By Dr. Mercola
Scents can have a powerful influence on your well-being. Aromatherapy, which uses concentrated essences of various botanicals, allows you to harness the olfactory power of plants for healing on many levels.
Essential oils carry biologically active volatile compounds in a highly concentrated form that can provide therapeutic benefits in very small amounts.
Quality is of the essence here. First of all, what we're talking about here is pure, therapeutic grade essential oils from plants, NOT synthetic fragrance oils or perfumes, which can be toxic and typically contain allergenic compounds.
But even among essential oils, the quality can vary widely and assessing the quality of any given brand can be difficult, as factors such as growing conditions and methods of harvesting, distillation, manufacture, and storage can all affect the final product.
The University of Minnesota1 offers some helpful guidance regarding international standard-setting agencies and considerations to take into account when looking for an essential oil.
One of the most important considerations is to look for a statement of purity. What you're looking for is 100% essential oil (meaning it has not been diluted, altered, or mixed with anything else). Price can be a tipoff. If it's really cheap, it's probably a reflection of poor quality.
There are hundreds and many thousands of essential oils available if you factor in combinations. Each have their own potential benefits. The oils tend to work synergistically, and using a combination of oils often creates a more powerful effect than any one individual oil.
There are many ways to use essential oils for health and well-being, and the featured article2 lists no less than 25 ways to enjoy them. But first, let's address the question of whether or not they actually have a biological effect, and if so, how.
Scents Can Alter Your Nervous System
When you inhale the fragrance of an essential oil, the aroma penetrates your bloodstream via your lungs,3 and this is thought to be one of the mechanisms by which aromatherapy exerts its physiological effects. Essential oils are also easily absorbed through your skin when applied topically.
The fragrance also affects the limbic system in your brain, which controls both memories and emotions. Many essential oils have antibacterial, antifungal, and/or antiviral qualities, and contrary to antibiotics, essential oils do not promote resistance.4
Modern scientists are not only finding compelling links between scents and human behavior,5 scents can actually influence the biochemistry of your nervous system.
This was shown in a 2002 Japanese study,6 which found that certain oils would stimulate sympathetic nervous system activity whereas others would calm it. (Your sympathetic nervous system modulates processes such as your heart rate, blood vessel constriction, and blood pressure.)
- Black pepper, fennel, and grapefruit oil caused a 1.5- to 2.5-fold increase in sympathetic nervous system activity (as measured by an increase in systolic blood pressure)
- Rose and patchouli oil resulted in a 40 percent decrease in sympathetic nervous system activity
- Pepper oil induced a 1.7-fold increase in plasma adrenaline concentration
- Rose oil caused adrenaline to drop by 30 percent
Lavender and Jasmine Help Uplift Your Mood
Another study8 published in Phytomedicine in 2010 found that an orally administered lavender oil preparation (Silexan) was as effective as the drug Lorazepam for the treatment of generalized anxiety disorder. According to the authors:
"Since lavender oil showed no sedative effects in our study and has no potential for drug abuse, silexan appears to be an effective and well tolerated alternative to benzodiazepines for amelioration of generalized anxiety."
Other research9 has concluded the essential oil of jasmine can also uplift mood and counteract symptoms of depression. The authors noted that:
"Compared with placebo, jasmine oil caused significant increases of breathing rate, blood oxygen saturation, and systolic and diastolic blood pressure, which indicated an increase of autonomic arousal.
At the emotional level, subjects in the jasmine oil group rated themselves as more alert, more vigorous, and less relaxed than subjects in the control group. This finding suggests an increase of subjective behavioral arousal.
In conclusion, our results demonstrated the stimulating/activating effect of jasmine oil and provide evidence for its use in aromatherapy for the relief of depression and uplifting mood in humans."
How Terpenes in Essential Oils Benefit Your Health
An article in Healthy Holistic Living10 discusses some of the components giving essential oils their therapeutic benefits. For example, some essential oils have tremendous antioxidant capacities.
According to this article, one ounce of clove oil has an antioxidant capacity equivalent to 450 pounds of carrots. Essential oils also contain three different types of terpenes, each with its own set of benefits:
- Phenylpropanoids have antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral activity. As noted in the article,11 "phenylpropanoids clean the receptor sites on the cells.
Without clean receptor sites, cells cannot communicate, and the body malfunctions, resulting in disease." Oils that contain this type of terpene include: clove, cassia, basil, cinnamon, oregano, anise, and peppermint.
- Monoterpenes, which are found in most essential oils, help "reprogram miswritten information in the cellular memory," according to the featured article.
- Sesquiterpenes help deliver oxygen to your tissues, which makes it more difficult for viruses, bacteria, and even cancer cells, to survive. Essential oils that contain sesquiterpenes include cedarwood, vetiver, spikenard, sandalwood, black pepper, patchouli, myrrh, ginger, and frankincense.
Essential Oils for Common Maladies
There are probably as many uses for aromatherapy as there are essential oils, but research shows particular promise in relieving stress, stabilizing your mood, improving sleep, pain and nausea relief, and improving your memory and energy level.
