Top 10 Terpenes Found in Cannabis Plants
Learn about the most common types of terpenes, the unique properties of each, and which legal cannabis products contain these plant compounds.
While most people associate the cannabis industry with marijuana, there's much more to the plant than meets the eye. Popular cannabinoids like CBD and THC garner a lot of the spotlight when it comes to cannabis, but terpenes are another natural component of the Cannabis sativa plant that have unique medicinal properties relevant to health.
Cannabis terpenes are non-psychoactive compounds that are found not only in the cannabis plant's variety of strains, but in many different types of plants across nature. Below, you can learn all about terpenes, which ones are the most common, and their biological relevance for health. We'll even share some hemp-derived CBD products known to include a variety of terpenes.
What are terpenes?
Over 500 plant bioactives have been discovered in cannabis. Terpenes are a major part of that discovery. You may not have known it at the time, but you've almost certainly encountered terpenes at some point in your life. Terpenes are naturally occurring phytochemical compounds found within the essential oils of cannabis and other plants we consume like tea, thyme, sage, rosemary, mint, citrus fruits, and even carrots, to name a few.
Terpenes are aromatics that help to determine the smell that each plant will give off. This serves as both a defense mechanism from hungry plant-eating animals and an enticement for pollinating insects. In some cases, terpenes can even provide the plant with protection from germs caused by bacteria or fungus. In other words, terpenes are intrinsic phytochemicals that are critical for plant survival.
Because terpenes provide the fragrant scents we've come to know and love from some of our favorite plants, manufacturers have utilized these compounds as fragrance and flavor components in the production of an assortment of household, beauty, food, and biotech products. For example, think of cleaning supplies and perfumes that invoke the smell of pine trees, lavender, lemon, and orange. Terpenes.
Different terpenes also influence the plant's appearance, along with what we taste and how we feel when we consume it. Each strain of cannabis will have more than one compound present, and the combination of those varying parts makes up the plant's terpene profile. To date, a whopping 150 different terpenes and 100 different cannabinoids have been identified in the cannabis plant. This has relevance not only for medical cannabis (marijuana), but also for another variety of Cannabis sativa: industrial hemp and its related products (e.g., CBD oils).
Learning how terpenes work makes it easier to predict the potential physiological effects of a specific cannabis strain or hemp-derived CBD product. While terpenes have been used in Eastern medicine for millennia, the West just started taking notice in the last few decades. Because of this recency, the bulk of published research on terpenes has been conducted in animal and cell models, with just a handful of human studies completed.
Cannabinoids vs terpenes
In the same way that THC and CBD share a similar chemical structure, one could say the same for certain subsets of terpenes. With over 80,000 terpenes identified, it's a big family. But at their most basic form, terpenes are composed of a five-carbon organic building block, an "isoprene", and depending on the terpene, there will be varying amounts of isoprene units. These isoprene blocks are absent in cannabinoids.
Despite chemical structure differences, both cannabinoids and terpenes originate in the same resin glands, known as trichomes, of the cannabis plant. Research indicates that when working in tandem, cannabinoids and terpenes produce enhanced biological activity, more than either could produce solo. This synergistic relationship is known as the "entourage effect," and it is directly pertinent to cannabis products since their terpene content can influence how cannabinoids impact the body.
There are thousands of terpenes found in plants across the globe, with scientists labeling more than 100 different types within cannabis alone. Despite those numbers, there are a handful that are more common than others. Let's take a closer look at some of the more prevalent terpenes, what you might smell and taste with each, and their medicinal properties.
As its name suggests, this terpene found in cannabis touts a big, bold aroma consistent with citrus fruits like lemon and orange. But it is also thought to pack a punch to our systems, in a good way. Among the most significant biological activities uncovered in animal and cell studies, limonene has a variety of anticancer properties and is being investigated in clinical trials as a possible chemopreventive agent in women with breast cancer. In addition to this promising research, limonene has antiviral, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory characteristics too.
