The Science Behind How Essential Oils Work

Essential oils have long been touted as a natural treatment for a variety of ailments and conditions. They're used by people to help relieve pain, decrease stress, induce sleep, improve mood and a host of other applications. While mainstream health care professionals rarely give any credence to these claims, aromatherapists, natural healers and consumers alike believe in their effectiveness. While there is some scientific support for using essential oils there is no definitive proof of their efficacy. Even so, they've become wildly popular, and in some cases very expensive. Understanding the process of essential oil production, how they are used, and how the human body is affected by them is the first step in helping you determine whether they are right for you.

What Are Essential Oils?

In basic terms, essential oils are the flavor and scent compounds present in many plants, trees, flowers and fruits. They are found in leaves, bark, flowers, roots, peels and rinds. Special cells within the plant, create these essences during their growth cycle. If the essence bearing components are crushed, or otherwise damaged, the oils are released and their odor can be detected by humans and animals alike. While these oils may be extracted using chemical processes, they are not considered true essential oils and may not have the same effects as their natural counterparts. In order to be considered true essential oils, plant oils must be extracted in a natural way, such as distillation with steam or water, and they may also be mechanically pressed.

Essential Oil Chemistry

Every plant has a unique chemistry, even those from the same botanical family, meaning that essential oils are never exactly the same from one batch to the next. Their chemical makeup is also affected by the local weather, geography, season, and even the time of day that they are harvested. What's more, how they're processed, packed and stored can have an impact. What they all have in common, however, is a note, or type of aroma that they exude. Top notes are light, fresh and uplifting, such as lemon, but evaporate quickly. Middle notes are generally warm, soft and slow to release, such as chamomile. Base notes are the heaviest, most intense, think sandalwood and frankincense. A rule of thumb often used by aromatherapists is to use a mix of 15 to 25% top notes, 30 to 40% middle notes, and 45 to 55% base notes. However, it is certainly acceptable to use any of the notes individually.

Essential Oil Uses

According to aromatherapy advocates and others that use essential oils, they are effective in treating many types of ailments. They are used to combat infections, whether they're viral, bacterial, parasitic or fungal. Some essential oils are used to aid those with sleep disorders such as insomnia. Still, others have shown anecdotal evidence that they're effective in relieving stress, depression and anxiety. Since the essential oils have such strong odors, it is difficult for researchers to do blind studies, thus, they are reluctant to advocate their use without further testing. This has little impact on those that have achieved personal results, and it's no wonder since these are effectively test-tube studies that do not necessarily show exactly what's happening in the body of study participants. Furthermore, studies are often small and lack the clinical trials used to evaluate pharmaceuticals, leaving many questions unanswered.

How Are They Used?

Essential oils can be used in three basic ways, depending upon the ailment being addressed and the desired results. They can be applied directly to the skin, inhaled, or even taken orally. Topical applications include massaging the oil into the skin, spraying it on, using it in a bath, or as a compress. This is the application of choice for wound care, rashes and other skin afflictions. Inhalation is accomplished through the use of a diffuser, dry evaporation, as a spray, or by dropping them in hot water and breathing in the steam. Oftentimes this method is used to relieve cold symptoms and other breathing problems. The majority of essential oils can also be ingested in food and beverages to add flavor and an appealing scent. Regardless of the type of application chosen, caution is advised as some essential oils can cause adverse effects.

Do They Really Work?

Researchers at Ohio State University exposed 56 men and women to the scent of lemon, lavender and a placebo with no scent before and after a stress event during three visits. In each case, some of the study participants were told what scents they would encounter and the expected outcome, while others were given no information. Blood samples of the study group were then analyzed to determine the presence of stress hormones like cortisol and any biochemical markers that would indicate changes to the immune system. They also performed psychological tests to determine each participants mood. The results showed that neither had any effect on heart rate, blood pressure, or pain ratings. However, three other mood assessment tests show that lemon does have a positive effect on mood, while lavender's mood-altering effects were similar to plain water.

How Do I Choose Essential Oils?

The answer to that question depends solely upon what you intend to use the oil for and how you intend to use it. While there is no exhaustive list of ailments associated with each type of essential oil, there are some fantastic resources that aromatherapists and consumers alike can peruse. In fact, there are four highly regarded essential oil databases that provide a plethora of information including profiles of specific oils, recipes and advice on their use. Sources include the U.S. National Institutes of Health's National Library of Medicine, the American Botanical Council, Science Direct and PubMed Central. There are literally hundreds of thousands of research articles, studies and other information about the topic that is freely available to anyone interested.

Whether you have experience with essential oils, or you're just starting out, it's important to understand the unique qualities of the oils you're using. It's also vital that you use them properly, and in the right dosage to avoid causing yourself harm. However, with some basic information and a bit of experimentation, you will find that essential oils are a safe, and effective, way to manage a host of human health issues. In fact, they're being used by millions of people, worldwide, for everything from skin irritations to depression and sleep issues. As with any other natural, or manufactured, substance, it's best to seek the advice of a professional before you begin to use essential oils.

Leave a comment

Shop now