A couple of winters ago, I started to experiment with essential oils for their health benefits, after reading a couple of interesting articles. I bought a diffuser, which works. I started off by getting 4 different oils and experimenting with them to aid with my chronic insomnia.
I can’t say that I found any silver bullets with the oils, but I am a believer and really do believe that they hold healing powers when administered by knowledgeable practitioners, of which I am not. I am more of a self-experimenter-bio-hacker! Anyhow, today’s article is about essential oils.
There is a great documentary called “Ancient Secrets of Essential Oils“that digs into the world of essential oils and the fascinating history of where they come from. It looks at oils from ancient Egypt to the times of Christ to how they were used during World War I and World War II, and how their modern resurgence is changing views on healthcare today.
Much of the information in this article comes from Dr. Sarah LoBisco – a naturopathic medical practitioner certified in functional medicine – who is an expert in this topic. Dr. LoBisco intelligently uses essential oils to tap into natural plant-based extracts in order to heal her patients, and also to help athletes gain a positive competitive edge in their respective sports.
Dr. LoBisco has said that “every person (extreme athlete to soccer mom to CEO) who wants to dial-in focus, amp the mind up for competitive edge, or even experience the crazy phenomenon that happens with something as simple as sniffing peppermint oil should be using essential oils as part of their daily routine.”
Essential Oils – Sciences and Biochemistry
According to Dr. LoBisco, essential oils are volatile secondary plant metabolites extracted from aromatic plant material by steam distillation or mechanical expression. Oils which are produced with the use of chemical solvents are not considered true essential oils due to the resulting alteration of chemical constituents from the solvent residues.
Plants produce powerful compounds in order to provide defense from infestations and to stimulate molecular pathways needed to thrive. Their constituents interact with cellular pathways to alter biochemical responses and optimize physiological function. Essential oils have been demonstrated to inhibit microbe growth, act as antioxidants, support hormones, and calm inflammation. These plant substances also provide an impact on our bodies and mind through their aromatic qualities alone. Research has demonstrated that odor can act as a stimulus that produces physiological changes, independent of psychological and memory-based associations of the smell.
Essential oils are absorbed easily into our system through the skin, ingestion and inhalation and are excreted quickly, mostly through the kidneys. As such, they have a very low toxicity profile, when used properly.
History of Aromatherapy
The use of aromatics goes back thousands of years. The general consensus of the start of aromatherapy is estimated to be between 3,000 – 6,000 years ago. According to some of the more cited websites, references, and authorities, essential oils used for various treatments has been recorded in early civilizations of Mesopotamia, China, India, Persia and ancient Egypt.
Modern technological advances allow us to have more concentrated and precise distillations of essential oils. However, historical research shows that elemental techniques for isolating the fragrant and volatile components were quite effective. For example, ancient Egypt is credited for extracting oils by infusion using rudimentary distillation techniques. Others believe distillation originates within Persia and India’s earliest history.
The most quoted use of essential oils during ancient times was during the Roman Empire within the New Testament. Hundreds of citations exist in the Bible of frankincense, cedar wood, hyssop, fir, and spikenard to heal physical ailments and enhance spirituality.
Modern Day Applications for Essential Oils
Cleaning the Air of Germs and Molds through Diffusion
Experiments have been conducted to see if the aerosol use of essential oils could alleviate some of the microbial causes of sick-building syndrome. Researchers have tested the oils from clove, lemon, cinnamon bark, eucalyptus and rosemary, and it was found that these did exhibit inhibition of certain microbes at various percentages.
These oils were tested for their antibacterial activity against Micrococcus luteus, Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Staphylococcus aureus bioaerosols. There was an 82% reduction in M. luteus bioaerosol, a 96% reduction in the P. aeruginosa bioaerosol, and a 44% reduction in the S. aureus bioaerosol following 10 min of exposure.
A 2005 field study found that certain blends of essential oils decreased “black mold.” In separate research, it was found that thyme oil is very effective against molds formation in damp dwellings, as it possesses a wide range spectrum of fungicidal activity.
Supporting Respiratory Function
Eucalyptus Oil is well known for its respiratory support via inhalation or oral route. A review article in Alternative Medicine Review states “application by either vapor inhalation or oral route provides benefit for both purulent and non-purulent respiratory problems, such as bronchitis, asthma, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). “
Other research has demonstrated that that the following bacteria were most susceptible to Eucalyptus – H. influenza, parinfluenzae, and S. maltophila followed by S. puneumonia. Cinnamon bark oil has also been shown to inhibit various infections.
Inhibiting Unwanted Microbes
One of the most famous uses, besides their aromatic applications, are essential oils ability to work against microbes. Essential oils antimicrobial effects are significant. Essential oils may be able to outsmart “resistant” organisms with more than one mechanism of action.
For instance, several studies have demonstrated oregano’s potential to prevent resistance by inhibiting biofilms. Another study tested the antimicrobial activity of the essential oils from clove and rosemary alone and in combination. Clove and rosemary essential oils clearly showed bactericidal and fungicidal destruction.
Cinnamon, clove, geranium, lemon, lime, orange and rosemary oils exhibited significant inhibitory effect. Cinnamon oil showed promising inhibitory activity even at low concentration, whereas aniseed, eucalyptus and camphor oils were least active against the tested bacteria.
Several studies have demonstrated essential oils ability to act as antioxidants. Essential oils can modulate oxidative stress, a big problem with excess exercise. This can be through modulating our own production of antioxidants as well as supplying secondary metabolites that protect cells from injury.
One of the most famous oils used for dental health is clove. An application of straight clove oil can prevent cavities. In fact, Dr. LoBisco advises most of her clients to put a drop of clove oil on their toothbrush a few times a week.
Many essential oils have been shown in various studies to prevent microbial infections of the gut and there is evidence that disturbance of the microbiome is unlikely due to their immune modulating effects.
Analysis of the Oils that I Used
As mentioned above, I started my experimentation with 4 basic oils to help with insomnia. The oils that I purchased were lavender, bitter orange, cedar wood and black spruce. I experimented with different combinations in my diffuser and different volumes (1 drop vs. 2 or 3 drops), etc. I did not find a perfect “cocktail” but I thoroughly enjoyed experimenting and feel as though I came close to an mix that works most of the time.
- Lavender (from Dr. LoBisco’s web-site): “Based on quality studies that take into consideration the therapeutic properties of essential oils, lavender has good evidence for mood, brain health, stress relief, calming, and immune support.”
- Bitter Orange (from Dr. LoBisco’s web-site): “The essential oil of Bitter orange is useful for liver-pancreas support and digestive aid. It supports the cardiovascular system and may help the body’s elimination pathways. It is used for supporting mood, sleep, and calming the body. The limonene present in the essential oil has been found to be anti-tumoral.”
- Cedar wood (from Dr. LoBisco’s web-site): “Due to its chemical constituents, cedar wood can provide support for skin issues, respiratory issues, protection from microbes, healthy sleeping patterns, hormonal balance, mood and emotional disturbances, and stress. With its high oxygen carrying capacity, cedar wood can support the cardiovascular system and it has been found to be helpful for hair loss!”
- Black Spruce (from Dr. LoBisco’s web-site): “Inhaling and skin application of black spruce oil can provide you with all the benefits of resveratrol and tannins, and can modulate biochemical pathways involved in a variety of functions.”