Do Essential Oils work?
Essential oils are being heavily debated in many fields. Some claim to have treated many ailments and diseases with them, others have the practice pegged as pseudoscience and believe the 18 billion dollar industry has everyone fooled.
Aromatherapy, or essential oils therapy as it is also sometimes called, is a part of phytotherapy, which is the scientific approach to understanding plants or plant extracts for medicinal purposes. In Aromatherapy we use the aromatic essential oils to improve the health of the body, mind and spirit.
What exactly are Essential Oils?
Essential oils are concentrated plant extracts that retain the 'essence' (the natural smell and flavour) of their source. They are extracted from certain varieties of trees, shrubs, herbs, grasses, roots, fruits and flowers. The oil is concentrated in different parts of the plant, for example Frankincense essential oil is extracted from the tree's resin, whereas citrus essential oils are extracted from the peel of their fruit.
There are many different forms of extraction, and which one is used depends on the particular plant species, however the most widely-used method is steam extraction.
Essential oils and aroma therapy of course aren't new phenomena, but have been around all over the world for thousands of years and we can trace their existence and usage in many books and scriptures.
"The way to health is to have an aromatic bath and scented massage every day" - Hippocrates
I wasn't surprised to read about how Ancient Egyptians used aromatics for incense, embalming and perfume. In fact, in the past the entire perfume industry was based on essential oils, however nowadays they have largely been replaced with synthetic ingredients.
The Ebers Papyrus of 1500 BCE, which is among the oldest and most important papyri of ancient Egypt, described many recipes for health using aromatics, and also outlines the earliest known recipe for making body deodorant.
Spiritual practices have been accompanied with essential oils for thousands of years as well: Frankincense and Myrrh are the most widely-known oils, but Native Americans also used other oils, such as Sage, for spiritual connection and ritual purification.
In the late 19th century, the healing properties were being heavily studied in Europe. In 1888 two French doctors from Lyon published a paper proving antibacterial power of the essential oils of Clove, Oregano and Cinnamon. Since antibiotics weren't around yet, the anti-contagious properties of distilled plants were very important, and had reportedly even protected people from epidemics, such as the Plague.
However, with breakthroughs in modern medicine, there was a change in attitude and old practices were being dismissed and not further studied.
So what we know is that people throughout time have realized the healing properties of essential oils. The only reason we are here now is because our ancestors survived in conditions far harsher than we will ever have to experience. And they did so without any pharmaceutical drugs, but by only using the natural plant materials they found in their environment.
How much Scientific Research has been done?
Scientists have already found antiviral, antibacterial, anti-fungal, antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, and many more properties in different essential oils.
Due to their complex chemistry and range of properties, it will take a long time for us to fully understand them.
However, considering that the scientific study of oils basically halted about two centuries ago and is now being picked up again, we have found out quite a bit already: Their antibacterial properties are already being used in food conservation, Tea tree oil has been identified as an effective treatment for acne, Melissa oil has been concluded to be a safe and effective treatment for agitation in people with severe dementia, Bergamot oil could be used for preservation, as an alternative to chemical-based bactericides, to combat the growth of common causes of food poisoning - just to name a few studies I found.
Most of the studies are quite small-scale and one could certainly argue that they are not conclusive. Like I wrote earlier, it will take us some time and effort to fully understand them and give them the Western Scientific seal of approval.
Nonetheless, essential oils are also not as 'alternative' as some might think they are. Commercial and widely-used products have incorporated the healing properties of essential oils; Vicks vapour rub for example uses (among a few other oils) Eucalyptus oil in their formula as a cough suppressant.
But how do they actually work?
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, behaviours, sense of smell, long-term memory. This would explain their mood-enhancing properties.
Their small molecular size means they are absorbed quickly. Nevertheless, the rate and extend of absorption, as well as healing, depends on method of use, as well as a person's size, diet and genetics.
Some essential oils act as metabolic regulators, or adaptogens, which means their reactions affect the autonomic nervous system, the endocrine system, and blood pressure, depending on body's need. One example of this is peppermint oil, which can both a relaxant, as well as a stimulant.
Essential Oils in my Life
I first came across essential oils at a market in London, where a lady had a little stand to promote her oils. It was the beginning of summer, the time where I am mostly plagued with hay fever symptoms, such as a blocked nose and watering and itchy eyes. The lady gave me three samples - lavender, peppermint and lemon and told me to either inhale the blend or rub it into the soles of my feet, which I did regularly the following weeks.
Now I'd be lying if I said this cured my hay fever, or that my symptoms vanished completely. But the fact is that since I have started using essential oils, I don't depend on my antihistamines anymore. I still react to pollen, but much less than before, plus when I do get a blocked nose, inhaling the blend gives me an almost instant relief. I have also started to treat things, like colds, period cramps and headaches with essential oils and again, they're mostly not instant pain-killers, but they never fail to improve my condition.
Of course this could all be a placebo effect (which would mean that my body speeds up the healing process itself without any intervention, which is an even more exciting option) but the fact is that thanks to trying this alternative treatment, I can bypass the side effects of antihistamine tablets or pain killers and keep my system synthetic-drug-free.
And that's not even all - I use essential oils in my skin- and hair care, some for cleaning, and others every now and then as a perfume alternative.
With synthetic chemicals all around us, I am happily reducing my exposure to them as much as I can.
I have found so many uses for these little oils and it almost feels like a step closer to nature every time I have them around, so yes, - for me - essential oils do work.
Do you want to try out essential oils for yourself? Send me a message on Instagram or Facebook and I'll share how you can get the Young Living Starter Kit at wholesale price (which saves you more than 40£!) and get access to our 700+ strong Thrive Tribe community, where we share DIY recipes, our favourite oils and blends, as well as their benefits, and much more!
The Complete Book of Essential Oils and Aromatherapy - Valerie Ann Worwood