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Terpenes: The Equally Effective Yet Underrated Cannabinoid Counterpart

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While cannabidiol may be the main active ingredient in a CBD tincture, it’s not the sole compound. Even in some CBD isolate products, there are a few additional ingredients. This includes the carrier oil and more importantly – terpenes. Many beginners who experimented with a few products or read up on some cannabis literature have a general understanding of what CBD is. However, they may only have heard of terpenes in passing, if at all. What is a terpene, and how do they contribute to the efficacy of a CBD product?

What Are Terpenes?

Terpenes, also known as terpenoids, are organic compounds found in cannabis. While terpenes have become associated with marijuana in recent years, they are by no means unique to the cannabis plant. They are also found abundantly in various plant species, vegetables, herbs and even in some insects.

Various organisms within the plant and insect kingdom developed the aromatic compound over thousands of years as a survival mechanism to ward off predators. Different species developed their own unique terpenes depending on their climate, soil and types of predators in the environment.

Terpenes have an aroma that keep predators at bay. This same aroma is what gives CBD tinctures, vape juices and edibles their distinct flavor and texture. While the terpene smell may be pungent to predators, they are actually quite aromatic to people.

Terpenes Versus Cannabinoids: Similar yet Different

Terpenes and cannabinoids are similar at the molecular level. They are both secreted from the resin glands of the cannabis plant. The main differentiating factor lies in a molecule in terpenes called isoprene. This is a molecular 5-carbon ring that is not present in CBD or other phytocannabinoids. This is what gives the terpenes their aroma. Cannabinoids, on the other hand, are odorless.

Why CBD Products Require Terpenes

Most CBD tinctures disclose their terpenes on the bottle or on the manufacturer website. While casual and beginning users may only pay attention to the CBD concentrations, seasoned users give equal attention to the terpene profile. The reason for doing so goes far beyond the flavor. More studies are beginning to reveal a synergistic effect between cannabinoids and terpenes. This is known as the entourage effect, which we have discussed in prior posts.

One 2011 study1 discovered that terpenoids exert an effect on cannabinoids, and especially the psychoactive compound THC. In turn, this affects the cannabinoid’s effect on the endocannabinoid system (ECS) and CB receptors. The study showed that a terpenoid called myrcene increased the effects of THC-rich cannabis, which in turn increased its effect as a sedative and painkiller.

Terpenes in Aromatherapy

Terpenes from other plants, fruits and herbs are popular extracts for use in aromatherapy. One study showed that the terpene linalool — found in lavender — may relieve stress when inhaled. Linalool is also a common terpene in cannabis. There is also anecdotal evidence that eating mangoes extend the psychoactive effects of THC because mangos get their distinct aroma from the aforementioned myrcene terpene.

This alludes to the idea that terpenes may have standalone benefits independent of cannabinoids. We’re actually surprised that this hasn’t warranted more attention from the cannabis and medical industry.

Terpenes’ Role in Cannabis Breeding

Most terpenes also inhibit or catalyze the formation of certain cannabinoids in cannabis. Growers use this knowledge when breeding plants to produce a yield with a desirable cannabinoid profile, such as high CBD and low THC.

Some users notice different flavors and degrees of high even when using cannabis from the same harvest. The difference is due to the terpenes, which can differ significantly even among plants of the same chemovar. This is a near-unique feature of cannabis, whereas a lime, for example, will always have the same terpene profile as that of other limes.

Terpenes Versus Terpenoids: Is There a Difference?

Terpenes are organic hydrocarbons. Terpenoids, on the other hand, are terpenes that have undergone oxidation from a curing process. You can think of terpenoids as a “dried out” version of terpenes. Terpenoids, in this sense, are also said to be synthetically derived. Different curing processes give them different aromas and properties.

The Types of Terpenes

There are an estimated 20,000 known terpenes. About 100 to 200 of those are found in cannabis. Only a small handful of those have been extensively studied. In this regard, terpenes are much like cannabinoids; CBD and THC get all the rave even though there are dozens of other phytocannabinoids. It’s the same with terpenes. Below are the medicinal qualities of some of the more commonly known terpenes.


This terpene has an earthy and clove-like aroma. It’s also one of the most abundant and widely-studied terpenes in cannabis. Myrcene is also in various other plants and fruits, such as lemongrass, hops, thyme and mangos.

Studies2 show that myrcene has antinociception properties, meaning it blocks pain sensory neurons. Another study3 revealed that it may treat pain in patients who don’t respond well to conventional pain medication.


As the name implies, this terpene is also found in lemons. As you can probably guess, this terpene has a lemon and citrus aroma. Studies4 show limonene may act as a lipid-lowering compound, meaning it reduces both LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Another study5 suggests it may combat oxidative stress that leads to insulin resistance and fat accumulation around the liver.


You can also find this terpene in black pepper. Want to guess its aroma? Yes, it’s the smell of black pepper. Beta-caryophyllene is also found in other spices like cinnamon, oregano and basil. In one study6, the administration of beta-caryophyllene expanded the lifespan of worms by 11-22 percent! Granted, humans are not earthworms, but it’s nice food for thought.

Another study7 suggests that beta-caryophyllene may preserve cognitive function by reducing neuroinflammation, or inflammation in the brain. Researchers are also carefully evaluating this terpene after studies8 reveal it may hold anti-cancer properties.


If you’re familiar with the scent of lavender, then you have an idea of what linalool smells like. Like myrcene, studies9 show linalool has antinociception properties, making it a useful natural pain reliever. Another study10 suggests linalool has anti-anxiety benefits. Rats that inhaled the oil exhibited more social interaction and less aggressive behavior towards other mice.


