Terpenoids: What Are They and What Do They Do?
Timeless advice is almost always assumed to be true. That’s why health tips such as “get a lot of sleep” and “eat your fruits and vegetables” have lasted the test of time. But while the importance of sleep is obvious, you might not know why eating plants are so good for you body.
Hang with us for a moment. Sure, they contain nutrients that are essential for sustaining a healthy body. But if you think plants’ healthful properties end there, you don’t know the half of it.
Emerging research suggests plants may do more than provide you with essential nutrients. They may also contain compounds that promote greater wellbeing by, for example, helping to reduce inflammation, fight off infections, and promote heart health.
These benefits are largely attributed to plants’ terpenoids — a word that probably makes most non-science-geek's eyes glaze over. That’s because terpenoids have some of the crappiest PR on the planet. Even while loads of research suggests terpenoids are remarkably good for us, few people have actually heard of them.
They are the reason why “eat your fruits and vegetables” will continue to be timeless advice, and why certain plants – like mushrooms – are on a short list of real “superfoods.”
If you’ve ever sniffed a sprig of mint, eaten citrus fruits, or inhaled the scent of a pine trees in a forest, then you’ve exposed yourself to terpenoids.
Once you have a basic knowledge of terpenoids, you’ll better understand how certain foods might help you in your pursuit of optimum wellness and will be empowered to craft a diet that’s jam packed with healthful compounds.
What are terpenoids?
Also known as terpenes or isoprenoids, terpenoids are fat-soluble chemical compounds. They occur naturally in all living organisms, but they exist in the largest quantities in plants and fungi. In the plant world, terpenoids represent the largest and most diverse class of chemicals. They’re also the oldest known biomolecules and have been discovered in sediments that are a whopping 2.5 billion years old. This helps explain why terpenoids are sometimes referred to as “nature’s building blocks.”
Terpenoids are also the largest known group of phytochemicals, or bioactive plant chemicals with disease-fighting properties. And they’re thought to be the main reason fruits and vegetables are loaded with antioxidant and other healthful properties.
All told, the terpenoid family currently consists of more than 40,000 known individual compounds, with hundreds more discovered each year. These compounds are classified into different categories depending on their structure. The primary terpenoid classes are monoterpenes, diterpenes, triterpenes, and tetraterpenes.
Research suggests many of these compounds may have pharmaceutical applications for human health, which helps explain why there’s a large interest in identifying and studying so many different terpenoids. (We’ll dive into the potential benefits of terpenoids below.)
When you understand the role that terpenoids play in plant health, you can begin to understand why they might be beneficial to humans.
Plants use terpenoids to support their basic growth and development. For example, terpenoids are responsible for a number of essential roles in plants, from functioning as hormones to carrying electrons, forming the structural components of membranes, and providing pigments that are necessary for photosynthesis. Individual terpenoids may also support more specialized physiological, metabolic, structural, communicative, and protective functions (such as offering defense against pathogens, pollinators, and phytoxins from competitive plants). Different plants utilize different terpenoids at different times depending on their needs.
Terpenoids don’t only serve a wide array of functions in the plant world. Humans also employ them across a huge range of industries, from agriculture to pharmaceuticals and cosmetics. As a result, terpenoids can be found in products such as perfumes, solvents, adhesives, flavorings, air fresheners, essential oils, candles, agrochemicals, biofuel, pest control products, insect repellants, and pharmaceuticals.
While some of these uses represent modern discoveries, humans have actually utilized terpenoids for centuries. For example, ancient Egyptian cultures employed terpenoid-rich essential oils in their ceremonies, while Chinese and Indian cultures have long used terpenoid-filled plants and fungi for medicinal purposes.
You may already be familiar with terpenoids in various forms—although probably by different names. For example:
- Parts of vitamins A, E, and K include terpenoids.
- Good-for-you (and more well-known) compounds such as lycopene, lutein, beta-carotene, and other carotenoids all fall under the terpenoid umbrella.
