Have you ever noticed that each plant has a unique taste and smell? You have terpenes to thank for that, which are natural compounds responsible for plants’ distinctive flavor and aroma. For instance, limonene is a terpene that gives lemons, limes, and oranges their characteristic citrusy taste and scent.
That said, terpenes work beyond stimulating the senses. While there’s still a great deal left to understand about these substances, multiple studies show that they potentially have a wide range of therapeutic and medicinal uses depending on the terpene, from antiparasitic properties to the ability to suppress side effects.
In this article, we’ll discuss terpenes and what they do for the body to help you understand how they may help treat some conditions.
What are Terpenes and Where Do They Come From?
Terpenes are naturally occurring chemicals present in plant oils. They’re responsible for each plant’s unique flavor and aroma, with some types even potentially possessing therapeutic effects. As such, they’re popular for aromatherapy and a common ingredient in herbs, given the claims that terpenes can have mood-altering effects.
Product manufacturers usually extract terpenes as an ingredient for various commodities, like perfumes and food, thanks to their distinctive profiles. Terpene and flower enthusiasts also use them as an additional ingredient for herbs to enhance their experience, while others vaporize terpene resin by itself to enjoy its pure effects.
If you’re wondering where terpenes come from, they primarily come from plants, where they mainly act as signaling mechanisms. For example, the terpene linalool attracts pollinators, like bees, butterflies, and various herbivores, to reproduce. Meanwhile, beta-caryophyllene aids plants’ immune systems by promoting microbial resistance among their neighboring plants through signals.
Terpenes can also act as a plant’s defense mechanism. For instance, eucalyptol, a terpene commonly present in eucalyptus plants, is an effective repellent against insects that may damage the plant, particularly mosquitoes. It’s why eucalyptol is a common ingredient in repellent lotions, sprays, and candles.
What Do Terpenes Do?
Many claim that upon consumption, terpenes can affect the human brain. Each terpene has a unique profile that potentially produces therapeutic effects, which is why they count as psychoactive compounds despite not being intoxicating.
Several studies have evaluated terpenes’ historical use as a medicinal substance. For example, research from Dalhousie University found that myrcene may reduce pain and inflammation from injuries. Another study reports that linalool and pinene can affect neurotransmitters—a finding that could aid the development of better medicines for psychiatric and neurological illnesses.
Furthermore, when combined with herbs, terpenes interact with cannabinoids and other organic compounds to complement and enhance their effects in the entourage effect. It increases the medicinal properties of flowers and terpenes, creating an experience greater than the effects of each on its own.
Common Terpenes and Their Effects
Learning about terpenes and their possible health effects can help you determine which fits your needs, so let’s some of the most common ones that research shows terpenes could help ameliorate certain medical conditions.
Citrus plants are abundant in limonene, a terpene giving fruits their distinct citrus taste and smell. A 2020 study evaluated limonene and found it may have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-diabetic properties, among many others. Meanwhile, Japanese researchers report that limonene’s use in aromatherapy could relieve physical stress and improve work quality.
Myrcene is present in many plants, like hops, basil, and lemongrass. According to a 2021 research, it could act as a natural pain reliever, thanks to its anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties. Myrcene is also a possible anti-aging substance due to its antioxidant composition. Another study found that high doses of myrcene may improve sleep quality and prolong rest time by up to 2.6 times.
Also known as simply caryophyllene, this terpene is present in cloves, rosemary, and black pepper. Research from the University of Turin concluded that caryophyllene positively impacts treatments for obesity, cardiovascular diseases, and nervous system disorders. Meanwhile, another research paper reports caryophyllene’s ability to improve wound healing due to enhanced cell proliferation and migration.
Formally known as alpha-humulene or alpha-caryophyllene, this substance is primarily present in hops. Research from the Federal University of Santa Catarina found that humulene is a possible treatment for inflammatory diseases. Another study reports humulene’s antibiotic and antibiofilm properties, particularly against Bacteroides fragilis, a common microbe in the colon that causes inflammatory bowel disease.
Linalool, a terpene abundant in herbs and spices, is known to calm users down due to its soothing scent. A 2022 study concluded that linalool’s historical use in aromatherapy for mental disorders has no side effects, unlike modern psychotropic medications. It also suggested that nasally inhaling linalool could effectively treat depression, anxiety, and sleep disorders.
Beta-pinene or pinene gives pine needs, rosemary, and basil distinctive earthy scents. A 2019 medical research validated pinene’s cytogenetic, gastroprotective, and anticonvulsant properties, among others. Another source determined that pinene may also influence neurotransmitters, inflammation, and behavior, suggesting its use as a treatment for psychiatric and neurological illnesses.
Heal with Terpenes
The health benefits we’ve discussed demonstrate that terpenes don’t only exist to make plants aromatic and flavorful. Studies continuously show that terpenes may help improve your health and protect your body from diseases and illnesses. So, experiment with their use to determine which terpene meets your needs.