As the interest in aromatherapy grows for those interested in alternative health, wellness, and fitness, many folks ask “what are essential oils” and “how do they differ from other oils like olive oil, coconut and the like”? This brief primer should help clarify the matter, and get you started in the wonderful world of aromatherapy. Essential oils are concentrated volatile aromatic compounds produced by plants – these are the easily evaporated essences that give plants their wonderful scents, more akin to an alcohol than what we commonly think of as an oil.
Each of these complex precious liquids is extracted from a particular plant species. Each plant species originates in certain regions of the world, with particular environmental conditions and neighboring fauna and flora. The result is a very diverse library of aromatic compounds, with some essential oils being made up of more than one hundred distinct organic chemicals. Pure essential oils are distilled from oil sacs found in most structures of plants – the leaves, roots, flowers and more. Almost all essential oils are made up of several, sometimes hundreds of various molecular compounds. The combination and ratios of these compounds give each oil it’s particular aromatic and medicinal properties.
Essential oils are not just a by-product of plant growth; plants use these oils in a manner similar to those prescribed in medical aromatherapy: to fight infections from microbes, fungi and viruses; to protect themselves from animal invaders; and some suspect they may be used for chemical communication between plants of the same species. While essential oils come from the plant world, they are particularly suited to use in natural health, wellness and fitness programs as their chemistry is remarkably compatible with our own; they are easily absorbed into our bodies, even at the cellular level.
Producing essential oils of the highest grades is truly an art form. It takes a delicate balance of time, temperature and pressure during the distillation process to ensure the most complete range of molecular components is extracted. The finer oils will have the most wonderful aromatic bouquets for this reason – they contain a breadth of compounds when inhaled together give an oil a brilliant aroma. Relatively few essential oils are produced in this manner – many are destined for large manufacturing processes, and will not have the same aromas and therapeutic effects of the highest grade oils. Medicinal and spiritual use of essential oils dates back thousands of years. Oils were used by the ancient Egyptians along with many other ancient cultures. Hundreds of references to their healing properties in the Christian Bible, along with anointing for spiritual growth and insight. Frankincense resin continues to be used in the Catholic church today during mass as a purifying and uplifting aromatic incense – a similar application of essential oils can be the anointing of the third eye or temples with Frankincense, Myrrh, Cedarwood, Sandalwood or a combination of these mind-centering aromatics.
Modern use of essential oils in natural health, wellness and fitness programs began with the discovery of Lavender’s healing properties by a French scientist in the middle of the last century. Lavender was found to have effective healing properties for skin wounds, strong anti-inflammatory properties, and wonderful calming effects when inhaled. Further research has confirmed superior efficacy of essential oils for a broad range of physiological conditions. The most promising use of essential oils is in the treatment of infectious illness. Most essential oils display antibacterial effects, some also with strong antiviral properties as well. They can be used to fight infectious illness, or support the immune system to prevent the onset of illness in the first place. It does take a qualified practitioner, or a significantly strong knowledge to choose the right oil for each condition, however. Some oils are particularly effective in treating certain illnesses and not others; these ‘other’ illnesses will have their own best essential oil (or combination of) for treatment.
Beyond infectious illness, certain essential oils have strong anti-inflammatory properties, other oils can stimulate the regeneration of tissues, others can help cleanse and purify the body, and still others can reduce muscular and joint pain while increasing circulation. As you can see, essential oils can play a significant role an any natural health, wellness and/or fitness program – the important part is proper education of the user.
The three primary modes of using essential oils are the following: Topical application (most often diluted in a carrier oil such as Almond oil, Hazelnut, Olive or other ‘fatty acid’) most often for muscular aches and pains and support for skin conditions and rejuvenation. Inhalation is commonly used for the psychological effects of oils – the olfactory sense organs being directly tied to the brain’s emotional centers. Inhalation is also successfully employed for sinus and bronchial congestion along with other breathing ailments. In certain cases, ingestion is prescribed – capsules of peppermint essential oil have been shown effective in scientific studies on the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, a debilitating condition thought to be the result of rampant bacterial grown in the intestines.
The list of the proven efficacy of essential oils continues to grow. There are many good texts available to education yourself, and a growing number of professional practitioners in the field. If you’d like to incorporate essential oils in your own health and wellness program, a little research surrounding your own needs will lead you in the right direction. Essential oils are powerful medicine – be safe, understand what you’re doing, and you’ll likely find aromatherapy can support your own personal needs in a fun and pleasantly aromatic way.
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