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Secondary Metabolites

Beating Stress with Secondary Metabolites

Stress is an issue that affects a huge percentage of the population. Modern life is not conducive to relaxation, and trying to keep up with the demands of day to day life can lead to long-term stress, a poor mental state, and eventually poor physical health as well. There have been many mental health initiatives that have focused on the idea of talking about the issues that you are facing in day to day life, but that's just one part of the approach to healing. If the body isn't producing the chemicals that it needs to work well, then the mind will not be able to respond in a positive way.

One of the biggest problems with modern life is that we live in concrete jungles, far removed from the lifestyle that our ancestors enjoyed. This means that we aren’t getting exposure to the healthful substances that we would have enjoyed access to just a few centuries or even perhaps decades ago. Secondary metabolites are one such example of that.
three potted plants

What are Secondary Metabolites?

Secondary metabolites are the substances that plants release to protect themselves, such as alkaloids, phenolics, resins, tannins, flavonoids and essential oils. Secondary metabolites can sometimes be difficult to extract from plants because they are made at different stages of the cell’s development, but our paleolithic ancestors lived, worked, slept, and ate in forests and were exposed to those plants and their metabolites.

How Secondary Metabolites Could Help Reduce Stress

Secondary metabolites come in a variety, of forms, and there is evidence to suggest that some of them have an impact on our brains. In some cases, this impact is clear as the metabolite is psychoactive or even hallucinogenic. 1 In other cases, the secondary metabolites act as an analgesic. 2 It is well-known that essential oils, which are made up of secondary metabolites such as terpenes, can help to improve mental function and well-being. The relationship between stress and secondary metabolites is not yet well understood, but it is something that researchers consider to be worthy of investigation, and the literature that has been accumulated over the last few years is full of promise.
woman sitting on a bench with her head down

Beta Caryophyllene and Stress

One example of a terpene that can help to combat stress and depression is Beta-Caryophyllene. This terpene binds to the CB2 receptors in the body, and it is through that mechanism that it helps to reduce feelings of stress. Beta caryophyllene is found in black pepper, rosemary, hops, and many other plants. It is not psychoactive, but it can help to reduce stress, and there have been some promising studies into its effectiveness in recent years. 3 What makes these studies particularly valuable is that Beta Caryophyllene is a cannabinoid. However, unlike THC, it offers the benefits without any “high” or cognitive impairment.


Linalool is another secondary metabolite that shows some promise. It has anti-stress properties and other wellness benefits, including acting as an analgesic. Linalool is found in lavender, which is popular as a calming, soothing essential oil. The use of essential oils to reduce stress is something that is getting recognition even in medical contexts, with research being done into the possibility of reducing patient stress before operations, with essential oils. 4

 Getting Back to Nature

details on leaves

There is a growing movement towards the idea of forest bathing or “Shinrin-yoku” which is the practice of going out into nature for therapeutic reasons. 5 Forest bathing has been found to be an effective option for helping people improve their general health and well-being, and reducing stress is a huge part of this because those who are less anxious tend to have lower resting heart rates, lower blood pressure, and are generally happier and less stressed.

Not everyone is in a position where they can engage in forest bathing on a regular basis, however. Those who live in cities, for example, may not be able to take time out of their days to head to a forest. That’s where the idea of bringing the forest to you can become useful. The forest helps to beat stress and secondary metabolites are, in a fashion, the active ingredients of the forest.

Aromatherapy for Stress and Secondary Metabolites

Aromatherapy treatments that rely on terpenes and essential oils are using concentrated secondary metabolites to provide benefit to their users. The benefit may not be as strong as in scenarios where we are getting the full symbiotic relationship of the exposure to a wide range of plants and all of the associated metabolites, but it is still an improvement over the average person’s environment, with sick building syndrome from carbon dioxide build-up and all of the issues associated with it. 6

Aromatherapy can give people the concentrated, targeted exposure to beneficial terpenes and other metabolites, and thereby help to reduce stress, improve mental clarity, and generally boost the quality of life. Given that there is a growing opioid crisis in America, it makes sense to find natural, non-addictive and non-habit forming ways to improve both physical and mental wellbeing. 7

Most people are exposed to a low level of stress every day and do not have the luxury of simply removing a single stressor to improve their situation. They experience a build-up of difficulties, some circumstantial, some environmental, that produce the stress that they feel. This could then be increased through caffeine consumption, or because the use of nicotine to relieve stress leaves them worse off when they are not smoking. Alcohol and other lifestyle factors could also add to the stress. Since there’s not one easy “quick win” in a situation like this, it makes sense to look for small changes that can help to reduce some of the challenges. We live in a world where almost everyone is coping with stress and secondary metabolites are just one tool in the arsenal that we need to build up to beat it.

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