Terpenes are fragrant oils produced by a variety of plants, and even some insects. They’re responsible for the strong aromas produced by plants and fruit and are thought to have evolved as a way to deter predators and lure pollinators. However, more recently numerous studies have found terpenes to have therapeutic properties ranging from anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) and anti-depressive, to analgesic (pain-relieving) and anti-inflammatory. But with so many terpenes to choose from, which ones are the best terpenes for pain?
Terpenes are the scent molecules of nature. Chances are some of your favorite natural smells are caused by them, whether we’re talking about lavender’s signature calming aroma or lemon’s zesty overtones.
Terpenes get their unique name from shortening the word turpentine, a term for resin derived from pine trees. As you might expect, turpentine is full of terps — especially one called pinene. But we’ll get to specific terpenes later. For now, just know that these compounds are ever-present throughout nature.
How present? There are more than 20,000 terpenes throughout the natural kingdom. Even some insects produce terpenes! First and foremost, terpenes benefit the plants and insects that produce them. Trees even use terpenes to alter their environment. “Terpenes are the most popular chemical medium on our planet to communicate through,” researchers from the Netherlands have stated.
Almost like a fitting afterthought, these natural chemical mediums also benefit us.
What terpenes are
That’s all great, you might be thinking…but what are terpenes actually made of, from a chemical perspective?
Good question. Scientists have found that most terpenes are hydrocarbons, which basically just means hydrogen and carbon-containing linked structures. Terpenes are also very small, smaller than most other molecules. This delicate design means they evaporate out into the atmosphere — and often right into the noses of their admirers. How convenient!
The chemical makeup of terpenes also means they can enhance the absorption of other substances. And when terpenes are ingested, things get really exciting…
The many types of ‘terps’
In addition to being so commonplace, terpenes are also pretty diverse. They are eight different types of in total, each one characterized by how many small hydrocarbon units it’s made of. If that sounds confusing, don’t worry — many of the dietary fats we ingest are classified in a similar way.
What are these eight types? Here’s a list:
- Hemiterpenes | Made up of 1 isoprene “unit”
- Monoterpenes | Made up of 2 isoprene “units.” Example: limonene
- Sesquiterpenes | Made up of 3 isoprene “units.” Example: farnesol
- Diterpenes | Made up of 4 isoprene “units.” Example: cafestol
- Sesterterpenes | Made up of 5 isoprene “units.” Example: geranylfarnesol
- Triterpenes | Made up of 6 isoprene “units.” Example: squalene
- Tetraterpenes | Made up of 8 isoprene “units.” Example: lycopene
- Polyterpenes | Made up of many isoprene “units.” Example: natural rubber terpenes
Another thing to note: terpenes that are chemically altered, whether in the lab or by nature herself, are referred to as terpenoids. Just be aware that some people use the terms interchangeably.
Out of all the terpenes mentioned above, Monoterpenes (and monoterpenoids) are the most common type of terpene in nature; they’re also the most common type in hemp and cannabis.
Cannabinoids vs. Terpenes
If you’re familiar with cannabis and hemp you might already have another question in your mind: what are the differences between cannabinoids and terpenes?
Basically, not much. Some natural chemists have argued that cannabinoids are what they call “terpeno-phenolic compounds”…and they’re right.
But cannabinoids differ from most other terpenephenolic compounds in more than a few ways. For one, they’re bigger. Cannabinoids’ molecular weight tends to clock in around 300 g/mol; terpenes usually come in around 100. Some cannabinoids are so big (as far as molecules go) that they barely squeeze through the brain’s blood-brain-barrier after being ingested.
CBDa and THCa are good examples. These ‘raw’ cannabinoids have to be decarboxylated by heat, a process that reduces their molecular weight, in order to absorb well. Eating a raw cannabis plant won’t get high, nor will eating a raw hemp plant give you access to CBD’s best benefits.
Terpenes don’t have this problem. They’re easily absorbed in many different ways, including through the skin and sublingual glands.
One more similarity for now: terpenes and cannabinoids come from the same place, chemically speaking. When a hemp/cannabis plant is super young it doesn’t actually contain any cannabinoids or terpenes at all. Instead it produces something called olivetolic acid, which then converts to geranyl phosphate, which then-and-only then gets converted to the specific cannabinoids and terps we’ve come to know and love.