- A huge range of natural products, such as menthol, citrus, citronella, eucalyptus, lavender, mint, chamomile, and arnica, all contain terpenoids.
Why are terpenoids good for you?
Many scientific studies have discovered that terpenoids may pose a number of benefits to human health, including -- but not limited to -- the following qualities.
They have antiviral and antibacterial properties.
Just as terpenoids help protect plants against harmful pathogens, there’s evidence they may help human bodies fight off infections. That’s because they may help stimulate the immune system to leap into action in order to destroy bacteria and viruses—without triggering an overreaction in the immune system.
That last point is key, because an overactive immune system can sometimes do more harm than good. Inflammation is the body’s natural healing response, but too much inflammation can be detrimental. For example, when you catch a cold, the redness in your nose and throat is your body’s inflammatory response to the virus. The redness indicates increased blood flow and more permeable blood vessels, which allow healing white blood cells to enter the inflamed areas to attack the virus.
The beauty of terpenoids seems to be that they encourage white blood cells to attack foreign invaders, but they don’t allow them to proliferate unnecessarily.
They may reduce inflammation and protect against oxidative stress.
Terpenoids may reduce inflammation via a number of mechanisms:
- As explained above, they may help prevent overreactions from the immune system, thereby protecting against one source of inflammation.
- They may activate chemicals that help suppress inflammation and disrupt inflammation-provoking processes in the body.
- There’s some evidence they may fight inflammation at the cellular level.
These anti-inflammatory properties may also provide a line of defense against oxidative stress. For those not familiar, oxidative stress is characterized by the buildup of free radicals in the body. If left unchecked, these free radicals can contribute to chronic inflammation, speed up the aging process, and pave the way for the development of a number of chronic diseases. Antioxidants are some of the most potent free radical fighters around, which means terpenoids’ antioxidant properties can help keep free radicals in check.
They may have antimicrobial properties.
Terpenoids are thought to have fungicidal and antimicrobial properties, which may help the body defend itself from potentially harmful microorganisms (such as yeast). This helps explain why terpenoids are often incorporated into creams and ointments that are meant to target fungal or microbial infections and reduce pain and itching.
They may help promote heart health.
Research suggests terpenoids may be good for the ’ol ticker in a number of ways. For starters, they have both anti-hyperglycemic and anti-hypoglycemic effects, which may help regulate healthy blood sugar levels. They may also reduce cholesterol and plaque build-up in the arteries, which can help sustain a healthy heart.
They help synthesize vitamin A.
Terpenoids include carotenoids such as the beta-carotene found in carrots and other colorful vegetables. The body converts these substances into provitamin A, which is essential for a number of biological functions, from supporting the immune system to promoting healthy vision.
How can you put terpenoids to work for you?
Once you understand the potential benefits of terpenoids, you’re liable to start wondering how you can get your hands on some of these compounds.
Luckily, doing so is easy. Because terpenoids are found in huge quantities in plants, they exist in pretty much any plant-based, whole foods (read: fruits and vegetables) you can think of. For example:
- Tomatoes are a stellar source of the terpenoid lycopene.
- As noted above, carrots, sweet potatoes, and other colorful veggies are great sources of beta-carotene.
- Egg yolks, kiwis, spinach, zucchini, and grapes all contain high levels of lutein.
Beyond plants, one of the best whole foods sources of terpenoids is functional mushrooms. Research suggests the terpenoids present in mushrooms may feature all of the qualities described above, including antibacterial, anti-fungal, anti-viral, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant properties.
Functional mushrooms also possess several other good-for-you compounds, such as polysaccharides and polyphenols. This helps explain why mushrooms may support a variety of functions beyond the ones described above, from supporting your immune system to supporting brain and gut health and improving stress levels.
A good place to start? Load up on veggies, fruits, and mushrooms, and let terpenoids take care of the rest.