Introduction to Terpenes
Terpenes (pronounced tur-peens) are highly aromatic compounds that give plants their unique aroma. Terpenes are incredibly important to plants, as they play a role in natural protection from bacteria and fungus, insects, and other environmental stresses.
If you know someone who is into essential oils, then you have heard theories of how terpenes affect humans, too. Lemongrass, lavender, tea tree, lavender, rose, or jasmine are lauded for their semi-mystical power to calm, delight, excite, and arouse.
There is actually scientific research behind this - humans have an “endocannabinoid system” (ECS), which is a complex cell-signaling system identified by researchers in the early 1990’s. As a relatively newly-discovered system, it is the subject of a great deal of research. What we have learned in the last three decades is that the ECS is a critical biological system just like the circulatory, respiratory, and nervous systems. It regulates many of your body’s processes including appetite, immunity, fertility, metabolism, sleep, exercise, pregnancy, pain sensation, mood, memory, and many other basic functions.
The ECS is activated whenever we taste, smell, or ingest something with a chemical signal. These signals cause our bodies to produce molecules that bind to receptors and release enzymes. Terpenes, as highly aromatic compounds, produce chemical signals that cause our ECS to react. It’s believed that its primary purpose of the ECS is to restore homeostasis to our physiological and neurological systems when they get out of balance.
When it comes to medicinal herbs, most people like to smell the terpenes in order to get an idea of its affect ("The nose knows" is a maxim). Strains that smell of lemons (the terpene limonene) are known to improve a person’s mood. Strains that smell of pine (the terpene pinene) make you alert and able to remember. Strains that smell like cloves or musk (the terpene myrcene) deliver sedative, relaxing effects. These are prominent terpenes, but there between 140 and 200 terpenes in most strains. Certain minor terpenes may be imperceptible to our olfactory system, but every terpene impacts the ECS. In fact, these minor terpenes may have major effects as they interact with and create pathways for other chemical signals (commonly referred to as "the entourage effect").
That’s a quick overview of terpenes - what they are, how they work, and how they might affect you. This is an amazingly rich subject area, so if it interests you, we encourage you to keep learning with some of the links below. Please share any that we should include in the comments section, too!
- "The Entourage Effect" is a fantastic blog post by Dr. Malik Burnett in MedicalJane (one of our favorite websites)
- Endocannabinoid Signaling and Long-term Synaptic Plasticity https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev.physiol.010908.163149
- Role Of Endogenous Cannabinoids In Synaptic Signaling https://escholarship.org/uc/item/1633t2mf