What are Terpenes?

Terpenes are organic compounds found in many different types of plants. In order to fend off pests, certain plants evolved mechanisms to release smells unfavorable to the animals that wanted to eat them. Terpenes are responsible for those smells, and they affect the way a plant tastes.

If you’ve ever gone wine tasting, you may have heard of terpenes. Different kinds of grapes contain terpenes that impart the various flavor profiles associated with different wines. If you’ve ever tasted a hint of black pepper in a Cabernet Sauvignon, it’s very likely that a terpene called beta-caryophyllene was present in the grapes used to make the wine. 

Terpenes and Flavor Profiles

If you walk into your local supermarket, you’ll find anywhere from five to fifteen different types of apples. Granny Smith apples are known for their tartness. Honeycrisps are sweet and juicy. Fuji apples are bigger but slightly less sweet than Honeycrisps. All varieties of apples share a common ancestor, but not all of them taste the same. Similarly, different strains of the same medicinal plant may have different tastes and aromas.

Terpenes are responsible for those differences. Nature’s second most common terpene is called limonene, and it’s responsible for the aromas of lemon and citrus found in many medicinal plants. Linalool is another terpene that gives off a lavender scent.

But there’s more to terpenes than just taste. The medicinal plant community is becoming more and more interested in the health effects of various terpenes. We’re starting to realize that the way a medicinal plant makes you feel is highly dependent on its terpene profile.

Terpenes and Their Health Effects

You may have noticed different effects from the same strain of a medicinal plant. One strain purchased from one vendor may make you feel differently than a strain of the same name from another vendor. This inconsistency could be caused by the vendor’s extraction process and how that process impedes or encourages terpene extraction.

Medicinal plants are increasingly being used for pain relief. In studies on lab animals, scientists found that the terpene myrcene helps suppress the signals the body sends to the brain when it is in pain1.  Myrcene is grouped within a class of terpenes called monoterpenes, and it is one of sixteen monoterpenes found to have sedative properties2.  Understanding the effects of terpenes could be an important step in the move away from traditional pharmaceuticals and their harmful side effects.

Terpenes are good for more than just pain relief. Studies have shown that pinene has the anti-inflammatory effects often associated with preventing cancer3.  Caryophyllene helps in combatting anxiety4. Terpineol helps patients relax at the end of a long day5.  These are just a few of the many different terpenes and their effects, and scientists are discovering more all the time.

The Importance of Terpene Analysis

A sample extracted from the same strain of a medicinal plant may have different effects based on its terpene profile. One sample, for example, may have a higher percentage of the terpene myrcene, so it will have a stronger sedative effect. At IX Analytics, we analyze the various component parts of a plant to get a more accurate picture of its effects.

1 RAO, V.S.N., MENEZES, A.M.S. and VIANA, G.S.B. (1990). Effect of myrcene on nociception in mice. Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology, 42: 877-878. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.2042-7158.1990.tb07046.x 

2 GOUVEIA, DANIELE N et al. (2018). Monoterpenes as Perspective to Chronic Pain Management: A Systematic Review. Current Drug Targets, 19(8): 960-972. https://doi.org/10.2174/1389450118666170711145308

3 Kim, D.-S., Lee, H.-J., Jeon, Y.-D., Han, Y.-H., Kee, J.-Y., Kim, H.-J., Shin, H.-J., Kang, J., Lee, B. S., Kim, S.-H., Kim, S.-J., Park, S.-H., Choi, B.-M., Park, S.-J., Um, J.-Y., & Hong, S.-H. (2015). Alpha-Pinene Exhibits Anti-Inflammatory Activity Through the Suppression of MAPKs and the NF-κB Pathway in Mouse Peritoneal Macrophages. The American Journal of Chinese Medicine, 43(04), 731–742. https://doi.org/10.1142/S0192415X15500457

4 Bahi, A., Al Mansouri, S., Al Memari, E., Al Ameri, M., Nurulain, S. M., & Ojha, S. (2014). β-Caryophyllene, a CB2 receptor agonist produces multiple behavioral changes relevant to anxiety and depression in mice. Physiology & Behavior, 135, 119–124. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.physbeh.2014.06.003

5 Magalhães, P. J. C., Criddle, D. N., Tavares, R. A., Melo, E. M., Mota, T. L., & Leal-Cardoso, J. H. (1998). Intestinal myorelaxant and antispasmodic effects of the essential oil of Croton nepetaefolius and its constituents cineole, methyl-eugenol and terpineol. Phytotherapy Research, 12(3), 172–177. https://doi.org/10.1002/(SICI)1099-1573(199805)12:3<172::AID-PTR212>3.0.CO;2-E

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