“In all things of nature, there is something of the marvelous” – Aristotle
Essential oils certainly fit the above description as we hope you will agree after reading this article.
What is Aromatherapy?
Aromatherapy has been described as the science and art of using the scent of flowers, plants, herbs, and spices to revitalize and heal the mind and body. In this system of healing, the volatile substances of aromatic plants are considered to be their concentrated essence and to contain their healing properties.
Though called oils, these aromatic healing oils are neither oily nor greasy. They are obtained from the flowers, fruits, leaves, bark, wood, and roots of the plants, which are collected during different times and seasons. Their scent and purity can depend on the weather and time of picking. Obviously, oil obtained from plants grown in a natural environment will be better in quality and purity than those grown in a polluted environment where the pollutants could affect the oil and even cause harm.
Background and History of Essential Oils
Aromatherapy is deeply rooted in the ancient civilizations of India, China and Egypt, as well as in Greece and Rome.
Even today, in the traditional Indian therapeutic system of Ayurveda, massages with different oils are used for detoxification and the healing of a variety of ills. These treatments are highly effective and popular, and have spread to other parts of the world.
Reference to the use of essential oils in Egypt for medicinal, cosmetic, and embalming purposes go back to 4500 B.C. and possibly earlier. Ancient hieroglyphics depict Egyptians burning oils to the gods, frankincense to the sun, and myrrh to the moon. Cleopatra, who is said to have known of the various properties of these oils, bathed in jasmine scented water and had her floors strewn with a carpet of rose petals. Since the oils of both these flowers are aphrodisiacs, poor old Mark Antony didn’t stand a chance!
In China the Yellow Emperor’s “Classic of Internal Medicine” written in about 2650 B.C. contains references to oil therapy, which probably goes back much further in time.
Gradually the knowledge of precious oils spread to Arabia, Greece, and Rome, where they were much valued for their perfumes and used in festive rituals. In the eleventh century A.D., the Persian physician, Avicenna, in his work “The Canon of Medicine” also refers to the healing properties of these oils.
The Crusaders brought the oils back to Europe during the Middle Ages where they helped mask the odor of “the great unwashed” among other uses!
Doctors treating plague victims in Europe wore masks filled with spices, including cloves and cinnamon, which modern research has shown to be antiviral, antibacterial, and antifungal. Virtually the entire town of Bucklersbury in England was spared from the plague and historians believe this is because it was the center of the European lavender trade. In Athens, Hippocrates dealt with the plague by fumigating the whole city with the aromatic essences of plant oils!
In the 1920s, Rene Maurice Gattefosse showed that essential oils were able to penetrate the skin and reach the inner organs via the blood and lymph systems. His examination of the antimicrobial effects of the oils led to the development of the modern system of aromatherapy.
Since then, the oils have been well researched for their therapeutic effects, including those on the nervous system, in France, Italy and other parts of Europe with very positive results. Dr. Jean Valnet, who was very influenced by Gattefosse, used the oils as an antiseptic in the treatment of wounds. As the oils have been shown to have a remarkable effect on mental and nervous symptoms, he also used them effectively on mentally disturbed patients. In 1964 he published what is now considered the classic textbook on the subject – “The Practice of Aromatherapy.” This work led to aromatherapy being pharmacologically recognized in France and Switzerland.
How are Essential Oils Obtained?
Among the methods of extracting essential oils, the common one is by distillation where steam is passed over the leaves or flowers in a vacuum or under pressure to vaporize the oils. The steam then cools and condenses the oils, which separate from the water for easy collection.
Higher quality oils such as rose and jasmine are treated by a process known as enfleurage in which they are spread on a tray lined with oil and left till the oil is saturated with the perfume. This can take between 6 to 72 hours. The process is then repeated and the aromatic substance is separated from the oil with a solvent before being purified. This method produces a superior quality and more costly oil.
Pressing involves simple pressure by hand or machine and is often used for citrus fruits where the oil is squeezed from the rind.
The Properties of Different Oils
Different oils possess different properties some being natural antiseptics and others natural antibiotics, antivirals, anti-inflammatory, diuretics, anti-spasmodic, and expectorants. Some stimulate while others act as sedatives.
