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essential oil revolution

Listen to Dr. Neal address this topic on Episode 170 of the podcast Optimal Health Daily.

Essential oils are definitely big business right now. The way they’re marketed, it seems as though many of our common ailments can be relieved or cured altogether by these! But is that really the case? Let’s discuss…

What Does Essential Mean?

Before I go any further, I need to mention something about what “essential” can mean. When we’re talking about food, a nutrient that is called essential simply means that our bodies cannot make that nutrient on its own. For example, our bodies can make many, but not all, of its own proteins, so we don’t really need to consume all forms of protein all the time. But there are some proteins that our bodies cannot make, and these would be considered essential. Think of it this way: it’s essential we get these nutrients from our diet.

The History of Essential Oils

“Essential oils” is confusing because it means something different altogether. This is actually an abbreviated form of the term “quintessential oils.” Back in the days of ancient Greece, the philosophers at the time believed that all of life was made of 4 elements:

  • fire
  • air
  • earth
  • water

Side note: These last two may sound familiar if you’re a big fan of the movie 300 –the Persian messenger asks Leonidas for a “token of surrender”: earth and water.

The fifth element, known as quintessence, was more abstract. It was thought to be the living thing’s spirit. It was believed you could remove the “spirit of the plant” by extracting its essential oils using distillation and evaporation. (A similar process is used to make some forms of alcohol – hence the term “distilled spirits.”) Sorry for the history lesson. I’m such a nerd, I love stuff like this.

Anyhoo…

When we’re discussing essential oils, we’re referring to the process of pulling out the fat compounds from plants through distillation and evaporation. Essential oils can come from a number of different plants:

  • peppermint
  • eucalyptus
  • coconut
  • lavender… you name it

How to Consume Essential Oils

Each has its own special purpose. Some have been used as natural pesticides. Others have been added to foods because of their ability to prevent food from spoiling. In the case of essential oils being used to prevent food from spoiling, this use has been approved by governmental agencies in the U.S.

Other countries have approved the use of essential oils for this purpose as well. For example, citrus and cumin oils are safe to use with food, but should NOT be applied to the skin. But there are some oils should only be used on the skin (applied topically) and not ingested. There are still others that can be safely inhaled (think: aromatherapy), but should not be ingested or applied topically.

It is very important to understand that not all essential oils should be consumed by mouth. There are a select few that are ok, but others can be poisonous.

Uses of Essential Oils

Now I have to respond to whether we should bother using them at all. In the past, essential oils have been used to relieve:

  • indigestion
  • joint pain
  • stress
  • fatigue, and lots more

Research on Essential Oils

Unfortunately, most of the research on essential oils focuses on their use in aromatherapy. By inhaling some of these plant-based essential oils, the brain begins to send signals via the nervous system to other parts of the brain and out to the body. As a result, the response may be the release of “good-feeling” hormones (called endorphins) which may lead to a person feeling more relaxed, may remove feelings of pain, and put the individual in a better mood overall. But depending on the oil used, the brain and body may respond in different ways altogether.

I will mention some conditions here and the type of aromatherapy that research has shown to possibly be helpful:

Essential Oils For Anxiety and Stress

  • basil
  • lavender
  • sweet orange
  • geranium

Essential Oils For Fatigue

  • grapefruit
  • coriander
  • black peppermint
  • spearmint
  • ginger
  • rosemary

Essential Oils For Insomnia

  • lemon
  • mandarin
  • sweet orange
  • cumin
  • lavender
  • basil
  • sweet thyme

Essential Oils For Mental Exhaustion or Burnout

  • peppermint
  • basil

Essential Oils For Pain Management

  • lavender
  • rosemary
  • ginger

When it comes to treating certain conditions with essential oils, the research is promising, but by no means definitive. For example, some published studies have found that peppermint oil may help relieve symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). But there are only a few of these studies and their research design wasn’t all that great.

Some studies have found that using essential oils as a form of aromatherapy may help with certain conditions like anxiety, but again these weren’t well-designed studies.

Best Essential Oil Brands

Quality can be an issue, as well, depending on the brand. Right now, I can’t say whether one brand is better than the other. This is because there isn’t a reputable essential oil purity database that I would feel comfortable recommending. There just aren’t enough studies for one to exist.

Is Aromatherapy with Essential Oils Safe?

When used in this form, essential oils are generally safe. The most common problems folks experience when using them essential oils are eye, mucous membrane, and skin irritation. Unfortunately, though, I don’t know of a study that can tell us whether aromatherapy is best, or applying essential oils on the skin, or ingesting them. If you are looking for some relief from a particular condition, try using the suggestions I provided above and see if aromatherapy helps. If you start to sneeze or your eyes to start to become watery or itchy, put the cap back on the essential oil bottle, open a window and leave the room for a while. If you want to apply some on your skin, talk to your doctor first. Or better yet, a dermatologist (skin doctor). If you want get some of these essential oils in your diet, I would stay away from supplementing with them at this time. Instead, incorporate natural herbs and spices into your cooking.

For example, next time you make cranberry sauce for the holidays, toss in some orange and citrus peel. These naturally contain essential oils. Having some asparagus with dinner, add some dill to your dipping sauce. Having a vegetable smoothie? Toss in some lemongrass. Caraway, cherry, and black pepper are also safe to use when cooking.

Many of these ingredients sound familiar, right? This is because many of us get plenty of essential oils in our diet.

Where we really need more research is when we try to determine dosage… how much is beneficial, and how we consume them. Hopefully we’ll have an answer in the near future.

Listen to Dr. Neal address this topic on Episode 170 of the podcast Optimal Health Daily.

mm

Neal Malik

Dr. Neal Malik leads the Master of Science in Nutrition for Wellness program and teaches core courses at Bastyr University California. He has a Doctorate in Public Health from Loma Linda University and is a Certified Exercise Physiologist from the American College of Sports Medicine. Send in your health related question and Dr. Neal will answer it on the Optimal Health Daily show!
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