Do Essential Oils Really Work?
“Nature is the best medicine” may sound like an old cliché but in the modern world it’s more relevant than ever. Essential oils are some of the oldest natural healing substances known to humankind. In fact, their use is steeped in rich tradition over millennia and they are credited for treating disease, halting the spread of infection, enhancing skin, beauty, spirituality and are used in natural perfumery.
Essential oils definition according the Merriam-Webster dictionary is “a class of volatile oils that give plants their characteristic odors and are used especially in perfumes and flavourings, and for aromatherapy.” These volatile oils or plant essences are extracted by steam or water distillation, although other methods such as solvent, CO2 critical extraction and enfleurage are sometimes used.
The earliest recorded use of essential oils is difficult to pinpoint but evidence suggests the ancient Egyptians were using aromatic botanical essences around 4500 B.C. for medicine, skincare, spiritual practices and many other aspects of daily life. Around the same time Ayurvedic medicine was becoming widespread in India. Ayurveda which stands for ayuh, meaning “longevity” and veda, meaning “sacred knowledge” was centered around using aromatic massage for promoting a longer life span and vitality. Thousands of years later Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine declared: “the way to health is to have an aromatic bath and scented massage every day.”
Fast forward to present day and the contemporary use of the word “aromatherapy” can be traced to Rene-Maurice Gattefosse, a French cosmetic chemist who discovered the healing properties of Lavender after suffering severe burns in a lab accident. He immersed his hands in Lavender essential oil instead of water and was astounded how quickly he healed without scars (you may be wondering why someone would have a bucket of Lavender essential oil sitting around in their lab. Gattefosse’s family was in the perfumery business at the time when essential oils were predominantly used). This personal experience spurred him to investigate the medicinal essential oil properties by treating injured soldiers during World War I. Based on his findings he coined the term “aromatherapie – treating disease or injury by using the biochemical properties of aromatic plant essences.”
Essential Oils Science
To answer the question do essential oils work we first need to understand the science. When choosing essentials oils for cough, upset stomach or some other health condition you want to ensure your oils are extracted from certified botanicals, identified by the genus and species. For example Chamomile would be listed as Matricaria chamomilla L. Also parts of the plant from which essences are derived – leaves, branches, flower petals, buds, needles, bark and roots – should be known so you can better understand their therapeutic effects. Purity is another important factor. The best essential oils are classified as 100% pure and 100% natural, ideally grown organically or wild-crafted. Try to avoid essentials oils derived from conventional agriculture due to high levels of contaminants and adulteration.
Chemotype is another fundamental consideration in scientific aromatherapy. You may be familiar with the term “terroir’ used in wine making which refers to the totality of environmental factors that influence a crop’s phenotype. These include geography, soil, terrain, micro climate and farming practices. Together, these conditions give wine its particular flavour, aroma and characteristics. In essential oil production this is referred to as Chemotype – a set of growing conditions that affect the plant’s biochemical properties. In fact, two chemotypes of the same essential oil grown in different locations and conditions can have vastly different therapeutic effects and toxicity levels.
Medicinal Uses of Essential Oils
Petri dish studies confirm that essential oils have powerful anti-microbial properties, specifically in their ability to fight common bacterial and fungal strains. For example Tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia) and Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus) are well-accepted remedies for treating infections of the skin, lungs (through inhalation) and killing airborne pathogens.
Other studies have shown that Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) and Roman (Chamomile Chamaemelum nobile) have sedative and calming effects on the nervous system. Everlasting (Helichrysum italicum ssp serotinum) is another well-researched essential oil that has gained mainstream status recently for its skin regenerative and pain relief properties.
Back to the question, do essential oils work? More research is needed but science is finally producing evidence that for many common health complaints essentials oils can offer safe and natural solutions.
How to Use Essential Oils
To enjoy the full array of essential oil benefits they can be administered through the skin, by inhalation or diffusing them in the air. All methods have their own merit and application depends entirely on the nature of the health concern. If you’re applying essential oils on skin directly they first need to be diluted in carrier oil, especially if you have sensitive or irritated skin. Aromatherapy massage is a good example of therapeutic application for essential oils that can relieve muscle soreness and ease anxiety or stress.
Some essential oils can be inhaled for immediate relief for headaches, cough or breathing difficulties (due to chest cold or infection). Place a few drops of your chosen essential oil on a tissue or in a steam inhaler (essential oils can also be used in a steam room). For ambient application diffusers and room sprays or are an excellent option. To preserve the integrity of aromatic molecules the best type of diffuser is one that doesn’t heat up the oils as this can alter or destroy their therapeutic effects. Ultrasonic water diffusers are popular for this purpose. A low-tech but effective method you can try is to add 10-15 drops of essential oils to a spray bottle and use whenever needed.
Whenever you’re using essential oils, safe handling and storage is very important. Some oils can be extremely toxic when they come into contact with skin undiluted. Other oils are phototoxic, meaning they can cause severe dermatitis or irritation when exposed to UV radiation. Most essential oils are not safe for pregnancy and while breast-feeding. Some essential oils, toxic to cats and dogs must be avoided if you have the furry creatures in your home (even if they’re perfectly safe for you). If you’re considering using aromatherapy to treat a serious health condition it’s best to seek the advice of a qualified medical professional.
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