Terpenes and Plant Medicines: A Quintessential Guide

Terpenes and Plant Medicines: A Quintessential Guide

If you love the aroma of lavender, orange peel and pine, that’s because of a group of aromatic compounds called terpenes. But more than their smell, terpenes are also being extensively studied because researchers believe they may have health benefits that the medical world may still not know of. This is in hopes that plant medicines will be used to treat certain medical conditions.

This guide will take an in-depth look at types of terpenes and plant medicines and their potential benefits.

What are terpenes?

Also known as terpenoids, terpenes are a group of naturally occurring compounds known to be the largest and most diverse in the world. Terpenes are known for giving most plants their fragrance and protecting them from grazing animals. More extensive terpenes, known as squalene and sterols, are found in animals.

Terpenes play an essential role in the life of plants because they help to attract pollinators in flowering plants or produce a strong odour to keep predators away. Some studies have also suggested terpenes help boost plants’ immune systems, keeping them away from germs. And they even protect plants and help them to recover from damage.

Terpenes are classified based on their properties and possible medicinal uses:

Monoterpenes (C10 carbon atoms)

Because of their strong aroma, these type of terpenes from the Quercus ilex species are used mainly as a repellent and fragrance.

Sesquiterpenes (C15 carbon atoms)

These terpenes from the Helianthus annuus species have been studied to treat migraines, bacterial infections and malaria.

Diterpenes (C20 carbon atoms)

These terpenes from the Euphorbia, salvia miltiorrhiza species are believed to help address cardiovascular diseases and are used as an anti-inflammatory.

Triterpenes (C30 carbon atoms)

These terpenes from the Centella Asiatica species are believed to help increase blood circulation and promote faster wound healing.

Where can terpenes be found?

Terpenes are naturally found in many plants and some in animals. Terpenes help protect plants and animals from different stressors and have also been studied to help keep competitors, pathogens and predators away.

Today, only a small part of terpenes has been studied, especially their benefits to humans. However, some terpene substances have been studied to contain anti-parasitic, anti-cancer and antimicrobial medicinal properties.

Some of the most popular plants with high concentrations of terpenes and their medicinal properties include:

Lemongrass. This plant is a known insect repellent for its strong aroma produced by terpenes.

Tea tree. This plant is known to contain an active ingredient that’s believed to help treat different cutaneous infections.

Citrus fruits. This plant is used as an active ingredient in medications that treat pediculosis.

Thyme. This plant has been studied to contain antifungal and antibacterial properties.

Sage. This medicinal plant and herb are known for enhancing memory, which is why it’s used as an active ingredient in some anti-dementia medications.

What are the properties related to terpenes?

Terpenes have been gaining a lot of interest in the medical world because of the many properties related to them. These properties are quite beneficial in creating different medications, and they can be extracted mainly through plants and some insects.

The three most common properties related to terpenes include:


Terpenes have been used in both traditional and modern medicine because of the belief that it has antimicrobial properties that help kill and inhibit the growth of a microorganism. Some plants that have been found to have antimicrobial properties due to terpenes include spices like sage, thyme, rosemary and cumin, Pinaceae and Rosmarinus Officinalis.

The pine tree is also a concrete example of the terpenes’ antimicrobial properties. According to some studies, when a pine tree incurs physical damage due to attack from insects, the terpene-containing resin is secreted to protect the tree from more damage by keeping the insects away.


Terpene has been found to be a healthy alternative to keeping insects away so that you don’t need to use harsh chemicals such as pesticides. Today, many products like lotions, sprays and shampoos are added with one or more terpenes. Since terpenes are naturally occurring compounds, these products are regarded as “GRAS” or Generally Recognized As Safe by experts, especially the Environment Protection Agency.

An excellent example of terpenes being used against insects is the creation of shampoos that target lice and lice eggs in human hair. Terpene-based products are highly effective but don’t contain harmful chemicals that may cause allergies and resistance.

What are the different types of terpenes?

There are different types of terpenes, many of which still need to be discovered. But scientists have studied these common terpenes and described their therapeutic properties:


A naturally abundant type of terpene, pinene is classified as a-pinene and b-pinene. This terpene is recognized mainly because of its naturally beautiful bright scent that you can smell in basil, pine needles and rosemary.

In Japan, a therapy called “Shinrin-yoku”, or forest bathing, is used by the Japanese to benefit mental health. This involves walking in the forest to enjoy the scent of pine needles and bask in the warm atmosphere, which the Japanese believe to help heal the mind and body.


One of the most common terpenes that humans recognize because of its scent, limonene, is the terpene found in the rinds of citrus fruits such as lemons and oranges. This compound is what makes these fruits smell so good.

But more than giving these fruits that sweet and fresh aroma, a study called “Chemico-Biological Interactions” also suggested that limonene has antiviral, anti-cancer, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-diabetic properties. Limonene can also be found in several supplements because it helps boost the immune system.


This terpene can be found in lemongrass, hops and thyme. Myrcene is popular among medical experts for its powerful antioxidant properties. A study conducted among mice revealed that this terpene has the potential to protect the brain from damage after a patient suffers a stroke.

Another significant study also revealed that myrcene can help to protect the heart tissue, which is why it’s being explored today as a possible alternative treatment to ischemic stroke. These studies are still being expanded to guarantee the efficiency of myrcene as a potential medication at the correct levels.


If you love the scent of lavender, linalool is responsible for that beautiful, rich aroma. This terpene is one of the most important compounds that’s used in aromatherapy because of how calming it is to smell lavender. This is also why you’ll find lavender being used as a scent for essential oils, perfumes and even home fresheners.

But more than being aromatic, linalool has also been studied to have antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer and neuroprotective properties. It also can be an alternative treatment for anxiety and depression.

However, some studies have found that linalool can harm the body. However, further studies are being conducted to help experts understand the benefits of using linalool without harming the body.


Humulene can be found in hop, ginger and clove, and it has been studied for its health benefits. In a study named “Frontiers of Pharmacology,” experts revealed that the compound could potentially prevent asthma and other allergic reactions. In studies conducted on animals, humulene has been found to help reduce inflammation in the airways in people with allergies and asthma attacks. This is why it’s being studied further as a potential alternative treatment to asthma.


Beta-caryophyllene can be found in many vegetables and herbs, most notably in black pepper and cloves. According to studies, this terpene may have anti-inflammatory effects on the body to help relieve pain due to different causes.

This has been proven in a study conducted on animals, which helped deal with nerve pain and inflammation. Medical experts continue to study beta-caryophyllene as a potential alternative treatment to long-term chronic pain, especially because earlier studies suggested that using beta-caryophyllene didn’t make the body develop tolerance to the compound.

There are still other common types of terpenes that are being studied by medical experts today, including terpinolene, geraniol, phytol, ocimene and nerolidol. Researchers are looking at their potential as more natural alternatives to synthetic medications.

The bottom line

As naturally occurring compounds, terpenes are gaining a lot of interest for their health benefits and promise to be a good medication alternative, especially for patients who have developed resistance or didn’t experience any positive effects on the medications that they’re taking.

Studying the benefits of terpenes and plant medicines is still a long and challenging journey for researchers. Many tests need to be done, and extensive research must be conducted before terpenes can be officially declared legal alternatives to traditional medicines.

But there is a great future in this compound, and we can only look forward to the future ahead of us.