Essential oils are having a moment. These aromatic products, distilled from naturally grown herbs, have a long history in the realms of health, beauty and spirituality worldwide. Today, they’re popularity is growing more rapidly than ever.
Humans have known about the healing properties of certain plant extracts for at least five millennia. There are almost as many uses for essential oils as there are flora that compose them, and they play a vital role in many a practitioner’s natural healing work. Essential oils can calm your stress, fight off infection and keep your body’s systems functioning in peak condition. They might even save your life. But what are these versatile oils and where do they come from?
“An essential oil is a concentrated essence that is extracted from plants by steam distillation,” explains Cammi Balleck, a doctor of naturopathy. “Oils are referred to as essences, volatile oils or ethereal oils. They are all highly concentrated substances extracted from aromatic plants from around the world.” Oils can be coaxed from any part of a plant, including seeds, bark, roots, stems, flowers and leaves.
The distillation process concentrates the healing properties of the plant into a tiny amount of liquid. “The plant material is heated in steam in a still, and the plant’s volatile parts evaporate into the steam,” says Balleck, who is certified by the American Naturopathic Certification Board. “The vapors are carried and cooled and condensed in a cold water jacket. The result is collected in a flask, where the essential oil floats to the surface.” From there they get separated and packaged, on their way to health-conscious consumers across the country.
Keep Your Body Healthy and Wise
The beneficial effects of essential oils are myriad. Some, like lavender, are useful for strengthening the nervous system, while others like grapefruit oil stimulate the lymphatic and digestive systems. There are essential oils with a sedative effect, like frankincense, and others that can reduce inflammation, like Roman chamomile. Some essential oils like lemongrass have an antiseptic effect and can help stave off infections.
The antimicrobial properties of essential oils may be the most noteworthy of all their uses, since they could make a credible replacement therapy to combat bacteria that are evolving to resist most common forms of antibiotics. They’re already winning over some high-profile proponents: Lena Dunham, creator and founder of the hit HBO show Girls, credits the natural antibiotic properties of oil of oregano with changing her life, while tea tree essential oil is gaining a reputation as a miracle plant for its potential to combat the deadly MRSA bacteria, among numerous other beneficial uses.
Although there haven’t been many large-scale, formal clinical studies on essential oils, research is picking up and the data that does exist points to a positive track record. Studies already “show positive effects for a variety of health concerns including infections, pain, anxiety, depression, tumors, premenstrual syndrome, nausea, and many others,” according to the University of Minnesota.
Research is difficult to conduct because essential oils are not standardized, affected by local geography and climate as well as variations in harvesting, processing and packaging techniques. Their very nature makes homogeneity a challenge.
“Currently the International Standards Organization sets standards for each essential oil that include a range of acceptable concentrations for its major chemical constituents” the University of Minnesota’s resources on health and well-being point out, but “the problem with standardized essential oils is that they are no longer natural, genuine, and authentic.”
Further compounding our lack of concrete knowledge is the fact that drug companies aren’t motivated to fund research on essential oils because they come from natural plants and therefore don’t have much profit potential. Nevertheless, formal studies have already been conducted that have found that oregano oil can reduce infection rates in chickens and tea tree oil shows amazing antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory activity, among other benefits.
Inhalation, Massage and Natural Vibrations
There are a number of ways that essential oils can be applied, says Adora Winquist, founder and formulator of ADORATherapy & Opus Gaia.
“One can feel the affects of aromatherapy via indirect or direct inhalation,” says Winquist, a graduate of the Barbara Brennan School of Healing who has been in practice as an energy healer and aroma therapist since 1998. “Indirect inhalation can be achieved by breathing in essential oils by using a room diffuser or placing aromatic drops nearby. Direct inhalation can be achieved by using an individual inhaler or inhaling directly from the essential oil vial.”
Essential oils that have been diluted in a carrier oil can also be applied topically, and massaged directly into the skin. “The skin’s permeable surface allows for the absorption of essential oils into the blood stream; depending on the essential oil being used, different effects can be achieved within the body,” Winquist says. “For example, essential oils like lavender and frankincense have powerful rejuvenating properties and can be used to heal topical burns and abrasions, whereas peppermint has great toning properties and citrus oils, such as lemon and grapefruit, have a natural exfoliant effect.”
To prevent irritation, essential oils should never be applied directly to the skin without first adding them to a carrier oil. There are a variety of carriers used to dilute essential oils, such as oils made from olives, jojoba, almonds, apricot kernels, sunflowers, or grape seed. Dilution is usually a ratio like 2 drops essential oil to 10 or more drops carrier oil, or 15 drops of essential oil to one ounce of carrier oil.
Other essential oils are used in cooking, taken with water, or absorbed under the tongue. Some practitioners also promote their effect on the human energy field or aura.
“Every life form is made up of vibrations that coincide with the harmonic frequency to which all life is attuned,” says Winquist. “These vibrations are known as the human energy field or aura.”
People’s auras go out of tune due to physical or emotional stresses, the healer explains. “Pure essential oils have high vibrational frequencies that are prone to absorbing surrounding energies,” she says. “By intoning a certain state of mind or idea, one can use essential oils to alter and affect their personal auras.”
