Terpenes and their importance in medical cannabis

With the advancing research on the cannabis plant and its therapeutic uses, more and more active components present in the plant have been found, however, their functions have not been studied enough. Several studies have shown that at the same dose of cannabinoids, the effects produced by the administration of pure cannabinoids are different from those produced by the administration of whole plant extracts. These facts lead us to the conclusion that the cannabis plant contains other active ingredients that have pharmacological action, and that act synergically and/or antagonistically with cannabinoids. The two groups found so far are terpenes and flavonoids.

    What are terpenes?

Terpenes are aromatic organic compounds derived from isoprene (hydrocarbon 5 carbon atoms), they are found in all kinds of vegetation and are important in numerous biotic interactions (Goodwin 1971). They exercise primary functions such as protection against various factors like high temperatures, insects or herbivore predators. They have also been found as part of chlorophyll and some carotenoid pigments.

The functions of terpenes at the plant level are varied and are responsible for highly specialised processes that allow plants to have a protection against the elements around it. Among its functions are the colouring, repellent or aromatization that facilitates the pollination of the plants.

    Terpenes in cannabis

The terpenes in the cannabis plant are excreted in the resin. It is thanks to them that there are different types of plants, each with their own unique odours, because this variation is dependent on the terpenes that are present. The terpenes in the cannabis plant allow it to protect itself against high temperatures and due to the viscosity of the resin, the plant can trap insects or maintain its own humidity.

Between the terpenes we can find in big amount within the cannabis there are: Pinene, Myrcene, Limonene, Linalool and Eucalyptol. Following we can also find the Caryophyllene, which is present in every cannabis strain.

   Effects of terpenes in humans

Like cannabinoids, terpenes have various effects on humans. Known as essential oils, they are currently used in aromatherapy. Aromatherapy brings together several concepts that, at a therapeutic level, have been attributed to various plants. It offers the idea that when used properly these plants can have relaxing, stimulating of aphrodisiac effects on people.

The terpenes present in the cannabis plant are responsible for the range of aromas that exist between the different varieties, however, it is estimated that they are not the only effects that can be attributed. They seem to have a link in relation to the entourage effect.

In several studies that are currently being carried out, a therapeutic potential is being found that acts synergically with the cannabinoids. That is why there is a huge difference between the effects of the pure cannabinoids and those that come from the whole plant extractions.

Listed below are the most present terpenes in the cannabis plant with their respective therapeutic properties attributed to them:



Myrcene, or beta-myrcene, is one of the most abundant terpenes in nature, being present in hops, thyme and myrcia among others. It is known to have a sedative effect and therefore is used to reconcile sleep. In cannabis plants, it is mainly present in the Indica varieties and can potentiate the psychoactive effect of THC.

Main therapeutic effects of myrcene:

  • Sedative, hypnotic and muscle relaxing effects
  • Analgesic effect
  • Anti-Inflammatory effect
  • Antibiotic effect
  • Antitumor effect
  • Antispasmodic effect
Mirceno - Terpenos terapéuticos | Kalapa Clinic

Molécula 3D de Mirceno


The name pinene refers to two bicyclic monoterpenes isomers, alpha-pinene and beta-pinene. Present mainly in pine and other conifers, it is one of the terpenes that are also widely present in nature. Its bronchodilator activity facilitates the absorption of cannabinoids at the pulmonary level.

Main therapeutic effects of pinene:

  • Antibacterial and antifungal effects
  • Anti-inflammatory effect
  • Bronchodilator effect

Molécula 3D alfa-pineno

beta pinene | Terpenos terapeuticos | Kalapa Clinic

Molécula 3D beta-pineno


Limonene is present especially in the skin of lemons and other citrus fruits. In addition to its own therapeutic effects, it facilitates the absorption of other terpenes thus enhancing its effects. Recent studies indicate that it promotes the GST system of the liver and intestines, mitigating the carcinogenic effects.

Main therapeutic effects of limonene:

  • Antibacterial and antifungal effects (especially against Aspergillus)
  • Antitumor effect
  • Antidepressant and anxiolytic effects
  • Bronchodilator effect

Molécula 3D Limoneno


Eucalyptus is a monoterpene present mostly in the leaves of the eucalyptus tree. In the cannabis plant it is mainly present in the sativa strains. It is the only terpene that has shown some activity on the Central Nervous System.

Main therapeutic effects of eucalyptus:

  • Immunosuppressant effect
  • Local anaesthetic effect

Molécula 3D Eucaliptol


When talking about Caryophyllene we refer to the mixture of 3 compounds: alpha-caryophyllene, beta-caryophyllene and caryophyllene oxide. All these components are present in the cannabis plant with caryophyllene oxide being the chemical substance police dogs are trained to detect when trying to find cannabis. Besides cannabis they are also present in hops, cloves and black pepper, among others. As this terpene is less volatile, compared to the others, it is found in larger proportions in cannabis extracts.

Main therapeutic effects of Caryophyllene:

  • Antibacterial and antifungal effects
  • Antitumoral effect
  • Anti-inflammatory effect



Beta-Caryophyllene, also known as BCP, is a terpene that is present in a wide variety of essential oils. BCP especially affects CB2 cannabinoid receptors, which can be called cannabinoid mimetic. [4] This is because the CB2 receptor generates a biological response to its presence, as is the case with cannabinoids. Much like the cannabinoids that act on CB2 receptors, it is being investigated whether this terpene has analgesic effects and works in inflammatory processes or in cases of neuropathic pain. [5]

Molécula 3D Cariofileno

References for Terpenes

[1] Goodwin, T.W. 1971. Aspects of terpenoid chemistry and biochemistry. Academic Press, Londres

[2] http://repositorio.uchile.cl/bitstream/handle/2250/115135/morales_ji.pdf?sequence=1

[3] Mónica Polo, Rosana Crespo, Marianela Galle, Boris Rodenak Kladniev, Sandra Montero Villegas, Margarita García de Bravo Actividades antiprofilerativa y anticolesterogénica de estatinas y monoterpenos.   Acta bioquím. clín. latinoam. vol.47 no.2 La Plata abr./jun. 2013

[4] http://www.pnas.org/content/105/26/9099.long

[5] A.-L. Klauke1, I. Racz, B. Pradier, A. Markert, A.M. Zimmer, J. Gertsch, A. Zimmer. The cannabinoid CB2 receptor-selective phytocannabinoid beta-caryophyllene exerts analgesic effects in mouse models of inflammatory and neuropathic pain  April 2014 Volume 24, Issue 4, Pages 608–620

Imágenes moléculas por Ben Mills and Jynto – Derivative of File:(R)-(−)-carvone-from-xtal-3D-balls-A.png and File:Diketene-from-xtal-3D-balls.png., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php

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