The human body is in a constant struggle to maintain equilibrium despite fluctuations in its outside environment. The body’s ability to maintain this equilibrium is referred to as homeostasis. The most common example of this is the internal body temperature. While homeostasis is maintained, the internal temperature of the body is 98.6 degrees. When that temperature changes you know that something is wrong with the body. Other examples include blood glucose levels, maintaining the correct ratio of water as body weight, and regular breathing patterns.
The three organs responsible for maintaining homeostasis are the kidneys, liver, and brain. Some of the tasks of the kidney include maintaining proper blood water levels, salt levels, and blood pH levels. The liver works to control the metabolism of carbohydrates. As for the brain, it controls many different aspects of homeostasis within specific areas, such as the hypothalamus or the endocrine system, controlling very specific functions.
The Endocrine and Neuroendocrine System
The body contains a collection of glands responsible for producing specific hormones used to regulate tissue function, sexual function, sleep, mood, growth, development, metabolism, reproduction, and much more. This system of glands is collectively called the endocrine system.1 Some of the glands and organs in this system include the thyroid gland, pituitary gland, testicles, ovaries, pancreas, adrenal glands, and parathyroid glands. It’s safe to say that not only does the endocrine system play an important role in maintaining homeostasis, but it has a significant impact on how we develop, feel, think, and act like humans.
The general function of the endocrine system involves absorbing materials from the bloodstream, processing those materials, and then secreting the necessary hormones back into the bloodstream. This forms one of the many important homeostatic feedback loops in the body. Each hormone secreted by the endocrine system has a very specific function somewhere in the body and it typically involves maintaining homeostasis of some sort.
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Controlling blood sugar levels is a great example of a negative feedback loop controlled by the endocrine system.2 The pancreas first detects that there is increased glucose in the bloodstream. It responds by releasing insulin into the bloodstream. That insulin then allows muscles and other cells to absorb the glucose from the blood, thus maintaining homeostasis in regards to blood glucose levels.
There exists in the body a second system that consists partly of endocrine glands, non-endocrine tissues, neurons, hormones, and neurochemicals. It is referred to as the neuroendocrine system.3 This system also plays an important role in maintaining homeostasis as well as regulating certain parts of the endocrine system.
The pituitary gland, which is considered a part of both systems, is made up primarily of neuroendocrine cells. The job of these cells is to produce hormones in response to specific chemical or neurological signals.4 Those hormones then attach to targeted receptors in the body and cause changes often in an attempt to maintain homeostasis.
The endocrine and neuroendocrine systems are mostly responsible for homeostasis, but they cannot do all of the work by themselves. Many experts argue that since humans have evolved alongside plant life for so long that certain chemicals from those plants are needed to boost the effectiveness of these systems in order to truly maintain homeostasis. Those plant-based chemicals are called terpenes.
What Is a Terpene?
A terpene is a type of secondary metabolite produced by a plant. That means it is a chemical that has no role in the photosynthesis, reproduction, or growth of the plant.5 Thousands of different secondary metabolites have been identified and they are usually classified based on their chemical structure. The three main classification groups include phenolics, compounds with nitrogen, and terpenes.
Secondary metabolites have interested biologists for as long as they have known they exist. They seem to perform no specific function in the plant, but they do often interact with other organisms in strange ways. In many cases, they have negative impacts on those organisms. Over time, this led to the belief that plants evolved with these secondary metabolites as a form of defense.
How these secondary metabolites affect different organisms is very unique as well. In some cases, the chemicals possess some degree of toxicity to specific herbivores. In other cases, the chemicals specifically attract the predators of those herbivores. It is an incredible example of evolution in the plant kingdom.
What is most interesting is that humans have evolved alongside these plants for millions of years and because of that, these secondary metabolites affect us in unique and very important ways. It’s believed that the terpene classification of secondary metabolites is the one with the greatest effect on humans. Plants often use them to attract insects for pollination.6 but humans have discovered a number of pharmacological uses for them.
Most people encounter several different terpenes on a regular basis even if they never leave their house. These metabolites are frequently used for their aromatic properties. They are the chemical in the plant most responsible for the plant’s smell. The familiar smell of an orange, a lemon, or a conifer tree comes from the terpene. These chemicals are often extracted in the form of essentials oils that are then used in beauty products, cleaning products, and aromatherapy treatments.
Of the above uses, it is their presence in aromatherapy that has the greatest potential for impacting a person’s health. As the essential oils are diffused in the air, humans breathe in large quantities of very specific terpenes. Those terpenes enter the body, bind to various receptors, and influence a number of internal functions. They are believed to have a significant impact on the endocannabinoid system, the endocrine system, and the neuroendocrine system, all of which are responsible for maintaining homeostasis. This leads many people to wonder whether true homeostasis can be achieved without the assistance of these terpenes.
How Terpenes Interact with Humans
There are more than 200 different terpenes currently identified and each of them can impact the human body in a unique way. More specifically, they target different neurotransmitters and receptors within the body. The terpenes present in marijuana are frequently researched and thus more information regarding their interaction with the body is present. However, those same terpenes are present in other plants as well, which means you don’t have to live in a state where cannabis is legal in order to experience the benefits that they offer. Some of those terpenes include alpha-pinene, myrcene, and limonene.
