Terpenes are a group of organic compounds. They’re best-known in the cannabis community for giving the plant’s flowers their unique scent. Although the word terpenes and terpenoids are often used interchangeably, there is a difference between the two: terpenes are the naturally occurring combination of carbon and hydrogen, while terpenoids are terpenes that have been chemically modified, changing the oxygen content of the compound.
Terpenes not only change the scent of the cannabis plant, but they also change its effects. Based on the terpene makeup, quality, and variety in a strain, you might feel different effects. Terpenes can cause one strain to help you feel happy and calm, for example, while another strain makes you feel sleepy.
Today, we’re explaining the most popular types of terpenes – including their unique health benefits backed by modern science.
Types of Terpenes
Bisabolol is known for its sweet, floral aroma. It may also have anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, and anti-nociceptive properties. Bisabolol’s use goes back centuries: cosmetic companies have long used bisabolol for its soothing properties and unique scent. Two major studies from 2009 seem to have reinforced the benefits of bisabolol: researchers in Korea and Brazil found that bisabolol reduced pain and inflammation in mice. Another, more recent study indicated that bisabolol had anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory properties. Interestingly, the study also showed that traditional anti-microbial topical solutions like tea tree oil were more effective when combined with bisabolol, leading some to believe that bisabolol has synergistic properties and strengthens the medicinal value of other compounds.
Caryophyllene is a popular terpene because of its apparent ability to active CB2 receptors throughout the body. Some compare this terpene to CBD because it can eliminate pain, reduce stress, and lower inflammation. Scientific studies have reinforced the idea that caryophyllene is a CB2 agonist with proven anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties. Interestingly, studies have also shown that caryophyllene provides full body pain relief. In another study, researchers found that mice who received caryophyllene experienced lower levels of stress. Plus, caryophyllene may also act as a neuroprotectant, strengthening brain cells and reducing degeneration. Caryophyllene may also have antifungal properties, as it’s been shown to inhibit the spread of skin diseases like ring worm by eliminating dermatophytes.
Borneol has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for over 400 years. Also known as moxa, this terpenoid has long been prized for its ability to reduce inflammation, lower anxiety, relieve pain, and reduce the risk of heart diseases. Modern research has indicated that borneol has some powerful health benefits: one study from 2003 confirmed that borneol can numb pain. A separate study from 2013 reinforced this finding, showing that borneol significantly reduced pain and inflammation in mice while also giving patients fewer side effects than traditional medications.
Borneol’s stress relieving properties likely come from its ability to modulate GABA receptors: in a 2004 study, researchers found that borneol positively modulates GABA receptors, thereby reducing stress. Borneol also seems to have powerful effects on the heart. In one study, borneol was able to successfully prevent rats from having a stroke. Researchers have traced this benefit back to the anti-coagulative properties of borneol. Finally, just like bisabolol above, borneol also seems to have powerful synergistic properties: it lowers the blood-brain barrier, making it easier for the body to absorb a higher percentage of the medication patients receive. Borneol can make medicine work more effectively.
Terpinolene has been linked to anti-cancer properties. It appears to have an ability to reduce the spread of cancer spells. In one study examining the link between terpinolene and cancer, researchers found that terpinolene acts as a “potent antiproliferative agent for brain tumour cells” in mice. In another study, researchers found that terpinolene can also slow the spread of cancer by downregulating certain proteins. In addition to its anti-cancer properties, terpinolene has a proven ability to induce sleep. In a 2013 study, researchers found that mice were able to fall asleep more easily following the nasal delivery of terpinolene. Unlike many of the other terpenes on this list, terpinolene has no known anti-inflammatory or pain-relieving properties. Similar to camphene, terpinolene produces an acrid smoke when burned.
Terpineol is popular among patients using cannabis for medical purposes. The terpene has been linked to a number of powerful therapeutic properties, including reduced pain and inflammation, reduced frequency and intensity of seizures, and anti-bacterial properties, among other benefits. In a study on terpineol in 2007, researchers found that the terpene exhibited significant anti-inflammatory properties when mixed in orange juice. A follow-up study reinforced this benefit by showing that terpineol had powerful anti-inflammatory properties on rats.
That study also found that terpineol protected rats against stomach ulcers. In a 2011 study involving mice, researchers confirmed that terpineol had powerful analgesic effects with limited side effects, indicating that it could be more effective at treating pain than traditional medication. Meanwhile, some patients who suffer from chronic seizures take cannabis strains with high levels of terpineol. When taking the terpene at high doses (100 and 400 mg/kg), terpineol may reduce the severity and frequency of seizures. Finally, terpineol has exhibited anti-microbial properties against multiple microbial strains. A 2014 study found that terpineol derived from essential oil had powerful anti-microbial properties against all tested strains.
