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What are Essential Oils?

Essential oils are extracts taken directly from flowers, leaves, fruits, roots, bark, and seeds of a plant.  They are usually extracted through a distillation process, which separates the water-based compounds from the oils themselves.  These oils are highly concentrated, and each contains a chemical profile specific to each plant species.  In nature, these oils protect the plants from their surrounding environment and potential predators. The chemical makeup extracted from each plant dictates the effect its oil will have on the body.  When using essential oils, it is like taking all of the health-promoting factors the plant has, and bottling them into its most potent form.

Essential oils have been used since Ancient Egyptian times.  Some oils were used to embalm the dead, while others were used by ancient kings and queens in an effort to promote health and longevity.  Today, plant-based oils are making a comeback, and there is a growing amount of evidence that adding some common ones into your daily routine can be beneficial.

Some of the benefits of essential oils include:

  • Immune system support
  • Promoting healthy detoxification pathways
  • Reducing stress
  • Improving skin health
  • Promoting healthy inflammatory response
  • Use as personal care products
  • Use as cleaning products
  • Supporting healthy digestion
  • Addressing muscle pain

The potency of an essential oil is due to its ability to penetrate individual cells, due to the small size of their active compounds.  Some are small enough to cross the blood-brain barrier.

Essential oils can be incredibly powerful and diverse.  For example, a 2017 study found that lavender, oregano, thyme, clove, clary sage, and arborvitae oils have antibacterial and antifungal properties, stating these oils are great for “decontaminating an indoor environment.”

How to Use Essential Oils

Essential oils are typically used three different ways:

  • Topically (or transdermally), meaning they can pass through the skin and into the circulatory system
  • Inhaled, using a diffuser
  • Taken internally

Some essential oils are so powerful, that if you choose use them topically, they must be diffused with another oil, like coconut oil or olive oil.  If you are to use them topically, there are two ways to can apply them, depending on the potency.   You can either simply take a few (3-5 drops) and apply them directly to your skin if the oil is not as abrasive or intense.  If you need a carrier oil (and this is the recommended approach for most topical uses), add 3-5 drops to a teaspoon of the carrier oil and mix well before applying.  Some of the most common application sites for essential oils are the temples, behind the ears, the neck, spine, abdomen, and the feet.  Other topical uses include compresses, baths, and salves.

Diffusing oils can be incredibly powerful as well.  Aromatherapy is especially useful for easing anxiety.  For example, lavender oil was found to be useful in reducing anxiety in patients prior to getting a surgical procedure and in patients recovering from acute myocardial infarction.  Aromatherapy is the most common application of essential oils in the integrative health realm.

Another reason why diffusing oils can be so beneficial is due to how the olfactory system, which controls your sense of smell, is designed.  The olfactory system connects the nerve receptors found in your nose directly to the brain.  This allows you to quickly pick up scents as soon as they enter your nose.  It also allows compounds from essential oils to move from the air directly into the olfactory system, where they can then enter the bloodstream quickly.

If you choose to use a diffuser, simply add 10-15 drops of essential oil and warm water to the diffuser. 

If you chose to use essential oils internally, there are a few things you need to know.  First off, not all oils can be ingested.  To take that a step further, of the essentially oils available for internal use, those that can be used for adults are not necessarily safe for children. 

These essential oils should never be ingested:

  • Anise
  • Cedarwood
  • Cypress
  • Eucalyptus
  • Fennel
  • Hyssop
  • Pine
  • White fir
  • Wintergreen

If you are considering ingesting an essential oil, be sure to consult an educated professional or physician, as dosage, age, overall health, and size can all vary.

The typical method for internal usage is 1-3 drops of the essential oil in an 8 oz. glass of water.

With the basic applications covered, let’s get to some of the most popular essential oils and their benefits.

Lavender

When it comes to aromatherapy, there are few with more clout than lavender oil.  Lavender is well known for its calming, soothing effects.  Its most high-profile use is for reducing stress and anxiety.  A 2012 study found that lavender oil can be helpful for those suffering from anxiety and depression.  However, it has other uses, including reducing healing time from cuts, burns, and wounds.  It is also found to have high antioxidant content, can help reduce oxidative stress, and promote healthy blood sugar levels.

Lavender has been shown to reduce chronic neck and low back pain in older adults.  Additionally, a 2013 study found lavender to positively affect sleep, cognition, and overall mental health.

