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How Do Essential Oils Work?


Over the last ten years, essential oils have received substantial attention due in part to new companies selling them to the masses and to new research that is beginning to prove them to be highly effective therapeutic tools. Along with popularity has come a significant amount of misinformation from both folks who love oils and folks who are skeptical, to say the least. As an aromatherapist, I’m interested in essential oils as a therapeutic tool and especially in the science behind how essential oils work on, in, and around our bodies.


Essential oils are chemical compounds found in plants that are extracted using a physical process involving steam and then the separation of the water in the steam from the oils (this is distillation). Within plants, essential oils provide necessary biological functions like eliminating competitors in their environment, attracting pollinators, killing off viruses, and deterring pests and would-be predators. Plants synthesize water, nutrients from the soil, and carbon dioxide to make these chemicals within their leaves, fruits, stems, and roots.

The exciting thing about essential oils is that while they provide beneficial functions for plants, they can also be beneficial if used appropriately for our health as well. For example, geranial which is a chemical compound that makes up around 45% of lemongrass essential oil is just as effective in being antiviral and antifungal for the lemongrass plant as it is for us which is what makes it such an excellent natural cleaning agent. The complex combinations of all kinds of chemical compounds are what make essential oils such effective medicinal tools.


Essential oils can be used in our lives in four ways. We can use them via inhalation, topical application, ingestion, and in our environment. For use applied topically and ingested it’s very, very important that people either consult a certified aromatherapist or educate themselves thoroughly about dilution rates and always err on the side of caution. Inhalation or environmental uses are much more user-friendly and generally safer for the general public.


When we diffuse essential oils in a diffuser, use an inhaler, or even just smell the bottle we are utilizing our olfactory system to process the chemical compound found within the bottle. Our olfactory system relays information from the chemicals we interact with through our nose to our brain which will then act upon the information received. The olfactory centers of the brain are very strongly connected to our memories and to our nervous system and reproductive systems which is what allows essential oils to have an impact beyond just the respiratory system when we inhale them.


Ingesting essential oils allows us to process the chemical compounds in oils just as we would the chemicals in any medicine or food. This allows the oils to move through our digestive system and into our bloodstream as our body breaks them down into usable components.


Topical application allows essential oils to move through the lipid barrier in our skin into our bloodstream which means that topical applications, especially on pulse points or areas where veins and arteries are close to the skin, are a highly effective way to utilize essential oils. However, this is also one reason why topical application (along with ingestion) requires a deeper understanding of essential oils to use them safely.


As mentioned previously, essential oils can also be used in our environment to deter pests, clean away bacteria and viruses, and more!


It’s important to understand that each essential oil is composed of unique chemical compounds and has unique uses; not all essential oils are calming or antibacterial. In fact, there are relatively few traits that are shared across essential oils. The other critical thing to understand about essential oils is that they are highly concentrated. For example, to ingest the equivalent of one drop of peppermint essential oil you would need to drink 28 cups of peppermint tea. The distillation process requires large amounts of plant fiber. The amount of oil distilled from each plant changes depending on the plant, the season of harvest, and the location but the weight of the plant fiber is always substantially more than the weight of the oil that can be extracted via distillation.


If you’re interested in learning more about essential oils get my free diffuser recipe e-book here. As with any therapeutic tool or natural health alternative, it’s important to educate yourself fully before you dive into using essential oils.



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