With a natural musk that conjures up images of earthiness, this terpene is commonly found in cannabis, lemongrass, hops, basil, and mango. Animal research on myrcene shows potential for sleep support via sedative and relaxant properties demonstrated in mice. Preliminary studies also show myrcene's anti-inflammatory and anticancer traits.
For you forest bathing aficionados, another terpene with a name indicative of its origin, pinene is derived from pine needles (and found in cannabis) and features an earthy taste and scent. More importantly, there is research from animal and cell studies that reveals pinene's anti-inflammatory, antioxidative, anticancer, and neuroprotective traits. Future research in humans will be important to understand pinene's potential impact on cancer and neurodegenerative processes.
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Found in frankincense and cannabis, linalool dates back to antiquity. This terpene is also the compound responsible for giving lavender its sweet and rich scent, but you can find linalool in other plants like coriander and tomatoes as well. Frequently used in aromatherapy settings because of its purported calming effects, one study in patients with carpal tunnel syndrome demonstrated that inhaled linalool reduced blood pressure and pulse rate, while increasing antioxidant activity. Linalool also acts as a potent anti-inflammatory agent, capable of inhibiting production of inflammatory cytokines. Other linalool properties discussed in early research include anticancer, anti-hyperlipidemic, antimicrobial, analgesic, and neuroprotective.
If you've ever used black pepper, you're familiar with the spicy and robust scent of beta-caryophyllene. This terpene is also found in cannabis, cloves, hops, and rosemary. This terpene has anti-anxiety and antidepressant effects seen in mouse studies, and its neuroprotective potential is a current area of research interest. Other experimental studies reveal an array of additional pharmacological activities for beta-caryophyllene, including antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and immunomodulatory, to name a few, along with an anti-arthritic effect seen in rat studies.
Eucalyptus-based soaps, beauty bars, and cleaning supplies are popular in households across America, and a terpene called eucalyptol is responsible for these products' appealing minty scent. Eucalyptol is known for its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, which researchers believe have promising therapeutic potential. Further, experimental studies reveal its anticancer properties. Eucalyptol is not only found in eucalyptus, but also cannabis, rosemary, sage, sweet basil, bay leaves, tea tree, and cardamom.
Another of the most calming scents around (and one used in a variety of personal care products and teas), chamomile, features a terpene called bisabolol. Not only is this light and sweet floral aroma appealing to the senses, but this terpene also found in cannabis has a variety of potential benefits ranging from anti-inflammatory properties to anti-cancer effects, seen in cell studies. Furthermore, bisabolol's antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and analgesic abilities were recently shown to have clinical efficacy in patients following oral surgery, with a bisabolol mouthwash achieving an improvement in "oral hygiene and wound healing, as well as in the reduction of postoperative pain."
Cannabis strains with an abundance of ocimene are likely to be sweeter and richer than some others. It's also possible for citrusy hints and earthy undertones to come through with this terpene, which is also found in hops, kumquats, mangoes, basil, bergamot, lavender, orchids, and pepper. More studies are needed to understand ocimene's medicinal properties, but this terpene may potentially contribute to antifungal, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory activities.
This terpene can be found in cannabis, ginger, jasmine, lavender, tea tree, orchid, and lemongrass, and has a distinct woodsy and occasional citrus scent. Because of its antimicrobial, anti-parasitic, and antioxidant benefits, researchers believe that nerolidol could be a promising candidate for use in agriculture and medicine. A variety of anticancer effects for nerolidol have also been observed at the cellular level.
This terpene is actually the oxidized form of beta-caryophyllene, so it makes sense that it would share in its strong scent. In addition to cannabis, you're likely to find caryophyllene oxide and its spicy aroma in black pepper, oregano, cloves, lemon balm, basil, and rosemary. Interesting trivia: drug-sniffing dogs are trained to detect this terpene for cannabis identification purposes. Experimental research shows that caryophyllene oxide has pain-relieving and anticancer properties.
