Many cannabis growers and consumers focus their attention solely on THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol), ignoring the additional hundred-plus known cannabinoids also contained in the plant. However, as we continue to unearth how the organic compounds known as terpenes or terpenoids have such a substantial effect by themselves and also as cannabinoid modulators, that THC/CBD-only mindset appears to be changing.
If you ever have the opportunity to try terp sauce — a flavorful and highly concentrated viscous liquid comprised of aromatic terpenes — you’ll experience terpenoid effects by themselves. And it’ll likely come as a surprise how different these effects are compared to what you experience from consuming whole-plant cannabis. Terp sauce, and high-THC/high-CBD dabs, are available in most states where legalized recreational cannabis dispensaries operate. Here’s a little tasting experiment to try:
- First, inhale a dab containing pure THC, pure CBD, or THC and CBD together. Pay close attention to the effects you feel.
- Wait until the cannabinoid dab effects have totally worn off. This could take several hours or even days. Combine the same amount and type of cannabinoid dab that you first consumed with an equal amount of terp sauce, and inhale. Monitor the effects closely.
- Wait until the previous experiments’ effects have worn off before vaping or combusting terp sauce by itself. Monitor the effects.
If your experiments with cannabinoid and terpene extracts turn out as mine did, you’ll notice that terpenoids have the power to affect your mind and body, thus modulating cannabinoid effects.
Terpenoids: A Long, Healthy History Of Medicinal Use
The words “terpenes” and “terpenoids” are often used interchangeably, but a science nerd could give you a headache banging on about the molecular-level differences between the two classes of organic compounds. For cannabis enthusiasts, those differences aren’t important. However, if you’re earning a Ph.D. in biochemistry or working in a cannabis extraction lab, it’s useful to know the distinctness.
Terpenoids are a major component of the scent you get from cannabis plants while they’re growing, and the taste you get while consuming buds. They’re also a major component of what you inhale when you combust or vaporize marijuana. Terpenoid percentages by volume of smoke or vapor are usually higher than cannabinoid percentages.
The use of cannabinoids and terpenoids in folk medicine and now in modern medicine is well established. Age-old healing modalities, including aromatherapy, traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda, have for centuries recognized that specific plant compounds have powerful effects on the human body.
These practices are not borne of folkloric mythology or wishful thinking. Rather, Western science has proven that cannabinoids and terpenoids have a symbiotic relationship that alters body chemistry, producing both psychoactive and medical effects. Some terpenoids potentiate the effects of THC, while others limit its effects. Terpenes are known to directly affect dopamine and serotonin circuitry, which are linked to the endocannabinoid system that cannabinoids directly bind with.
(Although we’re focusing on terpenoids, cannabis also contains additional useful compounds, chief among them flavonoids, which we’ll look at in a future article.)
Cannabis Is A Treasure Trove of Phytochemicals
Cannabis is a uniquely complex and useful plant that contains a vast array of terpenoids, including many found in other plant and tree species. Indeed, cannabis is a treasure trove of phytochemicals. The Lemon Skunk strain smells and tastes like lemons because it contains limonene, the dominant monoterpene found in lemons. The Strawberry Cough strain smells and tastes like strawberries because it has the dominant terpenoid also found in strawberries, and so it goes.
Cannabis (and plants in general) generate terpenoids in part as a defense mechanism to repel insects, molds and fungi. The amounts of specific terpenoids present are what accounts for why some cannabis strains are especially vulnerable to the likes of gray mold, spider mites, aphids, thrips, whiteflies and mealybugs, while other strains are rarely plagued by such foes.
Cannabis is a smart, therapeutic plant, and scientists have discovered that the type, concentration, placement and presence of terpenoids in specific strains is dependent on a dizzying array of factors. Cannabis has the evolutionary wisdom to create and distribute terpenoids in very precise ways and at precise times to deal with a variety of specific threats. Terpenoids that repel foliage-munching animals are found in larger leaves lower on the plant, while terpenoids that repel sucking insects such as mites are found higher up. Meanwhile, terpenoids that repel budworms are found mainly in the buds. Specific terpenoids appear at different places on the plant at different times as the plant’s season progresses, corresponding to natural cycles timed to when threats are naturally most likely to appear.
A Hit List Of The Top Cannabis Terpenoids
We begin with βeta–caryophyllene (caryophyllene). When the cannabis you’re growing gives off a spicy and especially peppery smell and taste, you’ve got a strain ripe with caryophyllene.
Like THC and CBD, caryophyllene binds directly with CB2 receptors, one of the human body’s two cannabinoid receptors, particularly concentrated on cells in the immune system and in the gut, spleen, liver, heart, kidneys, bones, blood vessels, lymph cells, endocrine glands and reproductive organs. THC gets you high because it binds to CB1 receptors centered in the brain and central nervous system, while CBD and caryophyllene predominantly bind with CB2 receptors, affecting the immune system and the peripheral nervous system. According to findings published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, caryophyllene is the only terpenoid known so far to directly activate a cannabinoid receptor.
