What Are Terpenes? Your Guide to Aromas and More
Reading time – 16 minutes
You might have come across the term 'terpene' before when scanning the labels of CBD products - but you're definitely not on your own if you're unsure exactly what they are. Often overshadowed by their more well-known counterparts CBD and THC, terpenes are not used to receiving much in terms of critical acclaim. However, name recognition or not, if you've ever walked through a forest after it rains, or seasoned your food with fresh herbs, you've directly received their possible benefits.
Simply put, terpenes are aromatic compounds that are responsible for giving a wide array of plants, fruits, and spices their distinctive flavour and smell. However, despite their presence throughout much of the natural world, they often are associated with the cannabis plant. This is mainly because they are found in the plant in much higher concentrations, and each strain of the plant is differentiated by its unique terpene profile.
However, in addition to giving cannabis and other plants their unique aromas, terpenes are also responsible for having the potential to physiologically benefit our bodies in a range of different ways. And, as the effects of these compounds are becoming increasingly more well-researched, a growing number of cannabis farmers and CBD distributors are playing about with terpene levels to enhance the flavours and possible therapeutic qualities of their products.
So if you're curious about how terpenes work, what different forms they take, and what possible benefits they could potentially bring to your mind and body, join us as we guide you through everything you need to know about these mystical molecules.
What are terpenes
Otherwise known as terpenoids, terpenes are the biggest and most diverse class of naturally-occurring compounds. They are scattered throughout nature, featuring in a wide variety of plants and even existing within some insects, such as the black carpet beetle and the bark beetle. In plants like cannabis, terpenes are found within the essential oils, and, with 20,000 different varieties of terpenes in existence, their unique combinations contribute to a wide array of aromas - from the distinctive smell associated with marijuana, to more fruity and floral fragrances, and everything in between.
Where are terpenes located?
When it comes to the terpenes that end up CBD products, before they are extracted from industrial hemp, they are found within the trichomes of the plant. Skipped biology class? Don't worry; we have a handy definition here for you: trichomes are small resin glands that form a protective mechanism all around the surface of the plant. Translated from the Greek word Tríchōma, which means 'growth of hair', they facilitate the production of various cannabinoids and concentrates, such as CBD oil, and appear as what you might recognise as the sticky crystals that are responsible for giving cannabis buds their specific 'bejewelled' appearance.
What is their main function?
Terpenes function as a plant's basic hormonal system. They improve the plant's chances of survival by responding to fundamental external factors such as light, temperature, and interactions with other living things, before producing more of themselves in situations of danger. Terpenes can also ward off predators that pose a threat to the plant's existence by projecting strong aromas to repel these dangers, while also attracting pollinators to increase the plant's chances of reproduction. This serves a crucial evolutionary purpose, because if terpenes didn't act as a helping hand and fend away threats, there's a massive chance that thousands of plant species we know and love today would already be extinct- and they probably wouldn't smell as lovely as plants today, either.
What other possible benefits do terpenes bring?
Terpenes may make you feel great
Aside from aiding the survival of various plant species, terpenes are also bioactive, meaning if they are found in high enough concentrations, they can have an influence on the way we feel. The fragrant compounds are believed to possibly help our body and mind to relax and unwind, thanks to the therapeutic potential of their distinctive aromas.
The way that this works is simple enough: once the terpenes are inhaled through our nose, they make contact with our brain via our olfactory system. This is where the fragrant properties are thought to possibly interact with the limbic system, which is an area of the brain that, among other things, controls our emotions. Here, terpenes have the potential to help us to feel more relaxed and uplifted, and it's also been recorded that they may influence physical symptoms of stress by possibly lowering our heart rate and blood pressure.
Due to their purported therapeutic qualities, terpenes are a significant component in many essential oils. They have been used as part of holistic practices such as aromatherapy for many years. It's this possible relaxant quality that also makes them such a potentially beneficial addition to CBD, since cannabidiol has similarly been praised for its anecdotally reported calming and potential therapeutic properties.