The natural chemicals extracted by distillation include alcohols, aldehydes, cetones, sequesterpenes, terpenes, esters, and ethers, and it is these substances that have the therapeutic qualities.
How do Essential Oils Work?
Like so many other traditional natural therapies, essential oils work on balancing mind and body by relaxing both, increasing vitality, improving circulation, naturally boosting the immune system, and contributing to a “feeling good” state of mind.
It is believed that some oils have a special affinity for a particular organ and that cellular intelligence takes the appropriate oil to where it is needed. Any excess oil is eliminated from the system through excretory channels. The oils remain in the body for a number of hours and set up a healing process that can last for several days.
The oils work in two ways. Through our sense of smell they immediately affect the autonomic nervous system and the hormonal system which govern our emotions and heart rate, stress reaction, and memory. So, different oils can bring about changes in our state of mind and therefore in our reaction to stress.
The other way in which the oils work is by entering the body and the blood stream through the lungs, in the case of inhalation, and through the skin as result of bathing, compresses, and massage. Blood circulation transports the oils to all the organs, which benefit from their therapeutic effects.
Recent Medical Findings on Essential Oils
According to Dr. Friedmann (1995), essential oils help relieve migraine headaches and mental fatigue; reduce arthritic pain and inflammation; clean the gallbladder; heal burns, cuts, and infected wounds; release liver toxins; and clear up acne among other benefits. Some oils alleviate insomnia and anxiety; lower cholesterol naturally; and relieve PMS symptoms.
In an article in Advances, a publication of the Fetzer Institute, Keith Black (MD), well known in the field of oncology, writes about the chemo-preventative activity of limonene (a moncyclic monoterpene found in the essential oils of citrus fruits, spices, and herbs). This helps in hepatic detoxification of carcinogens and increased carcinogenic excretion. Limonene may also block tumor promotion and progression and promote the complete regression of mammary carcinomas by the induction of programmed death of cancer cells (apoptosis).
Ongoing studies in the U.K. are researching the promising possibilities of limonene in lemon oil in the treatment of advanced cancer. In fact, new emerging evidence points to significant anti-tumor and possibly anti-cancer properties of essential oils.
Frankincense oil has an ancient history of medicinal use. A study in Biomed Central Journal of Complimentary and Alternative Medicine (March 2009) concludes that frankincense oil can distinguish cancerous from normal bladder cells and suppresses cancer cell viability, even inducing bladder cancer cell death. It could therefore be used as an alternative bladder cancer treatment.
Sweet linalool is an aromatic found in many floral and sweeter spice essential oils. Linalool from the oil of coriander was found in study to completely eradicate the Hep G2 liver cancer cell line when used in very low concentrations.
A number of studies point to sandalwood oil preventing tumor development and some European studies have shown that it significantly reduces the formation of skin cancer tumors. It has also been shown to significantly reduce tumor development in skin exposed to UVB radiation.
Thyme and oregano oils help protect human DNA strands from breaking when exposed to extreme oxidative stress. They also qualify as potential anti-cancer agents as DNA damage, by contributing to an abnormal cell life cycle, is a leading cause of cancer development.
Other spice essential oils that have been shown to have anti-cancer effects include ginger, turmeric, basil, garlic, and sage.
The oils have a positive effect on the immune system on a chemical level by boosting the efficiency of white blood cells and removing microbes from the body.
Further investigations will probably lead to more exciting discoveries of the healing potential of essential oils in the near future.
Some Popular Uses of Essential Oils
Some of the popular uses of essential oils are given below.
- Basil: has uplifting effects on depression and relieves headaches and migraines (not for pregnant women).
- Black pepper: stimulates circulation and is good for muscular aches and pains.
- Clove: a topical natural analgesic especially used for tooth ache.
- Eucalyptus: this is often used in combination with Peppermint and provides relief in colds and flu when inhaled in steam.
- Geranium: an antiseptic and diuretic.
- Jasmine and Rose: these are aphrodisiacs and mood enhancers as Cleopatra demonstrated!
- Lavender: a natural antiseptic and very effective in healing cuts and burns. It also calms and relaxes, helps with insomnia, soothes headaches and migraines, and is an anti-inflammatory.
