Beta-Caryophyllene: Squashing the Essential Oil Debate with Science

Copaifera officinalis resin

As a health scientist and essential oil researcher, there is one particular (and controversial) substance that I am asked about more than any other, and that is hemp oil. The frequency of questions I receive about hemp oil is rapidly increasing in light of current legislation within the United States. However, without getting into a moral or legal discussion on the use of hemp oil, there is an easy way to quell the debate on hemp oil’s purported health benefits: beta-caryophyllene.

How many of you have ever heard of the bicyclic sesquiterpene beta-caryophyllene? Outside of my colleagues in the essential oil industry and the chemists out there, I am guessing the hands are going to be few and far between. But type “beta-caryophyllene” into PubMed’s search function and you’ll get 1,725 hits. Beta-caryophyllene is not only an interesting terpenoid compound, but a highly researched one. Many of the scientifically substantiated benefits of beta-caryophyllene are often associated with hemp oil, but in actuality, it is a poor source of beta-caryophyllene and the best sources have undergone much more scientific scrutiny.

Here is the Cliff Notes® version of the current research:

-When ingested, beta-caryophyllene may help to support proper cellular function and is a powerful source of antioxidant protection.

-Applied topically, beta-caryophyllene may have profound benefits in regards to reducing the appearance of blemishes and overall skin health.

-Beta-caryophyllene may have anti-inflammatory and analgesic (pain relieving) effects

-And the most interesting of the research, beta-caryophyllene has been found to bind to cannabinoid receptors in the body, specifically in the immune system, which is believed to be the key to its profound health-benefitting properties.

Let’s discuss these cannabinoid receptors for a second. As part of the endocannabinoid system, these receptors play a role in the regulation of countless physiological mechanisms. They influence everything from pain to immune system response to one of my specific areas of research: appetite. While we speculate that there may be several different types of cannabinoid receptors, we have currently identified two different subtypes: CB1, which is expressed primarily on the nerve cells in the brain, and CB2, which is expressed predominantly on white blood cells within the immune system. Although their protein sequences are quite similar, CB1 and CB2 receptors have very different signaling mechanisms and have varying degrees of sensitivity to agonists and antagonists; more specifically, they are activated by different substances and influence different biological mechanisms.

Research has shown that CB1 activation influences memory processing and pain regulation, and also results in some well-known psychoactive effects. On the other hand, CB2 receptors support healthy nervous system function, proper immune function, and have soothing and relaxing properties on the body (similar to that of CB1), primarily through their ability to regulate inflammation. But perhaps most interesting, CB2 activation does not result in the same “high” as does its counterpart, CB1.

If you perform a gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) analysis on hemp oil, you’ll find only trace (very trace) amounts of beta-caryophyllene, meaning it is not a great source of beta-caryophyllene or its associated health benefits. Research has shown that the primary constituent of hemp oil (cannabidiol) has little effect on cannabinoid receptors (cannibidiol is hundreds or perhaps thousands of times weaker than other cannabinoids), while another compound present in the oil, tetrahydrocannabinols (THC), activates both CB1 and CB2 receptors. On the other hand, in vitro studies have shown that beta-caryophyllene exclusively binds to CB2 receptors, providing the broad spectrum of well-researched health-benefits associated with cannabinoid activation, without the possibility of the more interesting consequences.

The takeaway: the breadth of health benefits experienced through cannabinoid receptor activation may be available through the aromatic, topical, or internal use of beta-caryophyllene-rich essential oils, without the psychoactive side effects caused by the THC commonly found in hemp oil.

Beta-caryophyllene is primarily known for its presence in the essential oils extracted from black pepper, clove, melissa, and rosemary, but the best source is the lesser-known oil copaiba. GC-MS assessments have shown that many sources of copaiba essential oil are composed of more than 50% beta-caryophyllene, and not surprisingly, the properties of this oil extracted from the oleoresin of Copaifera species trees is becoming a popular topic of research. There have been over 70 peer-reviewed studies published in scientific journals in the last handful of years evaluating the benefits of copaiba, several of which focus on its CB2-binding properties and the associated health benefits.

While the battle over the health benefits (and legality) of hemp oil continues, thanks to the power of beta-caryophyllene, there are a multitude of oil alternatives available with a far stronger evidence-based foundation.

Dr. Damian Rodriguez is the health and exercise scientist for doTERRA International, LLC. He holds a doctorate in health science, a master’s degree in exercise physiology, and countless professional certifications. He has spent most of his life researching nutrition, exercise, and the lifestyle behaviors associated with optimal health. Along with his passion for health, as someone who lives with Asperger’s Syndrome, he is also involved in bringing awareness to autism spectrum disorders. There are varying opinions about many health and fitness topics. His opinions are his own and not necessarily that of doTERRA International, LLC. Consult your healthcare provider before making any changes to diet and exercise.