This terpene is also in pine needles, so it almost has that smell of a freshly cut fir or conifer tree. One study11 revealed that a-pinene may be useful for treatment against a particular bronchitis virus that’s immune to antibiotics. Furthermore, research12 shows the terpene may have an inhibitory effect on hepatoma carcinoma cells, which contribute to cancerous tumor growth.

Primary Terpenes and Secondary Terpenes

You may also hear some industry insiders refer to terpenes as either primary or secondary. All the aforementioned terpenes are primary, meaning they exert a dominant influence on the cannabis’ smell and medicinal qualities. In other words, they play a leading role in the infamous entourage effect.

Cannabis also contains secondary terpenes. These are present in smaller traces and have a subtler influence. Some secondary terpenes include phytol, borneol, terpinene and phellandrene. Despite the secondary status, these terpenes still contribute to the overall entourage effect.

Terpenes in CBD Isolate and Full-Spectrum Oils

Between CBD full spectrum and CBD isolate oils, the former is usually the more favored of the two. The presence of multiple cannabinoids and terpenes contribute to the synergistic effect. CBD isolate means the tincture is 99 percent CBD and nothing else. This means it contains zero terpenes or only negligible traces. However, if you prefer CBD isolate, know that there are terpene-infused CBD isolate oils out there. This is known as CBD terpsolate.

Where to Find Terpene-Infused CBD Oils

Please exercise due diligence when buying any CBD products. Only acquire oils, edibles and dabs from certified vendors. The list below are some suppliers we have vetted ourselves. These suppliers carry terpene-rich CBD tinctures, vape juices and more.

  • CBD FX: This retailer carries a number of full spectrum CBD oils and other related products. Some of the tinctures come in distinct flavors (e.g. Platinum Rose, Pineapple Express) using unique terpene blends.
  • CBD Distillery: Not all CBD suppliers these days carry CBD isolate since full spectrum is believed to be superior. This site not only carries CBD isolate, but also CBD terpsolate in various flavors.
  • Koi CBD: This store carries CBD oils and vape juices in various common flavors, such as orange, lemon-lime, and spearmint.
  • Hemp Lucid: This site specifically discloses that its tinctures consist of CBD isolate with the terpenes left intact.

Terpenes Are Just as Relevant as CBD

Now that you understand how terpenes work, you can appreciate this vital cannabis compound and not just focus solely on cannabinoids. Terpenes also have standalone benefits, hence their popularity in aromatherapy. Remember that the cannabis plant is extremely complex, and its dozens of documented medical and recreational benefits are not due to a sole compound.

Medical References

Russo E. Taming THC: potential cannabis synergy and phytocannabinoid-terpenoid entourage effects. Br J Pharmacol. 2011;163(7):1344-1364. [PMC]
Rao V, Menezes A, Viana G. Effect of myrcene on nociception in mice. J Pharm Pharmacol. 1990;42(12):877-878. [PubMed]
Russo E. Cannabinoids in the management of difficult to treat pain. Ther Clin Risk Manag. 2008;4(1):245-259. [PMC]
Kim J, Lee H, Jeong S, Lee M, Kim S. Essential oil of Pinus koraiensis leaves exerts antihyperlipidemic effects via up-regulation of low-density lipoprotein receptor and inhibition of acyl-coenzyme A: cholesterol acyltransferase. Phytother Res. 2012;26(9):1314-1319. [PubMed]
Victor A, Jayachitra J, Shenbagam M, Nalini N. Dietary d-limonene alleviates insulin resistance and oxidative stress-induced liver injury in high-fat diet and L-NAME-treated rats. Eur J Nutr. 2012;51(1):57-68. [PubMed]
Pant A, Mishra V, Saikia S, et al. Beta-caryophyllene modulates expression of stress response genes and mediates longevity in Caenorhabditis elegans. Exp Gerontol. 2014;57:81-95. [PubMed]
Javed H, Azimullah S, Haque M, Ojha S. Cannabinoid Type 2 (CB2) Receptors Activation Protects against Oxidative Stress and Neuroinflammation Associated Dopaminergic Neurodegeneration in Rotenone Model of Parkinson’s Disease. Front Neurosci. 2016;10:321. [PMC]
Legault J, Pichette A. Potentiating effect of beta-caryophyllene on anticancer activity of alpha-humulene, isocaryophyllene and paclitaxel. J Pharm Pharmacol. 2007;59(12):1643-1647. [PubMed]
Peana A, D’Aquila P, Chessa M, Moretti M, Serra G, Pippia P. (-)-Linalool produces antinociception in two experimental models of pain. Eur J Pharmacol. 2003;460(1):37-41. [PubMed]
Linck V, da S, Figueiró M, Caramão E, Moreno P, Elisabetsky E. Effects of inhaled Linalool in anxiety, social interaction and aggressive behavior in mice. Phytomedicine. 2010;17(8-9):679-683. [PubMed]
Yang Z, Wu N, Zu Y, Fu Y. Comparative anti-infectious bronchitis virus (IBV) activity of (-)-pinene: effect on nucleocapsid (N) protein. Molecules. 2011;16(2):1044-1054. [PubMed]
Chen W, Liu Y, Li M, et al. Anti-tumor effect of α-pinene on human hepatoma cell lines through inducing G2/M cell cycle arrest. J Pharmacol Sci. 2015;127(3):332-338. [PubMed]
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Christopher Walker

Christopher Walker has a degree in Neuroscience from Duke University, and is the research writer for The Universal Plant. He has dedicated his life to helping men and women around the world educate themselves and take action to improve their health with natural plant-based and nutrient therapies. Follow him on Instagram @_christopherwalker