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Terpenes in countless variations are found throughout the world, emitting a spectrum of distinct scents. Currently, approximately 55,000 terpenes have been identified.1A wide and diverse array of organisms produce terpenes including conifers, flowers, insects, marine algae, and sea slugs, among many others. Humans, plants, fruits, vegetables, animals, insects, and fungi are all a part of a larger ecosystem sustaining life on the planet and terpenes play a key role in preserving the homeostasis of our ecosystem.
Trees and conifers are a large producer of terpenes like turpentine, pinene, camphene, limonene, menthol, and myrcene. Pine, spruce, and fir trees, Christmas favorites, produce these chemicals, which give them their distinctive and characteristic holiday scent. The terpenes are found in abundance in the conifer’s resin and when the tree’s bark gets damaged, the resin flows out, hardens, and protects the tree. The terpenes in this resin, like pinene, myrcene, and limonene, inhibits fungal growth and act as deterrents to herbivores, such as bark beetles who might otherwise feed on the tree.2This terpene-filled resin is one example of terpenes protecting and preserving a lifeform, by serving as a key component in its defense mechanism.
One place to go in order to interact with and to directly experience the physical benefits of terpenes is the forest. Since terpenes are extremely volatile and evaporate easily, the best time to experience natural terpenes is at the break of dawn, just as the sun is ascending from the horizon to burn them off. It is for this reason the early-morning air smells and feels much fresher than later in the day and is also the reason most plants are harvested for their terpene content in the early morning hours. Wandering around, fully immersed in nature, is always relaxing, invigorating, and therapeutic, and terpenes are a large part of the reason why. The terms ‘forest bathing,’ ‘forest therapy,’ and ‘ecotherapy’ have become popular, for good reason. These terms originate from the Japanese tradition of Shinrin-Yoku, which involves “consciously, intentionally, and intuitively wandering the forests to immerse the mind and body in the regenerative atmosphere.”3Intentional is a key word in that definition, as there are a series of techniques which the Japanese use to immerse all the senses into nature, allowing the power of the forest to enter your body through all five senses.
There are forces in nature that greatly impact human health, the natural sounds and chirping of birds, or the lack thereof, the breezing wind through the trees, the variety of textures from lacy green to rough bark, the comforting greenery, and the fresh forest air all combine to dispel the stresses of our often fast-paced and chaotic lives. Forest bathing not only soothes the mind, but studies have shown it has extensive benefit on the body as well. A 2018 study found that people who spent more time outside and within green spaces as opposed to urban areas had lower levels of cortisol - the stress hormone- lower cholesterol, improved heart health, and reduced risk of diabetes.4When frequently immersed in green spaces often, pregnant women were deemed less likely to give birth prematurely or to deliver underweight children.5Overall, those who spent time in nature reported better health than those who didn’t. Unfortunately, this is an unachievable ideal for many who live in dense urban landscapes distant from any woodlands or forest preserves. By 2050, it is projected 66% of the world’s population will be living in cities.
Exercising in terpene rich environments, like forests and wooded areas, is shown to strengthen your heart and increase stamina to keep blood flowing and muscles moving. The most terpene-dense environments are those with taller trees, little sunlight penetration, lower temperatures, and a lot of vegetation. If you cannot get to a forested area easily, a city funded botanical garden or even private garden area filled with fragrant vegetation can serve as a suitable substitute and will do wonders for your mind, body, and spirit.
University of British Columbia’s Dr. Holi-Anne Passmore conducted a study of the effects of nature on 395 of her undergraduate students. She split the students into three groups, one group was asked to take photos of natural objects or scenes that caught their eye — perhaps a beautiful sunset spying through the window, or a late-blooming flower — and jot down the feelings that these images evoked in them. The participants were not asked to go out of their way to immerse themselves in nature, but rather to notice instances of nature in their everyday lives.
The second group was asked to do the same, but focusing on manmade objects, such as buildings, bridges, or machines, while the third group was the control group, and was not required to take any action. Passmore was overwhelmed by the results. She writes, “The difference in participants' well-being — their happiness, sense of elevation, and their level of connectedness to other people, not just nature — was significantly higher than both other groups."
Simply noticing nature as you encounter it daily can help increase your happiness and feeling of well-being. Everything in life which causes stress stems from the busy, human-centric parts of our lives. Nature is written into our DNA; we crave trees, grass, and fresh air. Even in a city environment you can appreciate the dogs being walked, the birds eating crumbs, the occasional tree or flowerbed, or the setting sun tinting the white clouds pink. Sure, this is not the same as hiking through a forest of up a mountain, but it’s a technique to expand your focus on something beyond yourself.
I urge you to go out into the forest at the break of dawn and experience terpenes firsthand. These terpenes are natural, free, therapeutic, and have the potential to change your life. Directly experience the effects of pinene, cineole, limonene, camphene, and many other soothing terpenes by immersing yourself in greenery. If you physically cannot travel to a forest or wooded area, (and even if you can) bring the forest to you! Buy a plant, or two, and while the effects are much less dramatic, you can still experience the effects and benefits of natural terpenes and fresh plant-produced oxygen in your home. Potted herbs such as basil and rosemary are easy to grow and offer fabulous scents as well as culinary artistry.
Or consider planting a tree. It is a relatively simple task, just make sure there are no underground utilities nearby, dig a hole, plant the tree, fill the hole, and mulch. The benefits of a tree are staggering. They clean the air, combat climate change, attract wildlife, and are proven good for your mental health as they produce therapeutic terpenes like linalool, myrcene, cymene, and many, many more. If this is unfeasible, consider donating to charities which will plant one for you, like One More Tree or A Living Tribute (a charity that plants a tree in someone’s honor or memory). The more terpenes in the air, the better it is for the entire ecosystem.
1 - Volatile Terpenes and Terpenoids from Workers and Queens ofMonomorium chinense. Rui Zhao, Lihua Lu, Qingxing Shi, Jian Chen, and Yurong He. Department of Entomology, College of Agriculture, South China Agricultural University, Tianhe District, Guangzhou 510642, China.