Essential oils work mainly using one of our greatest senses. Smell. Even though we rely mostly on sight and sound, you can easily block those senses by closing your eyes or plugging your ears. It’s impossible to turn off your sense of smell unless you figure out an alternative to breathing. That’s nature telling you to be keenly aware of the chemicals around you.
As our oldest group of senses, chemosensation; smell, taste, and touch, is actually the earliest form of communication we have. In many ways, this is the same for plants as they produce volatile oils to communicate with the world around them as well. Sadly there isn’t yet a lot of academic research or clinical studies on the function and effects of essential oils or how their communication works in layman’s terms, however, we can still see the main effects, such as sweet smells for pollination. And so, we are able to piece together a good description of how essential oils work and how they can potentially benefit us.
When we use essential oils topically or via a diffuser, they are absorbed through the skin or lungs. They enter our bodily fluids and are distributed evenly throughout our body, where their chemical constituents can easily interact with other bodily systems.
In their simplest form, essential oils are made up of tiny molecules and therefore can more easily pass through the dermal layers of the skin. This allows for a direct path into the bloodstream, the ability to cross the blood-brain barrier, and have a fast and effective absorption into the cell membrane. In layman’s terms, they have a fast absorption rate.
As well, each oil has a unique chemical composition of terpenes, esters, oxides, alcohols, phenols, ketones, and aldehydes. These components not only interact with bodily systems but also supports them. For example, lavender essential oil has 40% linalyl acetate, which is an ester. Spend some time researching the properties of this and it makes sense to take advantage of these properties by using lavender essential oils for occasional sleeplessness.
When we look deeper into this, we notice that with the pleasant aromas of essential oils trigger our cilia and receptor cells in the olfactory organ which receives the smell and sends the signals to the limbic system of the brain, which just so happens to be the center of memory and emotion. It also is connected to areas of the brain that control blood pressure, heart rate, breathing, hormone balance, and more.
Looking back at lavender, it is quite often one of those smells that bring about positive memories in people. Feelings of comfort and support are often associated with smells of lavender, therefore it is this psychological trigger that brings about calmness and sleep.
Plants use their own oils as defense mechanisms that resist disease and prevent bugs and herbivores from eating or damaging them. These include sending out scents that alter heart rate, cause confusion, mess with hormones, or attract the herbivore’s predators. Take a quick look at the Venus Fly Trap as an example, it uses its scent to draw food closer. A qualified practitioner will help you harness these nuanced effects to your advantage. Keep in mind that not all oils are the same though, the integrity and handling of the oil also has an impact on their effectiveness.
Essential oils also contain a massive amount of terpenes, which is also known as hydrocarbons and found predominantly in plant species. These terpenes account for the vast majority of essential oil constituents. Currently, we can find that these are being researched, to see if their claims of protecting DNA, slowing tumor growth, lowering cholesterol, reducing blood pressure, and killing germs have any evidence behind them. This is such a highly debated topic that most major research facilities are currently working on establishing some sort of proof.
When a diffuser is used for essential oils, the molecules are inhaled through the nose, where tiny nerves send an immediate signal to the brain and go straight to work on the systems that moderate our minds and bodies. Inhalation is one of the most direct delivery methods of the components in essential oils since the chemical messengers in the nasal cavity have direct access to the brain.
As we previously mentioned, applying essential oils topically is also one of the fastest ways. This is due to the size of the molecules, which when essential oils are applied to the skin, they are absorbed into the bloodstream by the pores and hair follicles. Once inside the bloodstream, they disperse to the specific organs and systems on which they work. If you are looking for an even quicker absorption rate, ensure that you are applying them to one of the many pulse points of the body. These are the areas where blood vessels are closest to the skin’s surface. Such as the wrists, temples, and back of the neck.
Think about it like watering a plant: you hydrate the soil because that’s where the roots are to absorb the nutrients. You wouldn’t get the same effect if you just watered the leaves or flowers. This is the reason companies deliberately design essential oil blends to be most effective through a combination of inhalation and topical application.
The third way that essential oils enter the body is by ingestion. Caution though, oral ingestion of essential oils is not recommended unless you have spoken with an expert and purchased food grade essential oils. The general public avoids ingestion because a great deal of essential oils knowledge and expertise is necessary for safe practice. In fact, the ingestion of essential oils is not an overly common practice in American Countries. However, quite a few places in Europe, such as France, practice this more commonly as there are more specially trained physicians and pharmacists trained in this field.
A few reasons to air on the side of caution include the fact that some essential oils can be toxic to the liver or kidneys when ingested. When the chemicals of essential oils are broken down during the gastric processing, certain changes in the effects can occur. Keep in mind there could also be a potential drug interaction with drugs you are currently taking.
So you may be asking yourself, with all this information do they work?
The quick answer is, yes. However, much like the pharmaceutical world, there isn’t really a quick answer. Certain essential oils will work well for certain people. Quite a few have been known to have psychological reactions, such as the reliving pleasant memories. Many varieties of essential oils will likely help clean wounds and treat skin infections, but with anything else, once we venture into more serious medicinal remedies, we want to see more research before we make any definitive claims.
Some of the more clear-cut cases with the strongest evidence available currently indicate that essential oils can help with headaches, sleep quality, and even acne to a noticeable extent. While effects on anxiety, depression and other psychological health aspects currently still in the baby stages, as this could very well just be a placebo effect or on a per person case.
When you see claims saying that essential oils can help treat or cure cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, asthma or any other serious medical condition, keep in mind that these are most definitely exaggerated and unproven. Even if you google around and find articles claiming these to be true, ensure you speak to a physician and/or someone professional before making any drastic changes in your life.