Pinene is categorized as a ‘bicyclic monoterpene’ chemical compound that includes both alpha-pinene and beta-pinene. It’s a myth that cannabis only includes alpha-pinene: both alpha-pinene and beta-pinene can be found in cannabis, often with similar doses. Pinene is also found in far more than just the cannabis plant. In fact, it’s the most common terpene found in nature. Numerous studies have reinforced the idea that pinene has powerful health benefits. The compound has a proven ability to boost airflow to the lungs, for example, which is why some asthma patients take strains with high levels of pinene. Pinene can also regulate inflammation by modulating the body’s inflammatory response, which is also why some patients take high-pinene strains for osteoarthritis. Separate studies from 2011 and 2012 found that pinene could be used to treat various bacterial infections, including infectious bronchitis viruses. Surprisingly, pinene may also improve brain function by boosting cognitive ability: in one study, pinene was found to inhibit acetylcholinesterase activity in the brain, thereby improving memory retention.
Phytol is created when chlorophyll – yes, the same chemical used to create energy in plants – degrades. Phytol is also found in high levels in green tea. Studies have linked phytol consumption to reduced pain and inflammation. In a 2013 study published in Neuroscience Journal, researchers discovered that phytol had “pronounced antinociceptive effects” in mice along with “antioxidant properties”. A follow-up study seemed to reinforce these benefits, showing that phytol could “inhibit inflammatory response by reducing cytokine production and oxidative stress”. Today, patients may take phytol-intensive strains of cannabis to reduce pain and inflammation throughout the body. However, more research is needed in humans before these benefits are confirmed.
Phellandrene is best-known among the cannabis community for its distinctive citrus-y, peppermint smell. Although phellandrene has a pleasant smell, it has been linked to fewer benefits than most other terpenes on this list. In one of the few studies on phellandrene to date, researchers found that the terpene may reduce pain sensitivity and boost energy levels. Some evidence also suggests that phellandrene can reduce depression and have antihyperalgesic effects. The study above specifically analyzed alpha-phellandrene, although the phellandrene family includes both alpha-phellandrene and beta-phellandrene.
Have you ever smelt a strain of cannabis that has a uniquely woody aroma? The woody scent in cannabis often comes from a terpene called nerolidol. This terpene is an antifungal agent that also appears to have natural sleep aid properties. One study published in the Biological & Pharmaceutical Bulletin in 2007 found that nerolidol was clinically effective at treating skin lesions in guinea pigs when applied within one week of the lesion. A more recent study from 2013 explored the effects of nerolidol on the rains of mice. Researchers found that nerolidol affected the hippocampus of mice, creating a sedative effect. Neither study involved humans, but some see these studies as an indication that nerolidol has powerful antifungal and sedative properties.
Myrcene is frequently the most abundant terpene in cannabis strains. It’s also the reason why certain strains may smell like cloves and hops. Research dating back to the 1990s seems to show that myrcene has sedative, analgesic, and anti-inflammatory effects. A study published in the Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology in 1990, for example, indicated that myrcene stimulated the release of endogenous opioids, creating powerful pain relieving effects in patients. In other words, myrcene encouraged your body to release its own pain relieving compounds. A follow-up study led researchers to believe that the pain-relieving benefits of myrcene were even more powerful, and that myrcene could be prescribed as an alternative type of pain medication for patients wanting to avoid the side effects of aspirin and other modern medicine. In a study from 2002, researchers found that myrcene could also promote muscle relaxation and sedation: mice that were given myrcene slept longer than the control mice, which is why some people take myrcene to enjoy a better sleep. A separate study disputed the idea that myrcene could act as an anti-depressant and stress reliever, however, despite its seemingly ‘calming’ properties. In another study, researchers also found that high dosages of myrcene were linked with increased symptoms of anxiety.
Menthol is a well-known terpene inside and outside the cannabis community. Menthol is associated with a cooling sensation. There’s a reason why tobacco companies add menthol to certain cigarettes: the terpene has a proven ability to reduce irritation in your respiratory tract, and studies have shown that menthol reduces coughing. Critics claim adding menthol to cigarettes is a bad idea because it enables people to smoke more than they should. Menthol can also be found as a natural compound in cannabis, where it’s present in lower doses and can function as a natural anti-irritant – particularly for those prone to throat irritation or coughing. Studies have shown that menthol can increase the pain threshold of rats when applied topically. Because of its anti-nociceptive properties, some people apply menthol-heavy cannabis products topically to relieve pain.
