What Are Terpenes And Why Is Everyone Talking About Them?

How the natural compounds you’ve never heard of can actually boost your health.

health benefits of terpenes woman smelling lavender in a fieldphoto credit: shutterstock

If you’ve ever caught a whiff of sage, lavender, or cannabis, you’ve smelled terpenes at work. The fragrant molecules are what give plants, flowers, and trees their wide range of scents, from earthy and floral to citrusy—and it turns out they’re also good for your health. Experts say the emotional and physical benefits of certain terpenes can be felt after forest bathing (which actually doesn’t involve any water), using essential oils with a high concentration of the compounds, and yes, smoking cannabis. Here’s what you need to know:

The Health Benefits of Terpenes

In the same way aromatherapy works, inhaling the scent of certain terpenes in nature has been associated with a boost in emotional well-being. The sweet, floral scent of the terpene linalool, for instance, found in lavender, has a calming, sedative effect. Limonene, a terpene found in citrus fruits and peppermint, has a mood-elevating effect, while pinene, found in sage and conifers has been shown to aid in alertness and memory retention.

“The fragrant molecules are basically oils that release a therapeutic scent,” says Josh Kaplan, a neuroscientist at The University of Washington. “The scent is greater when the terpenes are combusted because they become aerosolized at high temperatures, but they also release a scent in their natural state.” (Speaking of scent, doctors can actually detect these 12 diseases by smell.)

New studies demonstrate that terpenes have physical health benefits as well as mental. A study published in the Journal of Toxicological Research showed that the Japanese practice of forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku, in a terpene-rich environment has potential anti-inflammatory, anti-tumorigenic, and neuroprotective affects on human health.

Decoding the Science

Dr. Kaplan says there is a dual route by which terpenes can have a therapeutic benefit. “For years it was thought that people benefited from inhaling terpenes because our olfactory system, or sense of smell, is tied to emotional centres in the brain, thus having a positive effect on our mood,” says Kaplan. “However, recently it’s been identified that the terpenes also act directly on brain cells to modulate their activity.”

The terpene beta-caryophyllene found in basil, oregano, black pepper, and cannabis has been shown to have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and pain-relieving benefits. A study by the Chongqing Medical University in China showed promising results in using this terpene to treat Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s disease progression is dependent on mitigating brain inflammation, and beta-caryophyllene was either injected or administered orally in mice to dampen inflammation by activating cannabinoid, or CB2, receptors in the brain.

The neurotherapeutic potential extends to other terpenes as well. “In some lab models, high doses of linalool showed anti-seizure and anti-epileptic effects,” says Kaplan.

Cannabis Terpenes: The Entourage Effect

It’s believed that the terpenes present in various strains of cannabis enhance the effect of cannabinoids like THC and CBD. “It’s what is called the entourage effect in the field,” says Kaplan. “The idea is that multiple cannabinoids combined with multiple terpenes lead to better therapeutic benefits than the cannabinoids alone.” Kaplan points out that although this is a widely accepted idea, it’s largely theoretical, based on evidence that cannabinoids have an effect on their own, and so do terpenes.

However, companies like dosist are mitigating some of this uncertainty by pairing a terpene blend with complementary cannabinoids in the lab to create targeted cannabis formulas. “Dosist blends consist of a terpene profile informed by Mother Nature, but in higher concentrations than what’s found in the whole plant,” says So Young Park, head of product development for dosist. In that case, Kaplan says there’s a much better chance that the cannabis terpenes are indeed having a therapeutic benefit because their concentration is more consistent with the studies that tested terpenes on their own. “Each dose pen’s unique terpene makeup plays a meaningful role in taking you to the specific ‘needstate’ you want to reach, like relief, bliss, or calm,” adds Park.

Related: Could Exercise Be the Prescription You Need to Improve Your Mental Health?

Get in on the Good Stuff

If you’re purchasing cannabis for medicinal or recreational purposes (Parliament recently passed Bill C-45, the Cannabis Act), look for products that list terpenes as part of the cannabis blend. To get the benefits of terpenes elsewhere, check the ingredient list on essential oils for lavender, sage, lemon, and peppermint, or take a hike (two hours is enough to reap the benefits) through a coniferous forest for some next level #naturetherapy. Browse our roundup of Canada’s best hiking trails for inspiration.

Next, don’t miss the healing power of these 10 medicinal plants.