Terpenes and the entourage effect

How terpenes work with cannabinoids to produce the cannabis plant's most desired effects.

It's becoming more and more common to hear people talking about marijuana's “entourage effect,” but what does entourage effect mean? Why is it important? The entourage effect has a lot to do with the therapeutic qualities of the cannabis plant, and interestingly, it also has a lot to do with the unique chemical compounds responsible for the smells and flavors of marijuana. 

Some of the cannabis plant's most appealing qualities are the aromas and flavors we experience during the consumption experience. Many of the most popular cultivars, or strains, are named after their scents and tastes. Blueberry is named for its sweet, citrusy blueberry flavor, Sour Diesel for its pungent and intoxicating fuel-like aroma, and Cheese for well, its cheesy taste and smell.

You can thank terpenes for all the cannabis flavors and aromas you know and love. Whether you smoke cannabis flower, dab concentrates, or vaporize, terpenes are hard at work delivering tasty citrus, diesel, woody, pine, skunky, coffee, spicy, herbal, or tropical flavors to your palate.

But terpenes do more than provide flavor and aroma. They also support other cannabis molecules in producing physiological and cerebral effects. There is synergy between cannabinoids and terpenes, not to mention other secondary metabolites and phytochemicals. This is called the entourage effect, and it's the reason terpenes have revealed themselves to be such a critical piece of the cannabis puzzle.

Cannabis contains hundreds of molecules that have the ability to directly interact with our bodies and minds. Phytocannabinoid molecules are relatively unique to the cannabis plant, but other plant-derived molecules such as flavonoids and terpenes also bind to our cells and receptors, influencing our experiences.

Terpenes are a large class of molecules that are produced by many species of plants, including conifers and citrus fruit trees.
Photo by: Gina Coleman/Weedmaps

Terpenes are a large class of molecules that are produced by many species of plants, including conifers and citrus fruit trees. They are the main ingredient in essential oils, and are the fragrant compounds responsible for plants' distinctive aromas. 

The cannabis plant produces upwards of 200 terpenes, in varying concentrations and combinations, though the amount it could potentially produce is yet unknown. This makes terpenes the largest group of known phytochemicals in marijuana. The distinct scent of each cannabis cultivar is a result of the unique balance of terpenes produced by that particular plant's breeding. 

Terpenes dissipate into the air very easily, and are the first molecules to vaporize when heat is applied to flower. The flavor of these compounds are maximized by whole-flower vaporization, which gives the brain a chance to interpret the flavor without overwhelming it with the taste of smoke. 

It's also important to note that, while the terms terpenes and terpenoids are sometimes used interchangeably, there's a slight difference between them. While terpenes are still in the hydrocarbon form, terpenoids have been denatured by oxidation, which takes place during the drying and curing process.  

Do terpenes get you high?

It is currently being speculated that a plant's terpene profile has much to do with the nuances of the effects produced by a strain, far beyond the more common sativa or indica indicators. Getting to know the unique combination of marijuana terpenes produced by your favorite cultivars will help you recognize the specific cannabis flowers and concentrates that will be most beneficial to your needs. The following terpene chart is designed to help you get a sense of how each produces or enhances certain therapeutic effects.

In addition to their aromas, terpenes have direct interactions with the human body. For instance, when alpha- and beta-pinene are consumed together, they display synergistic anti-tumor properties. Evidence suggests that, due to the entourage effect, whole-plant cannabis is superior to isolated compounds extracted out of the plant. 

This isn't surprising, as with many beneficial plants, fruits, and vegetables, we consume many, many phytochemicals at one time. These combinations make up the nutritional and therapeutic properties we enjoy, and though isolated compounds and molecules have benefits that are quantifiable by lab testing and research, the entourage effect that comes from consuming multiple interacting components together at the same time justify seeking out whole-plant forms of cannabis whenever available.