Though it grabs headlines for the boldness it brings to beers described as "hoppy" in flavor, you can also find humulene in cannabis, sage, and ginseng. This terpene with a woodsy or piney aroma has shown to possess anti-inflammatory properties. Additionally, several experimental studies support its anticancer characteristics, as well as antibacterial and antiviral activity.
Do terpenes get you high?
One of the hot button issues surrounding marijuana stems from the fact that it can induce a "high," which has led some people to wonder if high concentrations of terpenes are responsible for that sensation. While there are abundant terpenes in the cannabis plant, these compounds do not get users high. The psychotropic effects from using marijuana are due to THC, a singular cannabinoid that is totally different from terpenes in structure and function. And remember that CBD products, derived from industrial hemp, are required by US law to have less than 0.3% THC (trace levels), so the "high" conversation becomes irrelevant in that context.
Which cannabis products contain the most terpenes?
When it comes to marijuana, you'll find an array of terpenes within each strain. However, in hemp derived CBD oils, edibles, and topicals, terpenes may not be present in every formula. It just depends. That's why we've highlighted some high quality CBD products on the market known to contain a range of cannabinoids and terpenes, so you can tap into that synergy (aka entourage effect).
Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
For a strong, full spectrum CBD oil, you can't go wrong with Spruce. It offers two different strengths of CBD oil: one 750 milligram bottle, and a Max Potency tincture that contains 2,400 milligrams of CBD oil for those seeking an extra strength product. Each product is thoroughly lab tested, and the terpene content for every batch can be found on the company's lab test results page if you are curious to know exactly which terpenes are present within a specific CBD tincture.
If you'd like a little more variety when choosing the right CBD oil for you, CBDistillery offers plenty of strength variations, as well as full and broad spectrum products. Both formulas contain various terpenes and cannabinoids, and are available in a 500, 1,000, 2,500, or 5,000 milligram potency. Every CBDistillery product includes a QR code on the packaging, which can be scanned to access the full batch third party test results for your specific item, and see exactly which terpenes it contains.
For anyone who doesn't love the earthy taste of natural CBD oil, then FAB is a great brand to consider. Its full spectrum CBD oils come in four different strengths, and five flavor options (mint, berry, citrus, vanilla, and natural) to match any palate preferences you may have. However, these tasty flavors do not take away from the other beneficial compounds within the product, including the terpene composition, which can be found within the third party lab test reports for each product.
Josh Hall has been professional writer and storyteller for more than 15 years. His work on natural health and cannabis has appeared in Health, Shape, and Remedy Review.
By Lynne Peeples
Editor's note: This story is part of a nine-month investigation of drinking water contamination across the U.S. The series is supported by funding from the Park Foundation and Water Foundation. Read the launch story, "Thirsting for Solutions," here.
In late September 2020, officials in Wrangell, Alaska, warned residents who were elderly, pregnant or had health problems to avoid drinking the city's tap water — unless they could filter it on their own.
