Essential oils are compounds extracted from plants.
The oils capture the plant’s scent and flavor, or “essence.”
Unique aromatic compounds give each essential oil its characteristic essence.
Essential oils are obtained through distillation (via steam and/or water) or mechanical methods, such as cold pressing.
Once the aromatic chemicals have been extracted, they are combined with carrier oil to create a product that’s ready for use.
The way the oils are made is important, as essential oils obtained through chemical processes are not considered true essential oils.
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How do essential oils work?
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Essential oils are most commonly used in the practice of aromatherapy, in which they are inhaled through various methods.
Essential oils are not meant to be swallowed.
The chemicals in essential oils can interact with your body in several ways.
When applied to your skin, some plant chemicals are absorbed
It’s thought that certain application methods can improve absorption, such as applying heat to different areas of the body. However, research in this area is lacking
Inhaling the aromas from essential oils can stimulate areas of your limbic system, which is a part of your brain that plays a role in emotions, behaviors, sense of smell, and long-term memory
Interestingly, the limbic system is heavily involved in forming memories. This can partly explain why familiar smells can trigger memories or emotions (6Trusted Source, 7Trusted Source).
The limbic system also plays a role in controlling several unconscious physiological functions, such as breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure. As such, some people claim that essential oils can exert a physical effect on your body.
There are more than 90 types of essential oils, each with its unique smell and potential health benefits.
Here’s a list of 10 popular essential oils and the health claims associated with them:
- Peppermint: used to boost energy and aid digestion
- Lavender: used to relieve stress
- Sandalwood: used to calm nerves and help with focus
- Bergamot: used to reduce stress and improve skin conditions like eczema
- Rose: used to improve mood and reduce anxiety
- Chamomile: used to improve mood and relaxation
- Ylang-Ylang: used to treat headaches, nausea, and skin conditions
- Tea Tree: used to fight infections and boost immunity
- Jasmine: used to help with depression, childbirth, and libido
- Lemon: used to aid digestion, mood, headaches, and more
The calming aroma of lavender has made it a bathtub and self-care staple, but don’t sleep on its skincare qualities. “It’s an anti-inflammatory that can reduce redness and is a natural hydrator that can repair dry skin. It also helps with different skin irritations, cuts, scrapes, burns, and can also calm down stressed skin,” says Dr. Gupta.
“It is the first choice for acne and oily skin. It has anti-fungal and antibacterial properties that decrease skin surface bacteria, fungus, and viruses,” says Dr. Gupta. It helps deal with viruses, fungus, and bacteria on the skin’s surface and control breakouts. “Tea tree oil can also treat minor cuts, scrapes, and skin conditions,” she adds.
Known for its aroma and traditionally used in India for ages, this is a restorative oil too. “It effectively soothes inflammation caused by dry skin. And it’s an antiseptic that can reduce hyper-pigmentation and the appearance of scars,” says Dr. Gupta.
Despite their widespread use, little is known about the ability of essential oils to treat certain health conditions.
Here’s a look at the evidence regarding some of the common health problems that essential oils and aromatherapy have been used to treat.
Stress and anxiety
It has been estimated that 43% of people who have stress and anxiety use some form of alternative therapy to help relieve their symptoms
Regarding aromatherapy, initial studies have been quite positive. Many have shown that the smell of some essential oils can work alongside traditional therapy to treat anxiety and stress
However, due to the scents of the compounds, it’s hard to conduct blinded studies and rule out biases. Thus, many reviews on the stress- and anxiety-relieving effects of essential oils have been inconclusive
Interestingly, using essential oils during a massage may help relieve stress, although the effects may only last while the massage is taking place.
A recent review of over 201 studies found that only 10 were robust enough to analyze. It also concluded that aromatherapy was ineffective at treating anxiety
Headaches and migraines
In the ’90s, two small studies found that dabbing a peppermint oil and ethanol mixture on participants’ foreheads and temples relieved headache pain (16Trusted Source, 17Trusted Source).
Recent studies have also observed reduced headache pain after applying peppermint and lavender oil to the skin
What’s more, it has been suggested that applying a mixture of chamomile and sesame oil to the temples may treat headaches and migraines. This is a traditional Persian headache remedy.
However, more high-quality studies are needed.
Sleep and insomnia Smelling lavender oil has been shown to improve the sleep quality of women after childbirth, as well as patients with heart disease
One review examined 15 studies on essential oils and sleep. The majority of studies showed that smelling the oils — mostly lavender oil — had positive effects on sleep habits
It has been suggested that essential oils may help fight inflammatory conditions. Some test-tube studies show that they have anti-inflammatory effects.
One mouse study found that ingesting a combination of thyme and oregano essential oils helped induce the remission of colitis. Two rat studies on caraway and rosemary oils found similar results.
However, very few human studies have examined the effects of these oils on inflammatory diseases. Therefore, their effectiveness and safety are unknown .
Antibiotic and antimicrobial
The rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria has renewed interest in the search for other compounds that can fight bacterial infections.
Test-tube studies have investigated essential oils, such as peppermint and tea tree oil, extensively for their antimicrobial effects, observing some positive results.
However, while these test-tube study results are interesting, they do not necessarily reflect the effects that these oils have on your body. They don’t prove that a particular essential oil could treat bacterial infections in humans.
