An essential oil is a liquid extracted from plants with the tendency to vaporize, also known as volatile oils. Essential oils have been used in folk medicine throughout history, with the first recorded mention of their production being by chemist, pharmacist, and physician Ibn al-Baitar in the 12th century.
Essential oils can be extracted extracted from a plant’s leaves, flowers, roots, barks, seeds or peels — the cells that give plants their fragrance. In essence, an oil is considered “essential” because it’s derived from the “essence” of the particular plant’s fragrance, resulting in a strong aromatic property.
Essential oils are distilled, often using a method involving steam, and are different than fatty oils in that they do not leave a stain when evaporated. Common essential oils include lavender, peppermint, eucalyptus, bergamot, cedarwood, lemon, chamomile, orange and tea tree oil. You’ll often find essential oils in common household products, such as perfumes, makeup, soaps, antiseptics, and other products; they’re used to flavor the foods we eat and beverages we drink, and are often used to add aroma to candles, various incense and everyday cleaning products.
Due to their ascribed healing effects, essential oils and aromatic compounds are commonly used in aromatherapy, a form of alternative medicine. According to some researchers, “Using the active compounds in essential oils in low concentrations and inhaling the vapors of these oils are normally safe for most people”.
To get the therapeutic benefits from essential oils, they’re often inhaled or rubbed on the skin when combined with a diluent, like coconut oil. Essential oil diffusers are frequently used to scent the air, continually filling a room with therapeutic aromatic vapors. Some research has shown mood improvements when lemon essential oils were diffused in hospitals. And according to the NIH, Tea Tree Oil has shown significant promise in the treatment of acne. In one study, Tea Tree Oil worked almost as well as a prescription acne medication, and showed substantially fewer negative side effects.
According to Dr. Wolfgang Steflitsch, a chest physician at Otto Wagner Hospital in Vienna, and vice president of the Austrian Association of Aromatherapy and Aroma Care,“there is some high-quality evidence that essential oils are effective in treating viral, bacterial, fungal and parasitic infections, and in providing relief from sleep difficulties and pain”. Dr. Stetflitsch also says that certain oils may result in improvements to mood, such as anxiety, depression, and a reduction in stress.
Most promising, multiple reputable studies have provided evidence that essential oils can be highly effective in treating viral, bacterial, fungal and parasitic infections, as well as helping those with sleep difficulties and pain.
While additional research is ongoing, preliminary studies show that peppermint oil may be effective in treating irritable bowel syndrome, and many use the oil as a decongestant for stuffy or runny noses, as well as to aid in alleviating muscle pain.
Many claim essential work by activating smell receptors in the nasal passages, sending messages through the nervous system to the brain. For example, oils with stress reducing properties may activate the limbic system, which is involved in managing emotions. Others may impact the hypothalamus, which when reached by the oils, increase the production of feel-good chemicals like serotonin.
Aromatherapy is not a replacement for traditional medical treatments, but there is some evidence to support therapeutic benefits when added in combination with other modalities.
The use of essential oils in general is considered safe. Keep in mind, however, that some essential oils may cause side effects. Some people have reported irritation of the eyes, skin, or mucous membranes in the nose. And some people have reported mild allergic reactions.
Ingesting certain oils can cause kidney or liver problems, so if you intend to ingest essential oils or take them by mouth, it’s important to first consult your doctor. Unlike traditional medications, essential oils are not regulated by the FDA, meaning there is no agency verifying their safety and/or efficacy. That said, many people have found relief by experimenting with these natural substances.
At Davis Islands Pharmacy, we take a holistic approach to your well-being. While the research is out on the use of specific essential oils as complementary treatments for various ailments, we stock high quality oils and diffusers for you to choose from. As always, consult with your doctor about safety of oils you’re considering. And do your research, as we continue to monitor the research on our end.