Unintended Consequences<p>Chemists first discovered disinfection by-products in treated drinking water in the 1970s. The trihalomethanes they found, they determined, had resulted from the reaction of chlorine with natural organic matter. Since then, scientists have identified more than 700 additional disinfection by-products. "And those only represent a portion. We still don't know half of them," says Richardson, whose lab has identified hundreds of disinfection by-products. </p>
What’s Regulated and What’s Not?<p>The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) currently regulates 11 disinfection by-products — including a handful of trihalomethanes (THM) and haloacetic acids (HAA). While these represent only a small fraction of all disinfection by-products, EPA aims to use their presence to indicate the presence of other disinfection by-products. "The general idea is if you control THMs and HAAs, you implicitly or by default control everything else as well," says Korshin.</p><p>EPA also requires drinking water facilities to use techniques to reduce the concentration of organic materials before applying disinfectants, and regulates the quantity of disinfectants that systems use. These rules ultimately can help control levels of disinfection by-products in drinking water.</p>
Click the image for an interactive version of this chart on the Environmental Working Group website.<p>Still, some scientists and advocates argue that current regulations do not go far enough to protect the public. Many question whether the government is regulating the right disinfection by-products, and if water systems are doing enough to reduce disinfection by-products. EPA is now seeking public input as it considers potential revisions to regulations, including the possibility of regulating additional by-products. The agency held a <a href="https://www.epa.gov/dwsixyearreview/potential-revisions-microbial-and-disinfection-byproducts-rules" target="_blank">two-day public meeting</a> in October 2020 and plans to hold additional public meetings throughout 2021.</p><p>When EPA set regulations on disinfection by-products between the 1970s and early 2000s, the agency, as well as the scientific community, was primarily focused on by-products of reactions between organics and chlorine — historically the most common drinking water disinfectant. But the science has become increasingly clear that these chlorinated chemicals represent a fraction of the by-product problem.</p><p>For example, bromide or iodide can get caught up in the reaction, too. This is common where seawater penetrates a drinking water source. By itself, bromide is innocuous, says Korshin. "But it is extremely [reactive] with organics," he says. "As bromide levels increase with normal treatment, then concentrations of brominated disinfection by-products will increase quite rapidly."</p><p><a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15487777/" target="_blank">Emerging</a> <a href="https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.7b05440" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">data</a> indicate that brominated and iodinated by-products are potentially more harmful than the regulated by-products.</p><p>Almost half of the U.S. population lives within 50 miles of either the Atlantic or Pacific coasts, where saltwater intrusion can be a problem for drinking water supplies. "In the U.S., the rule of thumb is the closer to the sea, the more bromide you have," says Korshin, noting there are also places where bromide naturally leaches out from the soil. Still, some coastal areas tend to be spared. For example, the city of Seattle's water comes from the mountains, never making contact with seawater and tending to pick up minimal organic matter.</p><p>Hazardous disinfection by-products can also be an issue with desalination for drinking water. "As <a href="https://ensia.com/features/can-saltwater-quench-our-growing-thirst/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">desalination</a> practices become more economical, then the issue of controlling bromide becomes quite important," adds Korshin.</p>
Other Hot Spots<p>Coastal areas represent just one type of hot spot for disinfection by-products. Agricultural regions tend to send organic matter — such as fertilizer and animal waste — into waterways. Areas with warmer climates generally have higher levels of natural organic matter. And nearly any urban area can be prone to stormwater runoff or combined sewer overflows, which can contain rainwater as well as untreated human waste, industrial wastewater, hazardous materials and organic debris. These events are especially common along the East Coast, notes Sydney Evans, a science analyst with the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG, a collaborator on <a href="https://ensia.com/ensia-collections/troubled-waters/" target="_blank">this reporting project</a>).</p><p>The only drinking water sources that might be altogether free of disinfection by-products, suggests Richardson, are private wells that are not treated with disinfectants. She used to drink water from her own well. "It was always cold, coming from great depth through clay and granite," she says. "It was fabulous."</p><p>Today, Richardson gets her water from a city system that uses chloramine.</p>