While these aromatic cannabis compounds clearly play an important role in producing and enhancing many of the beneficial effects you get from consuming marijuana, they will not get you stoned on their own. In general, if you were to isolate or extract terpenes from a cannabis plant you would still be able to experience the smells and flavors associated with those terpenes, but consuming those terpenes alone would not give you any noticeable psychoactive effects.

How terpenes interact with our bodies

So how is this all happening? What bodily processes or mechanisms could explain why combined terpenes and cannabinoids are superior to isolated ones? One way is that they may increase the blood-brain barrier permeability and even affect the way that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) binds to CB1 receptors. In another example, alpha-pinene, nature's most abundant terpene commonly found in pine trees and other coniferous trees, may counter some of the short-term memory loss associated with high levels of THC.

More research is being conducted into the potential benefits of cannabis-derived terpenes. For instance, a 2013 study published in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine examined limonene, a terpene known for its zesty citrus flavor. The researchers found that limonene demonstrated anti-depressant and anti-anxiety properties in rodent models.

An additional factor contributing to the entourage effect could also be that cannabinoids and terpenes hit different targets, and the combined activity at those targets (receptors or other cellular pathways) results in a better outcome. For example, multiple molecules attack inflammation at multiple sources of said inflammation. It's also plausible that terpenes could enhance our bodies' ability to absorb or process cannabinoids.

woman smoking joint
Cannabinoids and terpenes hit different targets, and the combined activity at those targets results in a better outcome.
Photo by: Gina Coleman/Weedmaps

On the other hand, we have decent evidence that the undesirable effects of cannabis are minimized when there is a diverse set of molecules consumed at once. For instance, when cannabidiol (CBD) is consumed alongside THC, people experience less paranoia and anxiety. And when certain terpenes are present in a cultivar, the experience of reduced anxiety or a cerebral high, is catalyzed and enhanced.

Entourage effect: every player is important

The term “entourage effect” gives the connotation that all the work is being done by a prevalent cannabinoid (like THC or CBD), while the other minor cannabinoids and terpenes are there as a sea of relatively insignificant minions. In some cases, this may be true, like when an individual uses a THC isolate that doesn't have much else going for it.

However, there are a staggering variety of chemical phenotypes (chemotypes of cannabis) in the world. Plants that have a rich diversity of cannabinoids and terpenes may fall more into an “ensemble effect,” rather than an “entourage effect.” Just like an orchestra, each individual instrument contributes to the overall experience of the musical piece. THC may be the conductor, and CBD might be first-chair violin, but each instrument, each different cannabinoid molecule, each terpene, contributes to the overall experience.

What is the use of terpenes?

Almost everything we know about terpenes and cannabinoids is a result of studying their properties in isolation. With the exceptions of THC and CBD, the majority of this work has been done in animal models and petri dishes. Although this kind of science tells us a lot about the cellular mechanisms by which cannabinoids and terpenes promote health, these models could be a bit too simplistic to generalize the results to the entire human population.

In the real world, we usually don't consume isolated alpha-pinene and wait to see how much it improves our breathing. It's far more common and more beneficial for us to consume hundreds of molecules at a time. 

While there is so much more research left to do in order for us to understand exactly how terpenes enhance the other health benefits of the cannabis plant, and exactly which constellations of molecules produce the different kinds of highs for which cannabis is known, we can safely say “the more the merrier” when it comes to phytochemical diversity.

For now, as research into terpenes continues to advance, there are already a handful of uses for terpenes. Most commonly, terpenes are found in essential oils, which are themselves often utilized in aromatherapy and other forms of holistic healing. Similarly, terpenes have also found their way into the fragrance industry, being used in perfumes, colognes, and other scented products. 

And within the cannabis industry, terpenes are often added to concentrate cannabis products to produce new flavor combinations, to enhance the natural scent and flavor profiles of a strain, or to replace terpenes that may have been lost during the plant extraction process. For example, with full-spectrum cannabis extracts, producers strive to preserve the full cannabinoid and terpene contents of the raw cannabis plant without altering them. 

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The information contained in this site is provided for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as medical or legal advice. This page was last updated on September 8, 2020.