Because caryophyllene increases the functionality of cannabinoid receptors and the effects of cannabinoids, its presence in the scent of a cannabis strain is indicative of a high-value strain, in that it has many beneficial properties, including being anti-inflammatory, analgesic, anti-cancer, anti-infection, antibacterial, antifungal and a neuroprotective agent. If you’ve ever growing a peppery strain that resisted molds and fungi, thank caryophyllene for that.
β–linalool (linalool), a natural sedative and muscle relaxant, is present in at least 200 plant species, including cannabis, cinnamon and lavender. Cannabis strains with high linalool percentages work well at combating insomnia. Simply take a couple of hits, and wake up three hours later on the couch, wondering if that weird dream was real. Cannabis high in linalool can also be consumed to help quell spasm and seizure disorders such as epilepsy, as well as symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety. It’s also been found to repel some of the insect species that enjoy munching on cannabis.
The α-terpineol terpene is the aroma responsible for the scents of lime, apple and lilac, and is often used in perfumes, soaps, lotions and bath bubbles. Cannabis strains high in terpineol can stop you in your tracks as a powerful muscle relaxer and sedative.
Nerolidol’s mild scent recalls apples, melons and roses, and is commonly found in cannabis, ginger, citrus skins and citronella. It fights fungi and malaria, but perhaps more relevant for cannabis growers and consumers is that it’s a potent sedative and surfactant that increases cannabinoid absorption through topical or internal application via mucus membranes, as is common when cannabis is used as an aphrodisiac.
Boasting a strong roast coffee or fishy aroma, thenyl mercaptan is often used as a flavoring agent. The spray from a skunk mammal consists mainly of low-molecular-weight mercaptan thiols and their derivatives, so if you’re thinking that skunk cannabis strains are probably high in thenyl mercaptan, then you’d be right. Also present in skunk cannabis is the terpenoid butanoic acid, also known as butyric acid. It too has a rather offensive, skunky, some would say vomitous odor.
Cheese cannabis strains are often high in octanoic acid, which naturally smells like cheese. On the sweeter end of the scent spectrum, phenylacetaldehyde is present in such strains as Chocolate Thai, Chocolope, and any strain that smells like cocoa and fruit combined.
Some cannabis strains contain menthol, known for its respiratory benefits and cooling effects. It has also been popularly used as a mild anesthetic skin lotion.
Eucalyptol is one of my favorite terpenoids, and if you’ve ever been near eucalyptus trees or used cough drops when feeling under the weather, you’d be very familiar with this particular scent. This extremely beneficial terpenoid is one of the reasons that cannabis smoke and vapor, instead of damaging the lungs, can actually help to clear the respiratory system by opening air passages and reducing mucus accumulation and production. Plants and trees containing eucalyptol, including cannabis, have long been used medicinally as topical agents to fight fungus and bacterial infections, as mouthwash, as topical and ingested anti-inflammatories, and ingested as a cognitive stimulant.
ß-Myrcene (myrcene) is probably the best-known cannabis terpene because it potentiates the effects of cannabinoids and other terpenoids. Myrcene also acts as a building block for additional cannabis terpenes, and is particularly prevalent in fruits, especially mango. So, when you grow cannabis strains that have the word “mango” in their name or have a distinctly mango taste and scent, you’ve got a strain high in myrcene.
A cannabinoid potentiator, myrcene is able to defeat an evolutionary brain-protecting function that slows transfer of substances from the blood to the brain, causing those substances to transfer into the brain faster and with more efficiency, leading to rapid onset of cannabis effects. Cannabis lore suggests consumers eat a couple of mangoes an hour before getting high to make the high stronger and longer lasting.
Myrcene is known to augment THC and/or CBD effects, and to accentuate medical marijuana benefits including sedation, pain relief, anti-inflammatory properties, anti-seizure, anti-cancer and anti-diabetes. Myrcene-rich strains tend to be either indica or Kush, and can produce a heavy high leading to extreme relaxation or sleep. You rarely find high myrcene levels in sativa cannabis strains.
α-Pinene And β-Pinene
Pinene is another terpenoid that savvy cannabis growers are familiar with. I’ve grown several cannabis strains that smell and taste like pine trees or pine tree sap. The reason for these scents? Pinene, one of nature’s most prevalent terpenoids, also found in fir trees, hops, sagebrush and sage. Plants and trees rich in pinene are used medicinally as painkillers, respiratory cleansers, anti-infection agents, and as a deterrent to the growth of cancer cells.
