Terpenes Are the Unsung Aromatic Heroes of the Cannabis Plant—Here’s What You Need to Know

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Ah, the smell of cannabis: Like celery juice and dad sneakers, it's one of those things that you're either into or you're very much not. But regardless of your personal preference, pot's oh-so-pungent odor is actually really important, because it comes courtesy of terpenes—a family of compounds that majorly impact your experience with 2018’s buzziest botanical.

Unlike cannabinoids like CBD and THC—both of which bestow healing benefits, and the latter of which gets you high—terpenes are found in basically every type of fragrant flora. “Thousands of plant species produce terpenes,” says Wolfgang Dostmann, PhD, a professor in the department of pharmacology at University of Vermont’s Larner College of Medicine. “Anything that is plant-derived and smells aromatic contains some combination of terpenes…They have strong odors, usually, and protect the plants from predators such as herbivores and parasites.”

So your lavender essential oil and the chamomile leaves in your tea both get their distinctive scents from terpenes. And the same goes for cannabis, which actually shares some of its 200 or so terpenes with those plants. (Different strains of cannabis have different terpene combos, which is why they all smell a little bit different.) But terpenes’ benefits transcend the olfactory. According to Corey Mangold, CEO of terpene-rich vaporizer brand Orchid Essentials, they’re part of the reason why one strain of pot may make you feel ultra-chill while another wakes you up.

“The strains and their effects are largely dependent on terpene levels within the plant,” he explains. “Whether you want to fall asleep or get some work done, the terpenes in your strain will determine how well that will work out. More [relaxing] ‘indica’ strains are thought to contain high levels of [the terpenes] linalool and myrcene, making them smell deep and low, with hints of lavender, grape, berry, or skunk. Uplifting strains will smell more like fresh-cut grass, pine, and fresh citrus.” It makes sense—after all, sniffing a lavender essential oil is known to be soothing, while citrus is said to be energizing—and in fact, says Mangold, cannabis can be classified as a form of aromatherapy in its own right.

“There is evidence that many of these terpenes have an effect on the human body when inhaled… it’s not pseudoscience,” he says. “By smelling lavender or chamomile, you really are getting an anti-anxietal effect. By smelling citrus, you really are opening up the sinuses and clearing the mind. When you light up or vaporize cannabis, you're getting all of the aromatherapy effects in addition to THC, CBD, and other cannabinoids.”

“The strains [of cannabis] and their effects are largely dependent on terpene levels within the plant.”—Corey Mangold, CEO of Orchid Essentials

But what if you’re not into smoking and prefer to, say, put CBD oil in your coffee? You can still reap the benefits of terpenes—you just need to make sure you’re buying a “full-spectrum” or “whole-plant” CBD product, as opposed to a CBD isolate.

According to Dr. Dostmann, terpenes have been found to work in synergy with cannabinoids like CBD and THC to create what’s known as the “entourage effect,” which helps determine how the cannabis interacts with your body—often making the plant more effective. “The cannabis plant produces an ‘entourage’ of cannabinoids and terpenoids that interact for optimal benefits,” explains Cannabis Feminist Jessica Assaf, cofounder of Hempia. “These active compounds modulate the effects of one another, reducing the side effects of [certain] constituents while enhancing the effects of another.” For example, some scientists believe a terpene called pinene may help counteract cloudy thinking and memory loss that can be caused by THC, while limonene is believed to help boost the anti-acne properties of CBD when applied topically.

Luckily, you don’t have to memorize a long list of terpenes and their wellness benefits—most cannabis products are labeled to indicate how they’ll make you feel. But there are a few things to keep in mind if you’re seeking out a product specifically for its terpene content. First of all, says Endocanna Health founder Len May, it’s important to consider the source of the terpenes. “There are a lot of products that are isolating cannabinoids and then adding the terpenes back in,” he says. “If the components are isolated but then put back together in a tincture, for example, I would make sure that those terpenes are plant-derived and not synthetically produced in a lab. It's better if they're organic.” Like most things in the cannabis world, his opinion hasn't been rigorously studied, but brands that fit the bill include Orchid Essentials’ vaporizers, Aceso’s CBD drink powders and sprays, and 2 Rise Naturals’ CBD tinctures.

And if you’re using whole-plant cannabis (because it's legal where you live...), Mangold adds that air-tight storage is key. That’s because terpenes deteriorate over time if the plant is left out to get stale, affecting its potency. But the key piece of advice he has when it comes to terpenes is to follow your nose. “Ideally, people should choose strains that smell good to them to achieve the maximum wellness effect,” he says. Because ultimately, no matter how many perks may be listed on your pot's packaging, it’s not going to help you if one whiff makes you want to hurl.

New to cannabis? Check out these 8 CBD products you need to try, according to an expert, and learn how to find your perfect dose

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