How to choose the right essential oils
Many companies claim that their oils are “pure” or “medical grade.” However, these terms aren’t universally defined and therefore hold little weight.
Given that they’re products of an unregulated industry, the quality and composition of essential oils can vary greatly
Keep the following tips in mind to choose only high-quality oils:
Purity: Find an oil that contains only aromatic plant compounds, without additives or synthetic oils. Pure oils usually list the plant’s botanical name (such as Lavandula officinalis) rather than terms like “essential oil of lavender.”
Quality: True essential oils are the ones that have been changed the least by the extraction process. Choose a chemical-free essential oil that has been extracted through distillation or mechanical cold pressing.
Safety and side effects
Just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s safe.
Plants and herbal products contain many bioactive compounds that may harm your health, and essential oils are no different.
However, when inhaled or combined with a base oil for use on your skin, most essential oils are considered safe. Be sure to consider others in your environment who might be inhaling the aroma, including pregnant women, children, and pets.
- Nevertheless, they may cause some side effects, including (44Trusted Source):
- asthma attacks
- allergic reactions
While the most common side effect is a rash, essential oils can cause more serious reactions, and they have been associated with one case of death.
The oils that have most commonly been associated with adverse reactions are lavender, peppermint, tea tree, and ylang-ylang.
Oils that are high in phenols, such as cinnamon, can cause skin irritation and shouldn’t be used on the skin without being combined with a base oil. Meanwhile, essential oils made from citrus fruits increase the skin’s reaction to sunlight and burns can occur.
Swallowing essential oils is not recommended, as doing so could be harmful and, in some doses, fatal
Very few studies have examined the safety of these oils for pregnant or breastfeeding women, who are usually advised to avoid them
The bottom line
Essential oils are generally considered safe to inhale or apply to the skin if they’ve been combined with a base oil. They should not be eaten.
However, evidence supporting many of their associated health claims is lacking, and their effectiveness is often exaggerated.
For minor health problems, using essential oils as a complementary therapy is likely harmless.
However, if you have a serious health condition or are taking medication, you should discuss its use with your healthcare practitioner.
You can’t escape essential oils these days, but can you use them? People who use essential oils claim that they are helpful for everything from relaxation and sleeping to reducing inflammation in the body.
Inflammation occurs in the body when the immune system is activated. Inflammation can have many different causes, such as an infection or even a reaction to a food allergy. The body senses that something is wrong, so it sends blood cells to that area to help heal what’s wrong and kill off any “invaders.”
However, not all inflammation is good. Your body can’t necessarily tell whether something is wrong or if you’re just stressed because of a big work project. Either way, it will produce inflammation to try to help in any way it can. Over time, this may tire out your immune system or cause problems in other parts of your body.
What the research says
Antioxidants can reduce the harmful effects of inflammation in the body. This may be why you hear a lot about the importance of eating antioxidant-rich food to keep you healthy. Some researchers have also looked at whether essential oils can be used as antioxidants to help reduce inflammation. Although research is limited, there’s some evidence to suggest that essential oils help.
A 2010 study found that the following essential oils had anti-inflammatory properties:
Researchers found that these oils reduced the expression of the inflammatory COX-2 enzyme by at least 25 percent thyme essential oil had the most effects, reducing COX-2 levels by nearly 75 percent.
The National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy also lists many oils that may reduce inflammation, including:
- roman chamomile
How to use essential oils for inflammation
Because inflammation affects the whole body, essential oils can be used in a few different ways to treat it:
Diffusion: You can buy an essential oil diffuser online or even at stores such as Wal-Mart or CVS. A diffuser will allow essential oil particles to disperse directly into the air. Inhaling the scent may help you relax. If your inflammation is stress-related, this may be beneficial.
Massage: You can apply diluted essential oil directly to the affected area to help reduce swelling and pain.
By mouth: Although rare, some types of essential oils are meant to be gargled. Researchers in a 2011 review by trusted Sources found that using an essential oil mouthwash helped reduce gum inflammation caused by gingivitis. Be sure to consult your doctor before trying this method. Essential oils aren’t meant to be swallowed.
If you plan to use essential oils topically, there are a few things that you should keep in mind. You should never apply undiluted essential oil to the skin. Be sure to add 1 ounce of carrier oil, such as coconut or jojoba, to every dozen drops of essential oil.
Before application, do a skin patch test. This is generally done on the inside of the arm. It will allow you to determine whether your skin is going to react poorly. If you don’t experience any irritation or inflammation within 24 hours, it should be safe to use.
Risks and warnings
Using essential oil to ease inflammation isn’t a first-line treatment. If you have inflammation in your body, it means that somewhere, something in your body is crying out for help.
To treat the inflammation in your body, you have to go to the source. Consult your doctor so they can help you figure out what’s wrong. You don’t want to “mask” the inflammation with essential oils without first fixing the underlying medical issue.
In some cases, if you’re sensitive to a certain essential oil or have an allergic reaction, you may make your inflammation worse. Use caution if you have asthma or another respiratory condition.
If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, you should exercise caution when using essential oils of any kind.
What you should do now
If you’re experiencing unusual or persistent inflammation, consult your doctor. They can work with you to determine the cause and figure out how to best ease any discomfort that you may be experiencing.
In the meantime, you can try using essential oils or more traditional remedies for inflammation. These include taking an anti-inflammatory medication, such as ibuprofen, or using heat or cold therapy to relieve discomfort.