To give you an idea of the versatility of aromatherapy, the following table lists some of the therapeutic uses of several oils for a few of today's most common complaints.12 As you can see, there are some real "multitaskers," like lavender and peppermint, which can be used to treat more than one problem.13
Complaint Essential Oils Stress Lavender, lemon, bergamot, peppermint, vetiver, pine, and ylang ylang Insomnia Lavender,14 chamomile, jasmine, benzoin, neroli, rose, sandalwood, sweet marjoram, and ylang ylang (avoid lemon, which has an invigorating effect15) Anxiety Lavender, bergamot, rose, clary sage, lemon, Roman chamomile, orange, sandalwood, rose-scented geranium, and pine16 Pain Lavender, chamomile, clary sage, juniper, eucalyptus, rosemary, peppermint, lavender, and green apple (especially for migraines) Nausea and vomiting Mint, ginger, lemon, orange, ginger, dill, fennel, chamomile, clary sage, and lavender Memory and attention Sage, peppermint,17 and cinnamon Low energy Black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, clove, angelica, jasmine, tea tree, rosemary, sage, and citrus
How to Use Essential Oils
Some of the most common ways to use essential oils include:
- Massaging them (blended with a carrier oil) into your skin
- Adding them to bathwater
- Using them in a hot compress
- Heating them in a diffuser
- Rubbing a drop onto pulse points in lieu of perfume
But that's really just the beginning. There are many creative uses for essential oils. Here's a sampling of the 25 uses listed by the Epoch Times.18 For the full list, please see the original article.
Cleaning sprays and room deodorizers Making your own cleaning supplies and room deodorizers using essential oils is an excellent alternative to commercial products that may contain any number of hazardous chemicals. For example, for a homemade cleaning scrub with antibacterial activity, simply add a few drops of lavender or tea tree oil to baking soda.
Using a glass grated-cheese container with a stainless steel top that has holes in it makes it easy to sprinkle the baking soda on the surfaces. In lieu of commercial room deodorizers, you can either use an aromatherapy diffuser, or add a few drops of your favorite essential oil to water in a spray bottle.
Freshen laundry Dryer sheets are notoriously toxic, emitting more than 600 volatile organic compounds (VOCs) through your dryer vent. You can easily freshen your laundry without risking your family's health simply by spritzing your wet laundry with a mix of water and a few drops of essential oil before placing it in the dryer. Alternatively, add a dozen or so drops to an old wool sock, and put it in the dryer with your laundry. Therapeutic steam baths To deep clean pores, add a few drops of lavender or eucalyptus to hot water in your sink, then lean over it with a towel draped over your head to capture the steam. This will also help unclog your sinuses if you have a cold. Alternatively, close the drain in your shower and add some eucalyptus essential oils to the pooled water on the floor of the tub to create a soothing steam. Customized lotions and soap Synthetic fragrances are a source of allergies, but you can easily customize your own soaps and lotions by adding a few drops of your favorite essential oil to an unscented brand. Combat pimples Tea tree oil, which has potent antibacterial activity, can help dry out pimples. Facial toner Make your own facial toner by adding a couple of drops of your favorite essential oil to distilled water in a misting bottle. Insect repellents Cotton balls soaked in peppermint oil is said to deter insects and rodents. The following essential oils also make excellent bug repellents in lieu of DEET and other chemical repellents:
- Cinnamon leaf oil (one study found it was more effective at killing mosquitoes than DEET19)
- Clear liquid vanilla extract20 mixed with olive oil
- Wash with citronella soap, and then put some 100 percent pure citronella essential oil mixed with a carrier oil on your skin. Java Citronella is considered the highest quality citronella on the market
- Catnip oil (according to one study, this oil is 10 times more effective than DEET)21
- Lemon eucalyptus was found very effective in a 2014 Australian study;22 a mixture of 32 percent lemon eucalyptus oil provided more than 95 percent protection for three hours, compared to a 40 percent DEET repellent that gave 100 percent protection for seven hours
Aromatherapy can be a beneficial adjunct to your overall health plan. It's not a replacement for wise lifestyle choices like good nutrition and exercise, but it can certainly help enhance your physical and emotional health. Aromatherapy is one more tool you can keep in your tool bag for managing everyday stress, balancing out mood swings and improving your sleep for example.
Essential oils are also a great addition to many of your homemade beauty and cleaning products, adding both scent and antibacterial qualities. Whether you seek out a trained aromatherapist or adopt a DIY approach, the following are a few resources you might find useful.
- National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA):23 Everything about the medicinal use of aromatic plants and the holistic practice of aromatherapy
- Aroma Web:24 A directory of aromatherapy information, tips, recipes, sources, including a regional aromatherapy business directory
- American Botanical Council:25 Herbal medicine information that includes an herb library and clinical guide to herbs
- Herb Med:26 Interactive electronic herb database (some information is free, but full access requires a fee)
- I also offer further information on 57 different oils in my Ultimate Guide to Herbal Oils