Terpenes, Say What?

Our sense of smell is believed to affect 75% of our daily emotions. Think that percentage sounds crazy? Mull it over for a second! The smell of freshly brewed coffee in the morning, the subtle perfume in your favorite hair styling product, the “clean” smell of freshly mopped floors… They can all be described as “happy” smells, because, for the most part, your mind draws positive associations between those memories and their related aromas. There is a close connection between your olfactory gland bulb – the thing at the end of your nose that registers the smells coming up through your nostrils - and the limbic system that governs emotion and memory.

To keep the mechanics simple: The scent receptors in your nose serve as pathways that relay the information carried in smell, directly to the olfactory nerve which connects to a section of the brain where that information gets translated. This is why any given sense of smell, good and bad, can transport you to a certain time and place in your life, making the memory seem more vivid as your brain recalls it.

While you may not enjoy the smell of sunscreen, the odor might bring you back to your favorite vacation, and a damp, musty smell can bring you back to childhood memories of rummaging through your grandparent’s attic. Point being, an aroma does not need to be pleasant or universally appealing to have a positive effect on your state of mind. Our olfactory system originated as an evolutionary adaptation for survival, and over time, our systems grew to inherently distinguish the good from the bad. Mother Nature’s ingenuity created predominantly positive aromatic chemicals in the plant kingdom. The scent of herbs, spices, and woods are familiar to us because our systems are drawn to them for their ability to heal, nourish and enhance our overall well-being.

Many of us no longer live in close proximity to these natural resources, or if we do, other more noxious odors of modern life might be overpowering them. Thanks to extractions like essential oils and resins, we are once again able to surround ourselves with these natural aromas in the form of fragrance added back into personal care products. Terpenes then, are simply the isolated elements of a natural aromatic profile.

For example, while your brain may attribute a specific aroma to the concept of a “bouquet of flowers,” the reality is that one bouquet may smell very different from another depending on its composition (and whether the florist is selling artificially perfumed flowers). Different combinations of terpenes will yield complex aromatic profiles, but isolated terpenes have their own distinct characteristics and mood modulating powers.

A short word on the chemistry of terpenes - C5H3 (5 Carbons and 3 Hydrogens) is the chemical structure which serves as the starting material in Mother Nature’s chemical processing factory - it is the one chemical common to all aromatic plant material class that gives aromatic terpenes their ability to impact physiological health and well-being.

One of the most recognizable terpenes is D-Limonene found in high quantities within the citrus family. This terpene is responsible for the energetic feeling that comes from drinking fresh orange juice or lemon water in the morning. D-Limonene, or the artificial version thereof, is added to products that are meant to give the consumer a refreshed “ready to go” feeling like morning face wash and moisturizers, or household cleaning products like all-surface cleaners or dishwashing liquid.

We respond to this aroma, because our systems a predisposed to having a positive response to it, and we buy into it, over and over again. Similarly, our bodies respond positively to Linalool, the primary terpene found in lavender. We attribute its aroma to a relaxing, sedative type feeling, and it is often used for its mood modulating effect.

In fact, Linalool is believed to be the key terpene ingredient in the type of cannabis strains that help reduce anxiety, stress and even PTSD. Moreover, if you take a look around your house, you will often find the Lavender profile on any household item meant to make you feel calm and serene (think candles, incense, linen sprays, and skin calming moisturizers).

Whether or not you knew what they were, you have been surrounded by terpenes from Day 1 on this planet. Our bodies have evolved and adapted to their presence. When mindfully employed in the art of aromatherapy, terpenes work as powerful mood modulators capable of enriching daily life.