Terpenes may potentially benefit your health
In addition to possibly influencing the way that we feel, terpenes have also been reported to have the potential to benefit our health in a variety of surprising ways. Even though research on the matter is still in its early stages, terpenes' innate ability to ward off pathogens and other invading predators may make them uniquely suited to supplementing the health of humans. Also, as numerous studies have found, terpenes are rich in the potential to have antimicrobial, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory properties.
Due to their nature as antioxidants, they have also been shown to potentially provide humans with relative protection against some symptoms of liver, renal, cardiovascular, and neurodegenerative diseases. In addition to this, certain terpenes may be able to reduce instances of symptoms of pain and inflammation, as well as symptoms of various mental conditions such as anxiety and depression. However, it should be noted that, since cannabis is the most common source of many potentially therapeutic terpenes, most research into the aromatic compounds investigates their possible benefits alongside other cannabinoids, such as CBD and THC. If you're looking to try terpene-rich products to supplement any mainstream treatment of a specific health condition, it's essential to discuss this with a medical professional beforehand.
They enhance the effects of other cannabinoids
As well as featuring their own purported benefits, terpenes are also team players - especially when it comes to boosting the potential of their cannabinoid cousins. As you may already know, CBD and other prominent cannabinoids such as CBN and CBC inhabit many qualities that may help them to supplement peoples general wellbeing. Due to their purported relaxing and balancing qualities, they have been anecdotally reported to promote feelings of calmness, affect symptoms of pain, and to improve our ability to rest, among other things. In our opinion, the marvellous thing about terpenes is that if they are left with other cannabinoids, they may enhance each other's potential benefits, due to a unique phenomenon called the entourage effect.
The entourage effect is what Chris Emerson (a trained chemist and co-founder of a significant vaporiser company) describes as 'the sum of all the parts that leads to the magic or power of cannabis'. It's a very unique synergistic interaction that allows the possible benefits of compounds like CBD and terpenes to be magnified. The effect is understood to profoundly contribute to the possible therapeutic qualities of CBD products overall, and, even though extensive scientific backing is still necessary, products that are infused with CBD and terpenes are widely recognised to provide stronger potential effects than products containing just cannabidiol alone (also known as CBD isolate). Therefore, due to the significant roles that terpenes play, broad and full-spectrum CBD products may potentially be more beneficial than other CBD isolate varieties.
In addition to the general role that terpenes often play, individual terpenes also have been understood to potentially expand the purported advantages of their fellow cannabinoids. For example, the terpene myrcene has been implicated in a potential increase of blood-brain barrier absorption, meaning that CBD and other essential cannabinoids may be able to travel through the blood and take effect much more easily than without the presence of terpenes. Additionally, when the terpene pinene is combined with CBD, studies have shown it may potentially reduce the psychoactive effects of cannabis as a whole (not to be mistaken for CBD products), leading to clearer thoughts and memory retention. And, if this wasn't enough, when CBD works in conjunction with the terpenes limonene and linalool, it's been reported to be more successful in potentially affecting the symptoms of varying skin conditions, such as acne.
Different types of terpenes
Interested in learning more about the individual attributes of terpenes? You're in the right place. However, with over 150 different cannabinoid terpenes in existence, we'd be here for a while if we covered them all. So here's a brief rundown of the eight most commonly-occurring terpenes in the industrial hemp plant (also known as cannabis Sativa).
Mycenae is understood to be the most abundant terpene in cannabis, representing about 20%-50% of terpenes in a typical strain. It's been described to have an earthy, clove-like aroma, which is said to be behind the distinctive 'marijuana' smell. However, it's also slightly reminiscent of exotic fruits such as mango and red grape. In terms of its purported benefits, myrcene is believed to have powerful antioxidant properties, and, like this 2014 study and this 2016 study on mice indicate, the terpene has been shown to have the potential to elicit protective effects in some heart and brain tissues. Additionally, due to it's supposed anti-inflammatory and sedative qualities, Mycenae may also act as a natural muscle relaxant, helping to support CBD's associated potential properties.
