The chemical substance alpha-pinene is a component of many essential oils and has anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties. Homeopathic herbs and over-the-counter remedies typically contain alpha-pinene that is found in plant oils and resins. Turpentine, the distilled resin of pine trees, was at one time a widely recognized medical treatment. Juniper berries, eucalyptus oil, and tea tree oil all contain this chemical compound.
Known as a terpene, the alpha-pinene structure consists of 10 carbon atoms configured in two isoprene units joined head to tail. Terpene is one of the more common compounds found in nature. The substance is typically a component of the oils or resins in numerous plants but is most prevalent in that of coniferous pine trees. The amount produced depends on the temperature and available sunlight.
For centuries, people stripped the bark and punctured the trunks of pine trees in order to collect drops of resin. The substance was distilled with water and called turpentine. The resin is rich in alpha and beta pinenes and was used in a distilled version for a host of home remedies. Drops of the resin solution were diluted in milk, wine, or water for respiratory ailments and the concoction was thought to act as an effective expectorant. These mixtures were used both externally and internally for parasitic infections as well.
Combined with animal fat or bee’s wax, the alpha-pinene containing resin was applied topically as an analgesic liniment or an antimicrobial ointment. The green to blue-black berry-like cones of the juniper tree have also been used for centuries as a medicinal preparation. In the 1600s, the Dutch created an alcoholic tonic using the juniper berries. This beverage would later become known as gin. The French distilled the wood of juniper trees and used the final product for treating eczema and other skin ailments.
Oil from the eucalyptus tree contains alpha-pinene, and cultures from around the world have used and continue to use the oil and leaves of this well known tree in teas, tinctures, and topical formulations. Modern formulations of mouthwashes, cold and chest ointments, and cough lozenges commonly contain eucalyptus oil. Historically, a few drops of the oil were added to small amounts of water, or a tea was made from dried leaves as treatment for respiratory disorders. Many believe that dried leaf tinctures exhibit antimicrobial and anti-parasitic properties when used topically.
Ancient aboriginal cultures of Australia were familiar with the medicinal benefits of tea tree oil, which contains alpha-pinene. Also known as melaleuca, topical preparations protected open wounds and reportedly eliminated infections. Many accept the substance as a treatment for fungal infections of the feet.