress to increased energy; it may also be a natural digestive aid. Like many other terpenes, limonene seems to trigger enzymes that turn on fat burning when it’s ingested. And fat burning is the stablest form of energy production there is.
Many people credit limonene-heavy essential oils by giving them an improved clarity of mind. Hemp strains high in limonene have a similar effect.
The namesake terpene in pine trees, pinene is a known bronchodilator. That just means it opens up the lungs and makes you better at breathing! This quality makes pinene especially helpful to people with asthma.
Pinene is also calming — so calming it may be a big part of why some cultures advocate for forest bathing. You can experience these same benefits by smoking or vaping hemp strains like Trophy Wife or Jack Herer. Bonus points if you decide to partake while walking through a pine forest.
Ah, the lavender terpene. Linalool is both relaxing and anti-inflammatory, and it actually calms down the nervous system to promote better health. Some research shows that linalool activates the same TRPA and TRPV channels CBD does, resulting in less inflammation and pain.
And did we mention that linalool’s relaxing yet? Okay, just one more thing then: this terpene also smells really good.
Guaiol isn’t as well-known as some terpenes, but maybe it should be. This terp shares a lot in common with pinene. It gets its name from the guaiacum plant whose bark it’s derived from; like pinene, guaiol smells woodsy and earthy.
As far as effects are concerned, research shows that guaiol maybe both anti-viral and anti-bacterial.
Can you guess what plant this one’s from? (If not, it may be the time to take a little more limonene…)
All jokes aside, eucalyptol is a terpene often found in eucalyptus, salvia, and hemp. Studies show it may help regulate the immune system and activate one’s innate immune response. Translation: eucalyptol could help one’s immune system avoid over-responding to short-term issues by strengthening things from the ground up.
This terpene is an interesting one. While beta-caryophyllene is commonly found within black pepper and cloves, it also makes an appearance in hemp. And research shows it binds to the very same endocannabinoid receptors as CBD — so much that researchers consider it a “dietary cannabinoid.”
The end result of all this? Reduced inflammation and a healthier nervous system.
Another underrated terpene, bisabolol is usually found in chamomile flowers. Research shows it’s anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, and more. Bisabolol is said to have a delicate floral scent…hardly a surprise given its source.
Myrcene’s presence is felt pretty much everywhere. It’s found in mangoes, thyme, basil, and hops. And hops’ botanical cousin hemp, of course.
What does myrcene do? Well, it’s a favorite of many cannabis users since it plays a role in what’s affectionately known as “couch lock.” Hemp’s myrcene content also provides relaxing results.
And that’s just the start. Myrcene may reduce inflammation, boost immunity, and calm the nervous system enough to help you get the sleep you need.
Think of camphene’s scent as a combination of pinene’s and myrcene’s. It’s…unusual. Maybe this terpene is only found in trace amounts for a reason? Nature does tend to know best.
Last, but not least, we have terpinolene. This interestingly-named terpene has a complex sweet + spicy scent and can be found in apples, lilacs, nutmeg, allspice, and more. Some of the more ‘earthy’ strains of hemp feature high levels of pinene and terpinolene in combination.
What does terpinolene do? If ingested, it may slow the growth of harmful cells, at least according to this 2013 study. True to its scent, terpinolene may also help bring one back “down to earth” by calming the nervous system.
Terpenes and the Entourage Effect
The health benefits of terpenes are impressive enough when viewed in isolation.
When terpenes come together though — say, in the form of a full spectrum hemp extract — things get even better.
Why? Cannabis expert Dr. Ethan Russo says the joined forces of cannabinoids and terpenes “could produce synergy with respect to the treatment of pain, inflammation, depression, anxiety, addiction, epilepsy, cancer, fungal and bacterial infections[…].”
Think of it this way: when it comes to the collective power of hemp’s “active ingredients,” 1 + 1 doesn’t equal 2. It probably equals more like ten.
The research agrees. Whole-plant cannabis has been known to be 2-4 times stronger than pure THC since the 70s. And whole-plant hemp was shown much more recently to be about 4 times stronger than pure CBD.
Science calls this synergy the entourage effect…and these findings are a perfect example of its principles in action.
Specific Terpenes = Specific Results?
Do you know how different strains of hemp have slightly different mental and physical effects?
A strain high in limonene, for example, maybe more energizing than one high in relaxing terpenes like linalool. The opposite would also be true: a strain high in linalool could be perfect for those with anxiety.
Once one understands how terpenes work, the benefits of hemp are nearly endless — and pretty much endlessly customizable. Look for more hemp varieties with unique terpene profiled in the near future, as the hemp industry continues to evolve.
How to Take Terpenes for Yourself
Chances are good that by this point you’re ready to experience the benefits of terpenes for yourself. (That is if you’re not already!)
Thankfully there are many good ways to do so. You could try targeted CBD oil blends or essential oil aromatherapy…but sometimes the very best solutions are also the simplest.
Just think: why not simply smoke or vape the hemp flower of your choice? Inhalation is faster-acting and more efficient than most other delivery methods. Biochemically speaking, you’ll get all the added bronchodilation of pinene, borneol, and limonene — but we won’t bore you with all the science-y details.
And besides…getting your daily dose of hemp the old fashioned way is also more fun.