What are Terpenes and How Do They Affect the Body?

The benefits behind the fragrant natural compound everyone is talking

What do hops, citrus fruit and swallowtail butterflies have in common? They all contain organic compounds called terpenes. These naturally occurring, fragrant molecules give plants (and certain insects) their unique smell and taste. Think: the aroma that fills the room when you peel an orange, or the smell of fresh lavender. In nature, terpenes help attract pollinators to a plant or stave off hungry herbivores. They take many forms, but beyond their pleasant smell, they can carry a range of benefits. Ancient healing practices have been harnessing the power of different terpenes for centuries—and thanks to modern science, we’re learning even more about their health benefits.

Terpenes 101: The Science Behind the Benefits

If you’ve ever used aromatherapy or essential oils, you’ve already experienced the power of terpenes. This alternative medicine is based on the idea that scents can have a therapeutic effect by boosting our emotional well-being. As we inhale essential oils through the nose and lungs, they stimulate our olfactory system—the part of our brain connected to smell. Some scents are known to have a calming effect, while others can be stimulating.

For many years, modern science asserted that the benefits of terpenes were mostly mental, but recent studies are confirming what Ayurvedic practitioners have known all along: these compounds can have physical benefits as well. A well-cited 2007 study explored the benefits of terpenes and described a range of potential applications, including chemopreventive effects, antimicrobial, antifungal, antiviral, antihyperglycemic, anti-inflammatory, and antiparasitic activities. The takeaway? Modern medicine should take note of the humble terpene!

“Terpenes can have very profound medicinal benefits,” explains Bhavna Solecki, an Ayurvedic practitioner and head of Product at Urban Juve. “Nowadays, the topic is pervasive. A lot of pharmaceutical companies are very interested in terpenes right now, and people are even breeding plants for a specific terpene profile to target a particular condition,” she says.

Better Together: Terpene Combinations

While they are each powerful on their own, terpenes can also enhance the benefits of other organic compounds when they’re combined. For example, the terpenes in hemp root oil can break down fatty acids into micro-compounds, while interacting with the skin’s barrier to allow for penetration below the surface. So when other essential oils are combined with hemp root oil, they’re more easily absorbed into the skin. According to Solecki, however, properly combining terpenes is as much art as it is science.

“In Ayurveda, we consider the genetics and emotion of each plant. We consider what will happen if we pull it out of one region and place it in another. They might sound like small considerations, but they have a massive impact on the potency and quality of the plant,” she explains. And you can’t just combine any terpenes you want. If plants thrive under vastly different conditions, their terpene profiles are likely not a good match. “At Urban Juve, our formulations match the profiles, emotions, genetics and behaviours of each plant,” she says.

As we discover more about these fragrant organic compounds, their list of potential benefits grows. What was once viewed as fringe science is now going mainstream, and wellness-minded people are embracing the power of nature’s best-smelling medicine.