Linalool is naturally present in both cannabis and lavender plants. Studies have shown that linalool has sedative properties while also helping with anxiety, pain relief, and seizure management. In one 2002 study, researchers discovered that linalool reduced inflammation on rats. A follow-up study by the same team determined that linalool not only reduced inflammation, but it also displayed anti-nociceptive properties by reducing sensory pain. A 2010 study also found that linalool had a natural ability to decrease the frequency of seizures. Mice that received linalool at a certain dosage had longer times between seizures compared to control mice. Overall, linalool is a terpene linked with multiple powerful benefits ranging from anti-anxiety to pain relief to seizure management, although more studies need to be performed in humans to verify these benefits.
Limonene is another terpene best-known outside of the cannabis community: high levels of limonene can be found in the rinds of citrus fruits like lemons and limes. Researchers have found powerful benefits linked with limonene as early as 1994, when researchers determined that limonene may inhibit the spread of cancer. Researchers gave limonene to patients with both early-stage and advanced-stage cancers and found that the terpene acted as a powerful anti-carcinogen. These anti-cancer effects have been repeatedly demonstrated in tests on pancreatic cancer, prostate cancer, and breast cancer. Aside from acting as an anti-carcinogen, limonene also has a proven ability as a powerful stress reducer and anti depressant, which is why many medical marijuana users seek limonene-heavy strains to help them relax. Finally, limonene has demonstrated an ability in several studies to reduce inflammation, particularly in patients with asthma or gastrointestinal issues.
Isopulegol is a chemical precursor to menthol, although it’s been linked to many of its own unique benefits. In studies involving animals, researchers have found that isopulegol can reduce depression and anxiety by targeting the central nervous system, which is why many medical marijuana patients look for isopulegol-heavy strains to boost relaxation. In 2009, researchers published a study indicating that isopulegol could be used for seizure management: researchers found that mice given isopulegol experienced fewer seizures and were less likely to die from seizures. Researchers traced this benefit to isopulegol’s ability to modulate GABA receptors, which can also relieve stress and boost relaxation. Finally, isopulegol has also been shown to exhibit anti-inflammatory and gastroprotective properties in mice, reducing the risk of ulcers and other inflammation-related issues.
Humulene is one of the few terpenes on this list linked with appetite suppression. Not only does humulene reduce pain and inflammation, but it can also encourage you to eat less. In 2007, researchers found that humulene had similar anti-inflammatory properties to modern medications like steroids. In 2008, researchers in Brazil reached similar conclusions by applying humulene topically, where humulene was shown offering powerful local relief from inflammation and pain. Soon after, researchers decided to study what happened when taking humulene orally. Again, the terpene proved to be surprisingly effective at reducing inflammation. In terms of appetite suppression, more research needs to be done on humulene before its ability to supress human appetite is confirmed, although many in the cannabis community swear by humulene’s ability to reduce appetite.
Guaiol is one of the least-studied terpenes on this list. Limited research has been performed on guaiol over the years. We know it’s an alcohol found naturally in the oil of the cypress pine and guaiacum. Some believe these plants release guaiol to keep away harmful insects and microbes: it may act as a type of natural insecticide and anti-microbial agent. In 2007, researchers found that guaiol did have some anti-bacterial effects against certain bacterial strains, although not against others. Researchers echoed these findings in 2013 by demonstrating that guaiol could act as a natural insecticide. Because of these findings, guaiol’s benefits may be more attractive to cannabis growers than cannabis users. However, more research continues to be done on this mysterious terpene.
If you have ever smelled cannabis that has a flowery or fruity scent, then it could be because of the geranyl acetate content. Geranyl acetate not only has a pleasant smell, but it also has powerful antimicrobial properties. A study published in Natural Product Research in 2011 showed that geranyl acetate had powerful antimicrobial activity against bacteria and fungi. However, this study also used geranyl acetate as part of a combination with several other terpenes, making it difficult to conclusively say whether or not geranyl acetate could be used as an antifungal or antibacterial agent on its own. Ultimately, geranyl acetate may be one of the best-smelling terpenes on this list – but it’s also one of the least studied terpenes.
Geraniol, like geranyl acetate, is another great-smelling terpene. It smells like rose petals. But geraniol packs more than just a pleasant smell: it has also demonstrated proven anti-inflammatory abilities in multiple studies. A 2009 study revealed that geraniol can treat inflammatory lung disease, for example. Then, in 2011, researchers found that geraniol could relieve bacterial-induced inflammation in animal models – and it did so with fewer side effects than conventional medicine. Further studies have suggested that geraniol may be effective for treating inflammatory bowel disease and diet-induced fibrosis. Geraniol’s anti-inflammatory effects have been linked to its “free radical scavenging” properties. Unfortunately for those seeking the benefits of geraniol, it’s relatively hard to find among cannabis strains and is not considered a “primary” terpene of cannabis.
