The Nose Knows : The Human Body and Terpenes

There’s no doubt that being able to recognize smells is a vital part of our world. From a purely survival perspective, maybe deep within our ancestral memories, a smell can tell us if food or drink is good or rotten, or if a threat is nearby, provided we can sniff it out. Then there are certain smells which can immediately take us back in time to maybe the family kitchen, a grade school classroom or even a family member’s scent.

Restaurant owners know that the smell of good food can stimulate our appetite, while an unpleasant odor does the opposite. Perfumes and air fresheners also have the same effect of creating associations with different moods and feelings.

While many of us generally are aware of the interesting power of smell, not everyone know why or how it works. The science of smell is fascinating, since it measures how certain scent molecules interact with our body and create a physical response and a mental or emotional response as well.

This is the science behind aromatherapy, where different essential oils trigger different reactions. For instance, smelling lavender can calm things down. Mint can be energizing. Orange can be uplifting. 

Other flavors can reduce stress, make it easier to sleep, even promote healing. People who study this field look for ways to extract these flavors and put them in household items like food, soaps or lotions.  

The reason this all works comes down to something called terpenes, which are unique natural compounds in all plants and some animals. Different combinations of terpenes and varying concentrations are why a pine tree smells different than a rose bush, and why a lemon smells slightly different from a lime, or why a Granny Smith apple smells and tastes slightly different than a Red Delicious apple. 

Terpenes are believed to be important to a plant’s survival too – certain colors and scents may attract certain beneficial pollinating insects. Other terpenes may have developed in some plants to keep certain predators away, like a bad smell, color or taste that certain insects may avoid. Some terpenes can help a plant’s immune system or repair damage well. There are actually believed to be more than 20,000 types of terpenes. Some plants have more than others, such as the hemp plant, which is known to have more than 100 in certain strains. 

Terpene education can include learning about the common types, and then studying their interactions in the body. One is limonene, which is found in many citrus fruits and known to have anti-inflammatory properties. Linanool, found in lavender, has calming effects as well as being anti-microbial. Pinene A and B are found in some pine products plus herbs like basil and rosemary. Pinene is believed to expand the lungs and improve breathing. 

Along with learning about how they all work, terpene education also includes learning how to extract them from various plants, which then become terpinoids. These can be turned into the various essential oils used in aromatherapy.

Cannabis has a wide variety of terpenes, which give strains different flavors. For example, you can tell from the smell and the taste that a “skunk” strain is different than a cherry flavored strain. If you’re curious about what that flavor (or terpene) you like the most, do some research on your favorite strain and see what flavor you’re tasting!