What are Essential Oils & How do they work?
Essential oils are commonly used in aromatherapy for its therapeutic properties. The use of essential oils for therapeutic, spiritual, hygienic and ritualistic purposes goes back to ancient civilizations including the Chinese, Indians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans who used them in cosmetics, perfumes and drugs.
Modern studies have also found that the effect of smell alone has a powerful effect on our central nervous system, influencing mood, evoking emotions, counteracting stress and reducing high blood pressure.
So what are essential oils and how do they work?
When we peel an orange or walk through a rose garden, we will become surrounded by the lingering aroma of the citrusy scent or flowery perfume in the air. What you are smelling, generally speaking, is the essential oils of that particular plant or species that give their distinct scent and flavour. Thru extraction method, these essential oils, also known as volatile oils, ethereal oils, aetheroleum, or simply as the oil of the plant were extracted and concentrated into the essential oils commonly used in aromatherapy.
What is Aromatherapy?
Throughout the world, aromatherapy’s popularity have been growing. More people are being introduced to essential oils and have a better understanding of the benefits. So what is aromatherapy?
Aromatherapy implies the therapeutic use of fragrances by inhalation and are defined as a branch of phytomedicine or pseudoscience based on the usage of aromatic materials, including essential oils, and other aroma compounds, with claims for improving psychological or physical well-being.
The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA) defines aromatherapy as “the therapeutic application or the medicinal use of aromatic substances (essential oils) for holistic healing.”
The English word ‘aromatherapy’ is derived from the French word ‘aromatherapie’, which was first coined by French chemist René Maurice Gattefossé in the 1930s.
Rene-Maurice Gattefosse, one of the pioneers in aromatherapy, was a chemist who discovered the benefits of essential oils quite literally by accident when, in July 1910, he was involved in a laboratory accident when he badly burnt his hands and turned to lavender oil; he was amazed at the speed with which lavender healed the burn, and how it reduced the pain and scarring that he had anticipated. It was Gattefosse who created the word “Aromatherapie”, using it as a title for his book in 1928.
In aromatherapy, essential oils that contains the pure essence found in flowers, berries, grasses, roots, seeds, bark, fruits and herbs, are inhaled i.e. through the sense of smell for therapeutic benefits. Each oil has its own unique character, aroma and therapeutic properties and consists of very small aromatic natural chemicals. The oils are highly concentrated and can be used for health, beauty and hygiene.
What are Essential Oils?
Scientifically, essential oils are the aromatic or volatile constituents produced by living organism and isolated by physical means (extraction) from a whole plant or parts of the plants. Chemically, essential oils are made up of alcohols, aldehydes, ketones, phenols, terpenes, sesquiterpenes, ethers and esters.
In the plants, these components are used as hormones for growth and reproduction, for attracting pollinator or as a form of defense from predators and protection from bacterial, viral or fungal invasion.
In 1997, the International Standards Organization (ISO) defined an essential oil as a “product obtained from vegetable raw material, either by distillation with water or steam, or from the epicarp of citrus fruits by a mechanical process, or by dry distillation.”
Depending on your reading, the term ‘essential’ can be described as the “essence of” the plant’s fragrance, or some considered as the life force of the plant or from the term quinta essentia (quintessence) coined by Swiss medical pioneer, Bombastus Paracelsus von Hohenheim (1493 – 1541). Other names that have been assigned to ‘essential oil’ include essence, fragrant oil, volatile oil, aetheroleum or aromatic oil.
The term ‘quintessence’ referred to the fifth element of the Aristolean paradigm which described matter as composed of five elements – earth, fire, water, air and spirit. Quintessence was regarded as the spirit or life force of the plant, which could be removed and contained by the distillation process.
Essential oils can be produced from different parts of the plant has their own unique properties in aromatherapy
- Essential oils from flowers – Sedating, narcotic or relaxing
- Essential oils from resins, woods, barks and exudates – Heating, moves fluids in the body
- Essential oils from leaves – Healing and cooling
- Essential oils from roots – Grounding
- Essential oils from fruits – Expanding, opening and stimulating
How does Essential Oils Work?
The use of essential oils is cross-cultural and dates back thousands of years.
Even if you haven’t purchased an essential oil roller or diffuser, chances are you may have used them anyway. Vick’s Vaporub, typically rubbed on the chest as a cough suppressant, contains the essential eucalyptus, cedarleaf, and nutmeg oils (among others) suspended in petroleum jelly.
When essential oils are inhaled, the vapor enters the body through the nose (or mouth) and stimulates small hair like extensions of our olfactory nerve.
Our olfactory nerve is the only nerve in the body that directly contacts the external environment with our brains. All of our other senses involves several nerves and synaptic junctions before the impulses reaches the brain.
The olfactory nerve stimulates the most primitive part of the brain known as the limbic system (a.k.a. saurian or reptilian brain). The limbic system is directly connected to those parts of the brain that control heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, memory, stress levels, and hormone balance (Higley & Higley, 1998). It’s said that this direct connection is why essential oils can have a profound and immediate effect on a person.
Researchers have found that the effect of smell alone has a powerful effect on our central nervous system, influencing mood, evoking emotions, counteracting stress and reducing high blood pressure. Essential oils may also have an influence on hormonal response due to the influence on the hypothalamus and may influence the cortical areas of the brain that are associated with memory and learning.
One of the scientific studies that have revealed positive results from essential oils involves patients with dementia. Although, contrary to common lore, drinking a tablespoon of fish oil every day won’t likely stave off dementia, there is evidence that balm from lemon oil reduces agitation in patients with dementia according to a study in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.
There are other proven success stories for essential oils, such as the treatment of acne with tea tree oil and the treatment of alopecia areata or hair loss with oils like thyme, rosemary, lavender and cedarwood.
Research into the use of essential oils found in citrus fruits is particularly intriguing due to their natural antibacterial qualities. For example, citrus oil, particularly when combined with Dead Sea salts, was shown to inhibit bacterial growth in mice and act as an anti-inflammatory agent. The citrus essential oil bergamot could help fight the growth of common causes of food poisoning like listeria, e coli, and staphylococcus.
Aromatherapy is a complementary therapy. It does not provide a cure for diseases, rashes or illnesses, but it can support conventional treatment of various conditions. Most of these studies have not yet extended to clinical trials, meaning there is still much more work to do before essential oils would be potentially prescribed by physicians. Users should also be aware that “natural” products can be hazardous if used in the wrong way.