If done properly, ingesting essential oils can be highly effective in treating numerous ailments. According to Dr. Axe, “most essential oils are safe for internal use but a little bit goes a long way. Usually 1-3 drops is plenty mixed with water.” Essential oils should never be taken internally though without the guidance of a qualified naturopath or aromatherapist. They are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, and the quality of oils can vary widely — the essential oils you ingest must be of a therapeutic grade. Be sure to do your research and consult with a natural health expert before deciding on which brand to purchase.
Reap the Benefits of Peppermint, Sandalwood, Lavender and More
Skilled health practitioners can rattle off the benefits of their preferred oils thanks to extensive experience watching them in action.
“My favorite essential oil is peppermint,” Balleck says. “I always have it on hand and I use it all the time.” This versatile oil can be used for anything from mental stimulation to respiratory problems to digestive issues.
“I drink peppermint tea or water if my stomach is upset,” says Balleck. “It is a great oil to run on the temples for a headache or on the neck for stress and tension. I also use it for sore muscles and any pain. I have also used it diluted in the air for colds and to clear the lungs and nasal passages.”
The naturopath also recommends sandalwood. “It is calming to the mind and emotions,” she says. “It is a great one when you need peace and is good for anxiety and depression.”
“Lemon is another light and refreshing oil. I use it for mental focus and in my homemade skin products,” says Balleck. “Ylang-Ylang is a great oil for emotions too. I like it on me when I get a massage or I like to put it in the hot tub or a bath. It is a great sedative and induces a good feeling of well being. It is great for stressful days and when you need pampering.”
For immediate pain relief on the skin, look to calendula. “Calendula flower essential oil has been used for centuries and is one of my favorites for healing topical wounds and burns,” says Dr. Christopher Hobbs, Ph.D., L.Ac., director of herbal science at Rainbow Light. “You can apply the diluted oil directly to your skin to soothe skin irritations, sunburn and rashes.”
Another of Hobb’s favorite essential oils is made from the lavender flower because of its relaxing and calming benefits. “Lavender is ideal to help soothe restlessness, lift the spirit, and alleviate mental and emotional stress,” Hobbs says.
He recommends making smelling salts with lavender oil by adding six drops to a teaspoon of rock salt and storing it in a small container to use when necessary. “Or, you can add a few drops to a bowl of steaming water, or mix with water in an atomizer, shake and spray into the air,” the doctor says.
Lavender can also help soothe headaches related to pre-menstrual symptoms. “Add four drops of lavender essential oil to 2 cups of hot water,” says Hobbs. “Dip a clean washcloth into the mixture to saturate. Remove and wring out the cloth and apply the compress to your forehead or on the back of your neck and relax for a few minutes. On hot days or if your headache feels hot and pounding, you may want to use cool water instead.”
Additionally, lavender oil can help prevent stretch marks during pregnancy, with a mix of 4 vitamin E capsules (400 IU each), 4 ounces almond oil, ½ ounce cocoa butter and 5 drops lavender essential oil.
“Open the vitamin E capsules with a pin and squeeze them into the almond oil,” Hobbs explains. “Place in a saucepan over low heat. Add the cocoa butter. Once the mixture has melted, remove from heat and allow to cool. Add the essential oil and stir. Store away from light and heat. Rub the oil into your belly at least once a day during pregnancy.”
Another good essential oil to facilitate a peaceful atmosphere is bergamot fruit. “Bergamot fruit is of the citrus family and is used to flavor Earl Grey tea,” says Hobbs. “In aromatherapy, the oil of bergamot is considered to have an uplifting effect and can help to promote a balanced, positive mood.” The bergamot oil can be used as a smelling salt, steam or atomizer, just like lavender oil.
The doctor recommends the following recipe for a relaxing, soothing bath oil: “Mix two ounces of sweet almond oil or other carrier oil of your choice with 10 drops orange bergamot essential oil, five drops lavender essential oil, three drops wild geranium essential oil and one drop neroli essential oil and store in a tightly sealed bottle. Add about one teaspoon to your bath.”
A Marriage of Natural and Conventional Remedies
Although ancient Greek, Roman, Chinese, Egyptian, Indian and other cultures all used essential oils for thousands of years, the modern age of aromatherapy began in 1910, when French chemist René-Maurice Gattefossé burned his hand during an experiment and dipped it in a tub of lavender oil for relief. The burn healed quickly, with little scarring, and Gattefossé went on to experiment with a variety of essential oils, using them to care for soldiers injured during World War I.
The oils gradually gained more popularity in the Western world, especially in the last three decades with a rise in interest in natural remedies and a desire to get away from harsh chemicals and pharmaceutical products. Today, some hospitals even use essential oils to help prevent anxiety and depression in their patients and to fight infections. The marriage of natural and conventional medicine can help bring the oils further into the mainstream and educate the public about their many uses.
More research will help confirm the advantages that essential oils convey, as well as allowing us to fine-tune our understanding and expand our arsenal of treatment options beyond conventional pharmaceutical therapies. For now, what we do know is that if you want to heal, maintain, rejuvenate or invigorate your mind, body and soul, seek out a qualified naturopath or aromatherapist to help you unlock the amazing blessings that essential oils have to offer.