Toxic Treadmill<p>Most community water systems in the U.S. use chlorine for disinfection in their treatment plant. Because disinfectants are needed to prevent bacteria growth as the water travels to the homes at the ends of the distribution lines, sometimes a second round of disinfection is also added in the pipes.</p><p>Here, systems usually opt for either chlorine or chloramine. "Chloramination is more long-lasting and does not form as many disinfection by-products through the system," says Steve Via, director of federal relations at the American Water Works Association. "Some studies show that chloramination may be more protective against organisms that inhabit biofilms such as Legionella."</p>
Alternative Approaches<p>When he moved to the U.S. from Germany, Prasse says he immediately noticed the bad taste of the water. "You can taste the chlorine here. That's not the case in Germany," he says.</p><p>In his home country, water systems use chlorine — if at all — at lower concentrations and at the very end of treatment. In the Netherlands, <a href="https://dwes.copernicus.org/articles/2/1/2009/dwes-2-1-2009.pdf" target="_blank">chlorine isn't used at all</a> as the risks are considered to outweigh the benefits, says Prasse. He notes the challenge in making a convincing connection between exposure to low concentrations of disinfection by-products and health effects, such as cancer, that can occur decades later. In contrast, exposure to a pathogen can make someone sick very quickly.</p><p>But many countries in Europe have not waited for proof and have taken a precautionary approach to reduce potential risk. The emphasis there is on alternative approaches for primary disinfection such as ozone or <a href="https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/eco-friendly-way-disinfect-water-using-light/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ultraviolet light</a>. Reverse osmosis is among the "high-end" options, used to remove organic and inorganics from the water. While expensive, says Prasse, the method of forcing water through a semipermeable membrane is growing in popularity for systems that want to reuse wastewater for drinking water purposes.</p><p>Remucal notes that some treatment technologies may be good at removing a particular type of contaminant while being ineffective at removing another. "We need to think about the whole soup when we think about treatment," she says. What's more, Remucal explains, the mixture of contaminants may impact the body differently than any one chemical on its own. </p><p>Richardson's preferred treatment method is filtering the water with granulated activated carbon, followed by a low dose of chlorine.</p><p>Granulated activated carbon is essentially the same stuff that's in a household filter. (EWG recommends that consumers use a <a href="https://www.ewg.org/tapwater/reviewed-disinfection-byproducts.php#:~:text=EWG%20recommends%20using%20a%20home,as%20trihalomethanes%20and%20haloacetic%20acids." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">countertop carbon filter</a> to reduce levels of disinfection by-products.) While such a filter "would remove disinfection by-products after they're formed, in the plant they remove precursors before they form by-products," explains Richardson. She coauthored a <a href="https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.9b00023" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019 paper</a> that concluded the treatment method is effective in reducing a wide range of regulated and unregulated disinfection by-products.</p><br>
Greater Cincinnati Water Works installed a granulated activated carbon system in 1992, and is still one of relatively few full-scale plants that uses the technology. Courtesy of Greater Cincinnati Water Works.<p>Despite the technology and its benefits being known for decades, relatively few full-scale plants use granulated active carbon. They often cite its high cost, Richardson says. "They say that, but the city of Cincinnati [Ohio] has not gone bankrupt using it," she says. "So, I'm not buying that argument anymore."</p><p>Greater Cincinnati Water Works installed a granulated activated carbon system in 1992. On a video call in December, Jeff Swertfeger, the superintendent of Greater Cincinnati Water Works, poured grains of what looks like black sand out of a glass tube and into his hand. It was actually crushed coal that has been baked in a furnace. Under a microscope, each grain looks like a sponge, said Swertfeger. When water passes over the carbon grains, he explained, open tunnels and pores provide extensive surface area to absorb contaminants.</p><p>While the granulated activated carbon initially was installed to address chemical spills and other industrial contamination concerns in the Ohio River, Cincinnati's main drinking water source, Swertfeger notes that the substance has turned out to "remove a lot of other stuff, too," including <a href="https://ensia.com/features/drinking-water-contamination-pfas-health/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">PFAS</a> and disinfection by-product precursors.</p><p>"We use about one-third the amount of chlorine as we did before. It smells and tastes a lot better," he says. "The use of granulated activated carbon has resulted in lower disinfection by-products across the board."</p><p>Richardson is optimistic about being able to reduce risks from disinfection by-products in the future. "If we're smart, we can still kill those pathogens and lower our chemical disinfection by-product exposure at the same time," she says.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://ensia.com/features/drinking-water-disinfection-byproducts-pathogens/" target="_blank">Ensia</a>. </em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649953730#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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