Lavender can be used on sore muscles and joints by mixing with coconut oil and rubbing it on the skin.  You can also diffuse it to help improve mood and sleep patterns.

Tea Tree

Also known as melaleuca, tea tree oil is commonly used in Australia, and is known for its ability to hasten wound healing.  Tea tree oil has antiseptic properties, and can kill many microbes it comes into contact with.  A 2015 study stated tea tree oil is “a powerful disinfectant that is non-poisonous and gentle.”  Additionally, it has anti-inflammatory, antiviral, and immune-supporting effects.  Tea tree oil can be diffused in the air, can be applied topically to the skin directly, or mixed with water and vinegar to be used as an all-purpose cleaner.

Lemon

Lemons are known to aid the body’s detoxification pathways.  Lemon oils actually come from the lemon peel, not the juice or fruit.  Lemon oil can be used to boost energy levels and act as a natural insect repellent.  A 2006 study found lemon oil has especially powerful antimicrobial properties and boosts metabolic function.  Lemon also supports immune system function, can reduce nausea, and reduce pain levels. You can simply add a couple drops of lemon oil to some water, use it as a natural cleaning product, or diffuse it in the air to improve energy levels and mood.

Frankincense

Also known as Boswellia (due to its genus name, Boswellia).  Frankincense is useful because it supports healthy inflammatory and immune responses.  This has been useful for those suffering from osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis.  It can also improve mood and overall skin health.  It can also improve gut function, as the resin has been used in six-week studies, and was shown to be as effective as pharmaceuticals for treating ulcerative colitis with fewer side effects, although more studies are needed.  These improvements are likely due to its anti-inflammatory properties.

Peppermint

In terms of uses, peppermint might be the most versatile.  As you might imagine, peppermint gives off a distinct cooling sensation.  Peppermint has anti-inflammatory, analgesic, antispasmodic, decongestive, antimicrobial, and carminative properties.  Peppermint has been found to support healthy gut function and relieve gas and bloating.  It can also be used topically to relieve muscle soreness.  Additionally, peppermint oil supports healthy digestion, improves energy levels and focus, and supports seasonal immunity (for seasonal allergies).  Peppermint oil can be mixed with coconut oil before applying topically.  You can add 1 drop (this is really potent) to water, or it can be used in a diffuser to improve energy levels. 

Clove

Clove oil has the greatest amount of antioxidant value compared to all other essential oils, based on ORAC score (oxygen radical absorbance capacity).  Many researchers often measure antioxidant activity based on its ORAC value.  Generally, the higher the ORAC value is in a given food, the more capable that food is at exerting its antioxidant properties.  Additionally, clove oil tends to demonstrate some antifungal properties as well.  It is used to treat a variety of gut conditions, normally found in blends with other oils.

Other Common Essential Oils

Rosemary promotes healthy cognitive function.  It also supports proper digestion, cardiovascular, and immune health.

Eucalyptus supports immune system function and promotes proper inflammatory response.  It also decreases mucus production, therefore supporting respiratory health.

Orange Peel supports a healthy inflammatory response and detoxification pathways, similar to lemon oil.  Naturally derived extracts from orange peel provide a “promising strategy to find naturally derived extracts that are effective against diseases associated with inflammation.”

Clary Sage can be used to support healthy female hormone production support and muscle cramps.

Ginger oil exhibits anti-inflammatory properties, and can help ease postoperative nausea.  It also helps support healthy digestion and displays high antioxidant activity.

Final Thoughts

The use of essential oils is growing rapidly in popularity, especially in recent years.  Aromatherapy should be considered as another tool or technique available when taking an integrative approach to your health.  The amount of evidence continues to grow supporting the efficacy of many of the essential oils discussed above.  If you are interested in using essential oils, we strongly recommend working with a practitioner to find an oil (or oils) that works for you!

Disclaimer

Though based in research, personal, and clinical experience, the opinions in this article should not be taken as medical advice. The information is designed for educational purposes only and is not designed to diagnose, treat, or cure disease.  Botanical medicine and nutraceuticals should be treated with the same caution and care as pharmaceuticals, as both have the potential for strong, potentially adverse effects and allergic reactions. Please consult a trained, licensed health care practitioner before proceeding.  Neither the publisher nor the author takes responsibility for possible health consequences of any person reading or following the information in this book. All readers, especially those taking prescription or over-the-counter medications, should consult their physicians before beginning any nutrition or supplement program.