What Are Essential Oils?
Essential oils are concentrated, aromatic liquids extracted from plants through various methods, such as distillation, cold pressing, or solvent extraction. They are called “essential” oils because they contain the essence, or the concentrated fragrance and properties, of the plant they were extracted from. Essential oils are commonly used in aromatherapy, as well as in cosmetics and perfumes. They are believed to have various health benefits, including reducing stress and anxiety, improving sleep quality, boosting the immune system, and relieving pain and inflammation.
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Essential Oils Through the Ages
Essential oils have been used for thousands of years for medicinal, spiritual, and cosmetic purposes. Ancient Egyptians used essential oils for embalming, healing, and religious ceremonies. Ancient Greeks and Romans used essential oils for healing and aromatherapy.
In the Middle Ages, essential oils were used for medicinal purposes, and in the Renaissance, they were used for perfumery. In the late 19th early 20th century, essential oils were used in the development of modern aromatherapy.
Today, essential oils are used in a variety of ways, including aromatherapy, massage, and natural remedies.
The Health Benefits of Essential Oils
There is a lot of research on essential oils, mostly due to the progress of technology which allows us to better understand their complex composition and therefore their potential.
The main areas of interest are:
1. Antimicrobial Activity
Essential oils have been studied for their potential to inhibit the growth of bacteria, fungi, and viruses. For instance, tea tree oil is known for its antibacterial and antifungal properties, and it has been demonstrated to be effective against a variety of common pathogens such as E. coli, Staphylococcus aureus, and Candida albicans. Essential oils like eucalyptus, thyme, and oregano have also shown similar antimicrobial activities.
Certain essential oils, such as eucalyptus and tea tree oil, have demonstrated antiviral activity in vitro, mainly against enveloped viruses. The oils may interfere with the virus’s ability to penetrate and infect host cells, but the exact mechanism of action is not fully understood.
2. Neuroprotective Effects
Essential oils have been studied for their potential to protect the brain from damage caused by oxidative stress and inflammation. For example, lemon balm contains rosmarinic acid and other compounds that have antioxidant properties, which can help protect neurons from oxidative stress, a key factor in neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s disease.
Essential oils have also been studied for their potential to reduce stress and anxiety. For instance, lavender oil is well-known for its calming properties, and several studies suggest it might be beneficial for neurological disorders such as anxiety and depression.
3. Cardiovascular Health
Essential oils have been studied for their potential to reduce blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and to improve heart health. Garlic oil has been shown to have anti-atherosclerotic effects in animal models, meaning it may help prevent the buildup of plaque in the arteries, a major risk factor for heart disease. It has also been found to help lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels in some studies.
Other oils, like frankincense, have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Inflammation and oxidative stress can damage blood vessels and contribute to heart disease, so compounds that reduce inflammation and oxidative stress could theoretically be beneficial for cardiovascular health.
4. Immune system
Some essential oils have been found to have immune-stimulating properties. In vitro studies have shown that tea tree oil can increase the activity of white blood cells, which are crucial for fighting off infections.
Similarly, eucalyptus oil contains compounds such as eucalyptol (also known as 1,8-cineole), which exhibits anti-inflammatory and immune-stimulating effects. Research has suggested that eucalyptus oil can enhance the immune response, potentially through its antioxidant properties and its ability to stimulate phagocytic cell activity, a critical part of the immune response against pathogens.
Oregano oil is another essential oil noted for its immune-stimulating properties. Carvacrol, one of the main compounds in oregano oil, has been shown to have antimicrobial activity against various bacteria, and it’s also thought to boost the immune system.
5. Pain Management
How to Use essential Oils Safely
Essential oils are highly concentrated and therefore shouldn’t be used undiluted directly on the skin. Instead, they need to be diluted in carrier oil, fragrance free lotion or cream. The degree of dilution depends on the specific oil, its intended use as well as other factors, such as the individual’s age, skin sensitivities and overall health.
For adults, a 2% dilution is usually safe. This means adding 12 drops of essential oil per 30 ml of carrier oil.
The internet is frequently used for reference; however, you should try to prioritise scientific and evidence-based information over content from commercial websites. There are some excellent books for reference, unfortunately not available in Thailand; they are also rather expensive but worth the investment all the way.
Here are a few recommended books on the subject of essential oils:
- Tisserand, R., Young, R. Essential Oil safety: A Guide For Healthcare Professionals. Churchill Livingstone, 2013.
- Schnaubelt, K. The Healing Intelligence of Essential Oils. Healing Arts Press, 2011.
- Lawless, J. The Encyclopedia of Essential Oils. Red Wheel, 2013.
- Franchomme, P., Penoel, D. L’aromathérapie Exactement. Roger Jollois, 1990.
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