When it comes to marijuana, myrcene is also thought to be the distinguishing factor between the Indica and Sativa varieties of the plant. If myrcenes are in excess, specifically if they make up more than 0.5% of the plant, the plant is likely to be an Indica variety, because such large amounts of myrcene may induce feelings of sedation and euphoria that are common with this specific strain of the raw plant.
Pinene is also a very common cannabinoid terpene, and, with the clue being in the name, its aroma is comparable to that of fir or pine needles. Pinene is responsible for giving many plants their fresh, appealing scent, and it is particularly bountiful in plants like basil, rosemary, and pine needles. Ever wondered why a walk in the forest feels so calming and therapeutic? Pinene might be the culprit. Since pinene features so heavily in woodland nature, the amount of it in the forest air is supposedly enough to induce possible therapeutic effects, as this 2017 study implies. Its ability to act as a bronchodilator may also explain why pinene has the potential to help us to relax, as it reportedly allows us to breathe more air into our lungs.
Beta-caryophyllene is what you would consider a sesquiterpene, which is a class of terpenes that are made up of three isoprene units. It has a distinctive peppery, spicy, woody aroma, and it's commonly found in a wide variety of plants; such as black pepper, lavender, cinnamon leaves, basil, and clove. The terpene is a popular ingredient in perfumes because of its distinguished, oaky scent.
Beta-caryophyllene is a significant terpene, because it's the only one that's thought to be able to interact with our endocannabinoid system, the network in our body that helps us to feel more balanced (also known as regulating homeostasis). This means that it's an important one to look out for when browsing CBD products, because, as this 2013 study implies, it may be able to support the potential pain-relieving properties of cannabidiol. For this reason, this terpene is commonly utilised to supplement symptoms of chronic pain, and arthritis.
Linalool is a terpene that's renowned for it's sweet, floral aroma. It has gentle undertones of lavender, and, due to this unique scent, plants that are rich in the compound are often praised for their possible relaxing and calming qualities. It's potentially therapeutic properties have also been shown to counteract the effects of the psychoactive cannabinoid THC, thus making it useful for those experiencing symptoms of anxiety or trouble sleeping.
In addition to this, research has also shown that linalool may have immunity-boosting potential, as well as the possible capability to influence cognitive and emotional function, which could potentially make it useful in supplementing the treatment of progressive brain disorders such as Alzheimer's. However, since research into the terpene is still very much in its preliminary stages, more clinical evidence is required before we can be collectively certain of its real potential properties.
Reflective of its name, this terpene has a rich, citrusy aroma, and it can be found in the rinds of a variety of citrus fruits such as oranges, lemons, and limes, as well as the herbs juniper, peppermint, and rosemary. Limonene reportedly has powerful possible antibacterial, antifungal and antimicrobial properties, which may make it useful in potentially affecting the growth of harmful bacteria and preventing infections.
You may also recognise the scent in citronella products that are used to deter mosquitoes. This is because the terpene works as a natural insecticide in a variety of plants by helping to ward off potential predators. Aside from this, due to its intense aroma, limonene is a prominent active ingredient in lots of citrus-scented cleaning products.
Terpinolene is a terpene with a slightly more subtle smell, and it features heavily in the herbs sage and rosemary. Its piney, floral, and citrusy aroma is associated with scents typically found within the cannabis plant, and it's prominently used as an ingredient in soaps and perfumes.
This terpene is understood to be an effective supplement for a range of symptoms of mental and physical conditions like anxiety and insomnia. This is primarily due to its potential nature as a central nervous system depressant. Additionally, terpinolene has purportedly beneficial antioxidant qualities, which may help it to protect your cells against free radicals, which are harmful cells that can occur throughout the body due to a range of environmental factors.
Also referred to as cineole, Eucalyptol is a heavily researched terpene that, as you may have predicted, is found most commonly in the eucalyptus tree. It has a fresh and cool mint-like aroma, and, in addition to being found in eucalyptus, it's also present throughout a range of herbs such as tea tree, sweet basil, bay leaves, sage, and rosemary. Due to its potential ability to control airway mucus hypersecretion, it's a core ingredient of many cough suppressants, and, thanks to its refreshing flavour, it's also a common ingredient in dental healthcare products such as mouthwash.