- Tea Tree: has antimicrobial effects and is used topically. It is also an anti-fungal as is Thyme.
- Yarrow: use to reduce joint inflammation and relieve cold and influenza symptoms.
- Chamomile: inactivates toxins produced by bacteria.
- Lemon Balm, Eucalyptus, Ravensara Aromatica, and Niaouli: these are all antivirals.
- Anise and Carraway: have powerful digestive properties.
- Juniper: a well known diuretic.
- Citronella, Cinnamon and Geranium: these are all insect repellants.
- Lemon Balm, Valerian, Lavender and Citrus: have sedative properties.
Cautions and Contra-indications when Using Essential Oils
Because the oils are very concentrated and extremely potent, there are some cautions and contra-indications for their usage. We are listing some of these here, but you should always consult a trained professional aromatherapist and your physician before using the oils, especially if you are suffering from any serious medical conditions.
- Essential oils are contra-indicated if you are undergoing chemotherapy as they could reduce the cyto-toxic effects of the treatment. However, they can be used as an effective part of any cancer-preventative program.
- Because they are highly concentrated, the oils must be diluted in a carrier oil when applied topically.
- Chemical allergies can be caused by pesticides to which the plants may have been exposed. Adulterated oils can also cause problems depending on the adulterating substance used, so it is very important to get your oils from a reputed organization that sells pure organic oils.
- Though essential oils can also be used therapeutically on pets, some of them are toxic for animals, particularly cats. It is therefore advisable to ascertain which oils can be used on animals and which cannot.
- A child hormone specialist at Cambridge University noted that some of the oils, especially lavender and tea tree, can mimic estrogens so careful choices have to be made.
- Several oils are contra-indicated for pregnant and lactating women. An aromatherapist could advise you on which these are.
- Essential oils should never be ingested. Some oils such as eucalyptus can cause severe poisoning, and those of sage, hyssop, thuja, and cedar can cause liver damage and seizures. For this reason, all oils should be kept out of the reach of children and animals.
- Some oils can have negative interactions with conventional drugs. The topical use of methylsalicylate heavy oils such as sweet birch and wintergreen could cause hemorrhaging in users taking the anti-coagulant warfarin.
Consultations with both an aromatherapist and your physician should safeguard against any possible harmful effects and enable you to enjoy the healing effects of these wonderful oils.
How to Store Essential Oils
Essential oils should be stored in dark colored glass bottles to filter out ultraviolet light, and should never be left exposed to sunlight as this accelerates the process of oxidation. One should choose a cool dark place to keep them away from both heat and children. They can be refrigerated but the temperature settings should be between 5 and 10 degrees Celsius.
And so, as we have shown, essential oils are very potent healers and can become your lifelong friends on a fragrant healing journey. Bon voyage!
Please Note: To learn more about our recommended sources of fine quality, pure, and powerfully acting therapeutic oils – both single oils and pre-combined formulations for specific physical, mental, and emotional conditions - please see our page on Healing Essential Oils.
- The Ananda Apothecary. Essential Oils and Cancer: A Review of Published Scientific Studies. Accessed at http://www.anandaapothecary.com/aromatherapy-essential-oils-news/2009/08/essential-oils-and-cancer-review-of.html.
- Close, Jacquelyn R.A. Quote from Science and Medicine. Accessed at http://www.essentials4health.biz/resources/sci_quotes.shtml
- Hopkins, Cathy. 1991. The Joy of Aromatherapy: Sensual Remedies for Everyday Ailments. London, U.K.: Angus and Robertson
- Miller, Light. 1999. Ayurvedic Remedies for the Whole Family. Twin Lakes, U.S.A.: Lotus Press.
- Nature Helps. Therapeutic Properties of the Essential Oils. Accessed at http://www.nature-helps.com/infopage/engels/properties.htm
- Quinessence Aromatherapy. Storage of Essential Oils. Accessed at http://www.quinessence.com/essential_oil_storage_methods.htm
- Wikipedia. Aromatherapy. Accessed at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aromatherapy
Disclaimer: The information contained in this website is only intended to educate and inform our readers. It is in no way intended to provide medical advice or to diagnose or treat any disease. If you have a health problem, you should consult a healthcare practitioner before taking any substances for medicinal purposes.