The Ultimate Guide to Terpenes: Why YOU Should Be Using Them Daily
Terpenes are responsible for about 95% of the natural scents produced by life on Earth.
Terpenes are also responsible for nearly all of the differences between various strains of cannabis.
Terpenes and their derivatives comprise one of the largest classes of chemical compounds. They are produced by members across four different kingdoms: animals, plants, bacteria, and fungi all produce some type of terpene to carry out some biological function. These functions can range from attracting mates to repelling pests to acting as intermediaries in the formation of more complicated compounds, like the cannabinoids; more on that below.
Humans have used terpenes, unknowingly, for thousands of years. All natural food flavorings are some type of terpene, and many health and beauty products contain terpenes for their aroma and effects. In addition to scenting the world we live in, terpenes are the primary active ingredients in plant essential oils, providing the various subtle effects that each essential oil is known for.
What is the definition of ‘terpenes’?
Terpenes include all organic compounds consisting of one or more units of isoprene. Isoprene – a basic building block of life – is a hydrocarbon with the formula C5H8. Its unique shape enables it to polymerize, forming chains that consist of multiple isoprene units, and these are what we call terpenes.
For the most part, terpenes are classified by the number of isoprene units they contain. Terpenes that contain one isoprene unit are called hemiterpenes, and in reality, myrcene is the only true hemiterpene because it’s the only one that contains just a single unit of isoprene; all other terpenes contain at least two isoprenes. On the upper end, natural rubber consists of isoprene chains with more than 5,000 individual units.
Terpenes that contain two isoprene units are known as monoterpenes (because they consist of an isoprene base unit plus one additional unit of isoprene). When other functional groups are attached to the isoprene chain, the resulting compounds are called terpenoids instead of terpenes. About 98% of known “terpenes” are actually terpenoids, and their additional functional groups produce their unique and beneficial effects as well as the odors we perceive from them.
In plants, terpenes evolved as a defense mechanism against certain predators, and as a recruitment tool used by flowering plants. Because the same compounds may have different effects on different species, what may be repugnant to some animals can be quite attractive and pleasant to others. In the case of humans, terpenes are able to interact with many different kinds of receptors, influencing mood and immune activity among other things.