Speaking of which, let’s take a look at 10 of the hemp’s most well-known terpenes next.
Can Terpenes Really Alleviate Pain?
In cannabis, terpenes are secreted by the same gland responsible for producing pain-relieving cannabinoids like THC and CBD. Unsurprisingly, several terpenes found in cannabis are also believed to possess analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties.
Similarly to cannabinoids, terpenes are thought to communicate with certain protein cell receptors in the body’s inner endocannabinoid system (ECS) in order to produce therapeutic effects. The ECS is a natural physiological system existing in both humans and animals and is responsible for maintaining balance in the body by regulating things such as mood, pain, appetite, sleep, stress, and more. A 2008 study found the terpene caryophyllene to be the first non-cannabinoid compound able to directly activate cannabinoid receptors in the body. While more research is needed, it’s possible that other terpenes work through the same pathway, by activating various cell receptors within the ECS.
Top 8 Terpenes in Cannabis: Marijuana’s “Secret Ingredients”
There are a lot of terpenes in cannabis: So far, researchers have identified at least 200 of them! But only a relative handful deliver the most important medical and perceptual effects. Let’s start with the most important one: Myrcene, sometimes known as the “Mother of Terpenes.”
Myrcene is the most abundant terpene, characterized by a fruity, grapelike flavor. In addition to imparting its unique flavor and gentle sedative effects, it helps synergize the actions of other terpenes and cannabinoids, making it an important player in the cannabis plant.
Outside cannabis, myrcene shows up most notably in mangoes. Some fans report that if you consume a mango about 45 minutes before cannabis, the myrcene leads to an especially intense and long-lasting high. Fact or fiction? Find out for yourself!
Myrcene-rich strains include: Skunk XL, White Widow, and Special Kush
Alpha-pinene and Beta-pinene
These closely related terpenes impart a distinctive piney and resinous aroma. It’s one reason they remind cannabis fans of their other natural sources, which include pine trees, rosemary, orange peels, and herbs like basil.
Pinene exhibits a gentle anti-inflammatory effect. Research demonstrates that inhaling cannabis rich in pinene—especially if you use a vape pen or vaporizer—can help reduce inflammatory responses like asthma in the lungs and airways.
Pinene-rich strains include: Jack Herer, Strawberry Cough, Blue Dream and Dutch Treat
This terpene has an unforgettable flavor, calling to mind black pepper, cinnamon, cloves and oregano. Caryophyllene has powerful analgesic and anti-anxiety properties. Because it has unusual molecular binding properties, it’s also a key ingredient in anti-inflammatory topicals and creams.
Caryophyllene-rich strains include: Super Silver Haze, OG Kush, and Rock Star
This distinctive-smelling terpene is also found in hops, which helps give some beers their earthy and spicy flavors. As well as having antibacterial qualities, humulene is helpful in fighting the growth of tumors as well as helping to suppress the appetite. Finally: A cure for the munchies?
Humulene-rich strains include: White Widow, Headband, Girl Scout Cookies (GSC) and Pink Gelato
Limonene may be a key to medicine’s holy grail: The cure for cancer. Studies suggest that this terpene helps regulate our immune system and might also play a role in controlling the spread of certain cancers. Limonene is well-loved for its ability to impart general uplift and mood-lightening effects, and to reduce stress and anxiety.
Limonene-rich strains include: Sour Diesel, Super Lemon Haze, Durban Poison, and Jack Herer
Perhaps the terpene most clearly associated with the stereotypical “marijuana smell,” linalool is also found in lavender. It’s known to help fight anxiety and depression, and impart sedative and relaxing sensations. What’s more, preliminary studies suggest that linalool might help reverse the cognitive impairment and memory loss caused by Alzheimer’s disease.
Linalool-rich strains include: Amnesia Haze, Special Kush, Lavender, LA Confidential, and OG Shark
Catch some better zzz’s with a terpinolene-rich strain. With an aroma reminiscent of lilacs, terpinolene helps bring on drowsiness, similar to linalool.
Terpinolene-rich strains include: Jack Herrer, Ghost Train Haze, and Dutch Treat.
Also known as cineol, eucalyptol is found in mint, rosemary, tea tree, and more. Known for its anti-asthmatic properties, its cooling aroma is great for hot days.
Eucalyptol-rich strains include: ACDC