When I’m out foraging I can often grab a whiff of something in the air before I find it. Various mushrooms and the pungent aromas of wild garlic are two scents that immediately spring to mind. Both smells can cause me to grin, mainly as I know that a good haul is within easy reach but, also as many foraging memories all come flooding back at once, moments spent with friends, moments spent with family.
I often wonder if my joy comes from these memories or is the smell triggering something else; can a smell give us joy?
In the case of myrcene, a rather pungent monoterpene abundant in mangos, some strains of hops, verbena, lemongrass, wild thyme, cardamom, and in cannabis, it would seem that indeed a smell could be causing a positive neurological response (also known as joy). This rather powerful organic hydrocarbon is something of a wonder terpene and one that is causing a buzz amongst the cannabis community in the U.S.A in more ways than one.
When myrcene is present, let’s say by eating an overripe mango, it can increase the permeability of the cell membrane allowing more of the psychotropic cannabinoid THC to reach the brain cells. In plain English this means it can amplify the effects of the cannabis you are taking. Yet myrcene should not be dismissed as a stoners terpene, something that is only taken to increase a high. Its known uses are far greater.
Myrcene is an effective analgesic, it’s anti-bacterial, anti-diabetic, anti-inflammatory, anti-insomniatic, anti-proliferative, antipsychotic, and anti-spasmodic. In other words it’s a painkiller, it kills harmful bacteria, it helps to lower the glucose level in your blood, it reduces inflammation and swelling (good news for anyone suffering from auto-immune conditions), it could reduce the spread of cancerous cells, it can help with mental trouble and it can even help those suffering from IBS.
The might of myrcene is being used in the medical community too, principally as an antibacterial agent against Staphylococcus aureus, a bacteria that is frequently found in the nose and on the skin. Staphylococcus aureus is capable of great harm to humans and, when out of balance, it can cause a range of illnesses from skin infections like boils and impetigo, to joint infections like septic arthritis and even bouts of food poisoning. As it is resistant to conventional antibiotics it is a bit of a worry. New research is suggesting that tea tree oil could be used in keeping this troublesome bacteria in check, finding that the levels of myrcene in tea tree oil are an important contributor to its antibacterial effect. Also, as highly volatile compound myrcene has some positive uses in aromatherapy and the scent has been linked with cheering up mice, suggesting that just smelling plants can be enough to give us joy.
Beer brewers are another camp that is fully aware of myrcene and its high volatility. When you smell something, anything you are smelling it is breaking down and dispersing into the air. High smell equals high volatility. Myrcene is known as the “headlining feature” of the green hop aroma. A smell that is characterized as being herbaceous and resinous – it’s actually present in juniper too and the keen-nosed might find an aroma correlation between freshly picked hops and juniper.
Indeed, it this smell that many are attracted to. It’s perhaps the myrcene that make gin lovers love gin. As myrcene-rich herbs such as juniper, thyme, and hops have been found to have been used in brewing since at least the middle ages (if not much, much further back) one has to wonder why.
Perhaps originally we used them in order to innoculate water that we use in a brew. The first step in making a traditional Norse beer is to add juniper twigs to the water and leave it to infuse, making the water safe to drink. Over time we would associate this smell with healthy water. In time, those who drank myrcene-rich water would survive those who drank water full of bad bacteria would die. Thus, a liking for gin and beer would evolve. I’d argue that it is due to myrcene that you and I love gin (and perhaps beer too).