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The Nose Knows: How Terpenes Can Change Your Relationship To Plant Medicine

Terpenes (also known as terpenoids) are the scent stars of the plant world. They also play a significant role in the effects that cannabis, hemp and other herbs take. In fact, many of the same terpenes occurring in cannabis and hemp are present in plants you may already have in your at home apothecary. Knowing how to discern between different scents may actually help you figure out what a certain herb will do.

While there are tens of thousands of terpenes in nature, not a lot of people know what they are, and fewer understand why they’re important. Let’s examine how terpenes work, and explore tips for maximizing their impacts. For instance, did you know there are similar terpenes in mango as there are in certain cannabis strains? Read on for pairings and pointers.

What are Terpenes?

Terpenes are responsible for the way a plant smells. While contributing to a host of aromatherapeutic effects, scent also serves different survival functions in plants. By emitting certain aromas, plants can ward off pests and predators, and even other plants, ensuring they have plenty of room to grow. They can also attract desired interactions, such as with pollinators.

You can find terpenes in everything that grows from the ground—fruits, vegetables, spices, you name it. With over 30,000 identified types, they are the most common phytochemicals around. In cannabis, they are located on the flower’s trichomes, which is why the scent lingers after handling it.

How do Terpenes work?

The “entourage effect” is the synergistic reaction of terpenes, cannabinoids, and other plant compounds (such as flavonoids) in cannabis and hemp that produces certain pharmacological reactions. Cannabis boasts about 100 terpenes across the board, which interact with phytocannabinoids to enhance or diminish felt effects. For example, a terpene called pinene exigent in certain cannabis strains can combat the short term memory impairment caused by THC. Pinene is abundant in—you guessed it—pine trees, and functions as an anti-inflammatory and bronchodilator.

Limonene, the terpene found in the skin of citrus fruits, is the second most abundant terpene in cannabis and is responsible for stimulating, mood elevating effects (and has been shown to boast anti-depressant characteristics as well).
Like cannabinoids, terpenes degrade during the decarboxylation process, but not completely. Smoking will reduce the number of terpenes present, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re getting less exposure to them if you smoke. Since inhalation carries them directly into your bloodstream, it’s still the fastest (and a very potent) method of administration. That partially explains why it’s the method favored by most medical patients with previous, recreational cannabis and hemp experience.

Extraction can also minimize or eliminate terpenes from flower. Some companies actually extract terpenes from other plants (such as lavender or citrus fruit) and reintroduce them to their products to create something closer to whole-plant medicine, which is more competitive on the market.

How to Use Terpenes?

Take it from Neil Young: synergy is key. In a 2019 interview with Howard Stern, Young suggested that anyone who was feeling paranoid due to cannabis use should chew on a few black peppercorns. Black peppercorn is high in the terpene alpha-pinene, which mitigates the effects of overdoing it on THC. Thanks for the tip, Uncle Neil.

You can also supplement your medicine with terpenes that can enhance what you’re feeling—or for how long. According to Cannabis Pharmacy by Michael Backes, black pepper is also high in beta-carophyllene, a terpene found in cannabis and hops which stimulates the digestive system. Myrcene, a terpene often found in concentrated percentages in indica strains, is also present in mango fruit. Eating mango an hour before consuming one of these cannabis varieties will prolong its felt effects. A muscle relaxant and sedative, myrcene is also dominant in hops. That explains why a cup of hops tea constitutes lights-out for some people. (Good to have in your cupboard if you suffer from insomnia.)
Terpenes don’t just affect mood or memory. The Zingiberaceae family (ginger, turmeric) is also chalk-full of terpenes that contribute to their antiulcer, anticancer, and antioxidant properties.

What are the benefits of Terpenes?

Anti-inflammation is the most obvious choice here, but there are others. Whether a certain effect is a benefit or not depends on what you’re trying to do. Some terpenes are stimulating, others sedating, so knowing a little bit about the terpene profiles in your cannabis or hemp will help you decide which strain to choose for which purpose.

How do you find the terpene profile?

Consulting your cultivator or budtender is always a good place to start, but it’s not necessary. The nose knows, friends. Give your plant a big whiff and discern what scents you’re smelling. Citrus? That’s limonene. Does it smell a little like a Christmas tree? That’s pinene for you. Getting a grassy, floral note, similar to that in lavender? That would be linalool, and has lavender’s characteristic sedative and analgesic (pain-killing) effects.

Just be careful not to let your flower (or other herbs) dry out completely, or the terpenes will evaporate. Abundant in a plant’s volatile oils (hence the use of essential oils in aromatherapy), terpenes are lost for good when the plant is fully dry. That means that unless you store your herbs in airtight containers, they’ll degrade and eventually disappear. Reintroducing water to dried out herbs in an attempt to reinvigorate them is a no-go. Once they’re gone, they’re gone. As anyone who’s ever tried to give new life to old flower will attest, rehydration is not a thing.

By Celia Gold