Of the three terpenes mentioned above, limonene may be the most common and well understood since it is present in just about every citrus fruit. It is responsible for the powerful citrus aroma of lemons, oranges, mandarin, and even lemongrass. When in the body, it can bind to receptors that in turn produce antidepressant effects.7 Limonene, as well as many other terpenes, often bond with receptors in the endocannabinoid or neuroendocrine system. In some cases, after activating those receptors, those systems become more active and produce more of the necessary hormones needed to maintain homeostasis. They may also cause certain receptors to become more sensitive to incoming hormones, thus improving their efficiency.
As homeostasis is maintained, the body benefits in very specific ways. For example, some experts believe that shifts away from a homeostatic balance can lead to depression.8 Thus when terpenes encourage homeostasis they can also reduce the risk of depression.
There are a number of other physiological benefits that are commonly associated with terpenes. These benefits underline the main principles of aromatherapy. For example, there are terpenes that reduce stress, increase energy, and improve immune system function. In many of those cases, those benefits are the direct result of maintaining homeostasis that the body was struggling to maintain on its own.
Does that mean that terpenes are necessary to maintain homeostasis? And what happens when the body does not consume enough terpenes? Many scientists believe that terpenes are needed to maintain true homeostasis and that without those terpenes we actually suffer from a terpene deficiency with negative health effects. One possible example of this deficiency is Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Seasonal Affective Disorder Due to a Lack of Terpenes
If all of the terpenes that a person inhales come from nature alone, then they would likely suffer from a deficiency each year as winter rolled around and flowering plants went out of season. Interestingly enough, this is a very common occurrence that is referred to as Seasonal Affective Disorder(SAD).
Each year, many people suffer from a short-term depression that arrives with winter and goes away as spring begins. Some of the symptoms include lack of energy, changes in weight, lack of appetite, strange cravings, and feelings of depression. Many of these symptoms can be linked to an imbalance of certain hormones in the body. If those hormones were being properly maintained by the neuroendocrine system, then homeostasis would be present and these symptoms would not exist.
This means that once a year, during the winter months, the body can lose its ability to properly maintain an adequate level of homeostasis. This leads to a temporary state of depression with a few additional symptoms.
In the past, SAD was often attributed to reduced sunlight, but it is highly unlikely that sunlight alone could such a serious imbalance in the body’s internal systems. Today, more experts believe that it is the reduced volume of terpenes as well as the reduced sunlight that lead to the lack of homeostasis. In particular, the body produces significantly less serotonin.
You may not be able to boost serotonin levels by producing sunlight, but you can use specific essential oils containing terpenes that will boost serotonin levels as well as increase serotonin sensitivity. This makes essential oils and aromatherapy a very powerful treatment for people who suffer from SAD. But that doesn’t mean you should only invest in essential oils if you experience this disorder. Even if you don’t experience the serious symptoms, the body is still producing less serotonin during winter months and that makes it difficult to maintain homeostasis.
Can Homeostasis Be Maintained Without Terpenes?
Seasonal Affective Disorder is only one example of how the body simply cannot maintain homeostasis on its own accord. Our internal systems are very powerful, but there are so many outside stimuli that can affect those systems negatively. In the case of SAD, the decreased sunlight led to less vitamin D and decreased levels of serotonin, which affected many of our internal systems.
Luckily, we also have a number of outside stimuli that we can use to benefit our system. Terpenes produced by plants are among the most effective of those stimuli. We have spent millions of years evolving alongside these plants and our bodies have adapted new ways of using these chemicals that were once very abundant in the air. There may not be quite as many terpenes in the air today, but our bodies still know how to use them best.
It’s clear that we need terpenes if we want to maintain homeostasis in a variety of different conditions. But what are the best ways to partake of these terpenes? We don’t suggest breathing lots of lemon-scented air freshener if you are feeling depressed during the winter. Instead, your terpene intake can be separated into two categories: natural and aromatherapy.
Natural intake of aromatherapy is very simple. Visit a local forest or park and take a long stroll. The art of forest bathing focuses entirely on breathing natural terpenes while enjoying the scenery in a forest. It’s a great way to maintain homeostasis and reduce stress.
Aromatherapy offers a more controlled approach. You can use oils with terpenes that will help combat specific problems affecting homeostasis. For example, if it is wintertime and you are dealing with the symptoms of SAD, then you can choose a blend of oils that are uplifting and boost serotonin levels. With so many different terpenes and essential oils on the market, you should be able to maintain homeostasis in a number of troubling conditions.
MONQ’s diffusers and bottled blends are both packed with the terpenes that can give your body these benefits as well as relieving stress and boosting your mood during the winter months. Try out the Zen personal aromatherapy diffuser with a blend of frankincense, sweet orange, and ylang-ylang to help you get to a peaceful and relaxed state, while also getting the terpenes that come with these essential oils.
Photo Credits: Kzenon/shutterstock.com, kitzcorner/shutterstock.com