Eucalyptol, also known as cineol, has been linked to a diverse set of health benefits. In numerous studies over the years, eucalyptol has been linked to everything from pain and inflammation treatment to antifungal properties. In 2000, scientists discovered eucalyptol had powerful, natural anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties, making it an effective type of pain and inflammation relief product. Follow-up studies indicated that eucalyptol was particularly effective at treating sinus inflammation (rhinosinusitis) and colon inflammation (colitis). Another study indicated eucalyptol could be used to treat pancreatitis. Asthma patients may be able to use eucalyptol to reduce airway inflammation and improve breathing, according to the results of one study. Eucalyptol is also one of the few terpenes on this list shown to reduce symptoms of Alzheimer’s: studies have shown eucalyptol can reduce inflammation in the brain (neuroinflammation) and inhibit the formation or spread of Alzheimer’s. As if these benefits weren’t enough, separate studies have indicated cineol has antifungal, antibacterial, antioxidant, and insecticide properties.
In addition to being naturally present in cannabis, cymene can be found in both cumin and thyme. Limited studies have explored the health benefits of cymene. The studies that have explored the health benefits, however, have linked cymene with powerful anti-inflammatory and pain relieving properties. A 2012 study published in the Journal of Biosciences found that cymene significantly increased the time it took for mice to feel pain caused by heat and inflammation. A similar study in 2015 created similar results, suggesting that cymene reduced pain and inflammation by modulating the opioid system. Overall, there’s been insufficient research on cymene to definitively connect this terpene to major analgesic and anti-inflammatory benefits, although early research on the terpene has been largely positive.
Delta 3 Carene
Some people complain about dry mouth and dry eyes after consuming certain strains of cannabis. In many cases, these symptoms are caused by high levels of a terpene called delta 3 carene. This terpene has been shown to remove excess fluids from the body. This is likely why certain strains of cannabis cause dry mouth and dry eyes while other strains do not. Despite the unpleasantly dry sensation it creates, delta 3 carene has been linked to certain health benefits – particularly in patients using marijuana to manage symptoms of MS. Delta 3 carene has been shown to reduce inflammation and minimize joint pain in patients with multiple sclerosis. Overall, patients using marijuana recreationally may want to avoid strains with high levels of delta 3 carene, although the terpene can still be useful for its targeted health benefits. Delta 3 carene can give cannabis a sweet, earthy, pine-style aroma. In addition to being found in cannabis, delta 3 carene is used in cosmetics and perfumes. It can also act as a natural antihistamine in topical products.
Have you ever used Vicks Vaporub? If so, then you’ve already used the terpene called camphor. It’s the main active ingredient in the product. Camphor has been used in medicine for hundreds of years for various health benefits. More recently, these health benefits have been successfully replicated in a number of studies. Applying camphor topically can create a cooling sensation that alleviates localized pain, for example. Studies have compared the pain and inflammation relieving benefits of camphor to capsaicin: camphor doesn’t provide the same powerful, natural pain relief as capsaicin but it does work more quickly than capsaicin. A 2014 study reinforced the topical pain and inflammation relief benefits of camphor, showing that patients who applied camphor directly to their skin improved blood circulation in their skin and muscle. It’s also important to note that camphor is the active ingredient in more than just Vicks Vaporub: it’s the active ingredient in many nasal decongestant medications. Interestingly, research hasn’t proven that camphor genuinely improves nasal airflow; instead, research shows that the cooling sensation of camphor simply tricks the body into feeling better nasal airflow. Another unique property of camphor is its ability to affect heart rate: studies indicate that taking camphor can create an abnormally rapid heart rate. Camphor has been linked with tachycardia, which is a fancy word for a rapid heart rate.
Camphene is one of the most-studied terpenes on this list. However, it’s also surprisingly dangerous: the terpene is highly combustible and releases carcinogenic smoke when heated at a high enough temperature. That smoke not only gives you cancer, but it’s also very acrid and can irritate the lungs and the throat. The first major use of camphene was in the 1800s when people used it for lamp fuel. After several notable incidents involving lamp explosions, people decided camphene was no longer a safe source of lamp fuel. Today, research indicates that camphene is safe when kept at a stable temperature and can actually lead to some powerful health benefits. One study from 2009, for example, showed that camphene boosted cell viability, decreased lipid peroxidation, and improved mitochondrial membrane potential, all of which are fancy words for “it reduced inflammation”, particularly when treating inflammation caused by oxidative stress. In 2012, researchers found similar results using camphene dosages of 200 mg/kg. At this dose, mice were able to handle free radicals more effectively than control mice, suggesting that camphene has powerful antioxidant properties. That same study also suggested that camphene has powerful pain relief abilities. Overall, camphene may be the most dangerous terpene on this list when burned, but it has surprisingly powerful benefits when applied topically or as a tincture. Due to the combustion issues, camphene is not a desirable terpene to have in cannabis, but its medical uses as a topical treatment and tincture deserve to be explored further.