Similar to CBD and many other terpenes, Eucalyptol is believed to have specific properties which imply it may potentially be an effective way to impact symptoms of pain, swelling, or inflammation when applied topically. Due to its refreshing scent, it's understood to be possibly energising when used in aromatic oils or other products that target your sensory system.
Standing as more of a lesser-known terpene, Ocimene has a sweet and earthy aroma with citrusy and woody undertones. Its distinctive scent means that it's often used in fragrances and human-made essential oils. You would be able to find this terpene in a wide variety of plants, such as hops, mangoes, basil, and black pepper. Aside from its aromatic profile, Ocimene is purported to contain possible anticonvulsant and antifungal properties, and it's also an effective pest resistance. Additionally, Ocimene cooperates really well with other terpenes, particularly pinene and myrcene.
How are terpenes extracted?
Now you're clued up on the individual wonders of terpenes; you may be wondering how the little aromatic molecules are actually drawn out of the natural world. And unfortunately, extracting terpenes can be a highly arduous process. Because of their delicateness and high volatility, they are at greater risk of being damaged or completely lost when exposed to high temperatures.
But, first of all, what exactly do we mean when we say 'extract'? Simply put, a plant extract is a substance that is separated from the plant tissue, and one that potentially holds all sorts of desirable qualities. So, with all of the glorious possible benefits found within terpenes, the goal is to draw them out sensitively, without damaging them. This is typically done in one of three ways - through steam distillation, hydrodistillation, or CO2 extraction.
Admittedly more of a traditional method, steam distillation requires you to suspend a basket of your chosen herb above a vessel of boiling water. As the steam from the water rises, it helps to carry lighter oils like terpenes up with them, before condensing them and turning them into a liquid form. This mode of extraction is often regarded as the most efficient; however, its high temperatures can often affect the quality of the extracts.
This mode of extraction is quite similar to the previously mentioned, but the plant residues are instead placed directly into boiling water instead of sitting above. Due to the plant extract's contact with the hot water, the compound (particularly more delicate compounds, such as terpenes) has a high risk of deteriorating. And, for this reason, hydrodistillation is becoming an increasingly unpopular form of extraction.
Alongside many other contemporary forms of extraction that are used in the creation of CBD products, CO2 extraction is undoubtedly the most technologically savvy option of the three.
Often referred to as 'supercritical CO2 extraction', this process uses pressurised carbon dioxide to obtain useful phytochemicals from a plant. This model enables you to isolate individual compounds during the extraction process, meaning it's a lot easier to retain all the valuable compounds while disregarding the less desirable ones.
Where can I get terpene-rich CBD?
Navigating the CBD market can be a little bit daunting at times, but luckily we're here to help. Here at Infused Amphora, all of our cannabidiol infused products contain CBD distillate that's sourced from 100% organically grown hemp. Additionally, since we understand the value of terpenes, our CBD also features a wide range of the plant-sourced molecules, so they can bring their own possible benefits to our products while maximising the potential of the star of the show, CBD.
We ensure everything we make is to the highest quality possible, and, to maintain our high standards, all of our CBD infused products are third-party tested for content and purity. If you like what you hear or you want to find out more, just visit our store here.
Main things to take away
- Understanding terpenes and the various ways they may affect us is crucial for those who need or desire their potential benefits for various therapeutic purposes.
- More research is still needed to fully understand how terpenes affect the human body. Many popular claims about terpenes are yet to be substantiated, so it's essential you do your research to allow you to make informed decisions.
- Look into the way your CBD oil is extracted if you care about the terpene and cannabinoid content of the product you're buying, so you can make the most of your purchase!
Written by | Infused Amphora Team
The Infused Amphora Team is dedicated to creating resources to educate and engage consumers on the growing evidence of CBD benefits and the extensive health and wellness properties of CBD Oil.
Contributor | Angus Taylor CEO
Infused Amphora “Learn” is intended for informational purposes only and is NOT a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.