Like myrcene, pinene is a blood/brain barrier penetrator. Part of its bioactivity is that it improves the transmission and storage of memory information. THC is known to interfere with memory, but when pinene is thrown in the mix, the deleterious effects of THC on memory function are decreased.
Terpinolene is present in significant quantities in many a cannabis strain, but its scent and taste are often submerged under that of terpenoids, such as limonene. On its own, it smells a bit like skunks or smoke, and is present, along with pinene, in many skunk strains. Terpinolene has a slew of medicinal benefits, including as a sleep aid and antioxidant, and has also been used to repel biting insects such as mosquitoes.
I was fortunate to grow a rare strain of cannabis called Matanuska Mint, a crossbreed based on the legendary Matanuska Thunderfuck. It smelled like mint while it was growing and tasted like mint when inhaled. This was partially due to the terpenoid borneol.
This strain opened my lungs, throat and sinus passages, and reminded me of tincture of camphor. The minty smell and taste of borneol has commonly been used topically, in edibles and extracts, and as part of plant medicines as an anti-inflammatory and analgesic. It holds an important place in traditional Chinese medicine and acupuncture, often sourced from rare teak trees. Borneol helps with digestion, relieves rheumatism, improves cardiovascular function, and can be used as an insect repellant.
Nerolidol, also known as peruviol and penetrolis, is found in cannabis, jasmine, citronella and ginger. It has many therapeutic uses, including as an anti-fungal, anti-malarial and calming sedative.
α-Humulene is also denoted as α-caryophyllene, a powerful medical terpenoid found not only in cannabis, but also in ginseng, hops and sage. It boasts anti-cancer properties, is antibacterial and has analgesic qualities. If you consume a cannabis strain that suppresses rather than enhances your appetite, credit humulene and THC-V, which are both suspected of decreasing feelings of hunger.
Managing Terpenoid Production And Consumption
Now, you’re probably asking yourself how you can increase production of cannabinoids and terpenoids in the cannabis you cultivate. In our previous article about feeding, lighting and flushing your cannabis to increase cannabinoids and terpenoids, we explain how manipulating light intensity and wavelengths, feeding your crop the correct nutrients in the correct ratios, and flushing in late bloom phase causes plants to produce more cannabinoids and terpenoids. During bloom phase, the following supplements are designed to boost cannabinoid and terpenoid production:
- Bud Factor X: A bloom-phase supplement containing proprietary compounds that stimulate your plants’ immune system, the defense mechanism that generates terpenoids in response to pests, diseases and stress. Terpenoid production is an important result of cannabis immune response.
- Nirvana: This multifaceted supplement boosts plant metabolism and the chemical pathways that produce cannabinoids and terpenoids. Nirvana is an all-around booster for plant health and immune response that results in increased resin production.
- Bud Candy: Provides several types of carbohydrates that act as a plant-boosting energy source in bloom phase, while also transferring into plants to become part of chemical processes that result in terpenoids and cannabinoids.
As a grower, I wondered if I could extract terpenoids to make my own terp sauce from my buds. Extracting cannabinoids and terpenoids is scientific, rigorous, and requires specialized gear and knowledge in a high-tech, lab-equipped setting. You also need to be able to clean up the extractions via dewaxing and processing, concentrating them into forms that retain active medical and psychoactive properties.
How, then, can you take advantage of the medical benefits of terpenoids and the effect they have on your high if you can’t extract them yourself?
In legalized states, you can buy dozens of varieties of terp sauce, most of them themed to the strain they came from. I’ve purchased Cherry Pie terp sauce that smelled and tasted like cherries, and reminded me of the dominant flavor and scent from Cherry Pie buds. It also gave me a strange kind of high, very unlike what Cherry Pie buds give me.
You can use a precision vaporizer to volatilize specific terpenoids, while retaining others and some cannabinoids within the bud. Many of the most useful terpenoids have a lower vaporization temperature than most cannabinoids. Myrcene volatilizes at 333°F and caryophyllene at 266°F, while THC volatilizes at 332°F.
With a precision vaporizer, you could start your temperature range far lower than you normally would when you want to inhale a full-entourage vapor (which, amusingly, is about 420°F), working your way up the temperature ladder. As you do, you’ll discover that specific vaporizer temperatures give you an overwhelming taste of one specific terpenoid.
Until such time as technology for making terp sauce becomes more accessible and less expensive so that even people without a background in chemistry can make it, the best we can do is, as consumers, use vaporizer temperatures to experience different terpenoids, or buy commercial terp sauce. Cannabis growers can use the customized feeding-lighting-flushing program to push plants to produce as many cannabinoids and terpenoids as possible, especially if growing for processors who’ll use high-tech lab techniques to extract those compounds.