”The days of preventative medicine are here. Aromatherapy is a great place to start."
Essential oils ignite physiological changes to improve health beyond compare. They boost immune systems, balance hormones, stabilise blood pressure and even regulate appetite. They can help you to breathe more easily, stop your skin itching, soothe period pains and even settle your stomach. Aromatherapy involves using concentrated essences of a plant to bring about change.
The word aromatherapy is somewhat misleading because it implies a patient gets better just because he/she smells an essential oil. This is only half the story. Sniffing an oil will alter mood, and in some ways, that is medicine. If you’re feeling tense and you relax, then this is most certainly therapeutic, but essential oils are capable of so much more.
They are made up of miniscule chemical molecules. It is believed each single drop of oil contains 40 million trillion molecules (that’s 19 zeros!) That equates to 40,000 molecules for every single cell in your human body. These tiny molecules give essential oils their aroma. There are so many of them, that when you open the lid, they literally explode from the bottle dispersing into a room and filling it with their fragrance. This evaporation quality is what we call volatility.
These molecules are small enough to squeeze through the pores of your skin and enter your blood stream through the capillaries in the base of the dermal layers. From there, they circulate around the body to work in an incomprehensible number of different ways.
The molecules are also able to enter the body via your nose. Here the oils encounter nerves that send messages to an extraordinary mechanism called the limbic system. This part of the brain controls memories, moods, emotions, recognition and even learning. Inside the head, the brain has many structures protecting it from injury and contamination. The obvious one is the skull, but there are many more including what is called the Blood Brain Barrier (BBB).
The BBB does exactly what it says on the tin, it protects the brain from any germs or bacteria circulating in the blood. Scientists now believe, rather than being like a wall, stopping everything going through, the barrier acts like a sieve or a filter, if you like. Very few things are able to pass this barrier. The molecules must be extremely tiny to permeate it. Meningitis bacteria are able to pass through, making it an extremely frightening condition. This tiny window of opportunity is exasperating for scientists, because it makes treating disease in the brain extremely difficult. Smaller molecules of chemotherapy, for instance, are able to permeate the barrier, but some of its larger molecules become blocked, making treating brain cancers with chemo impossible. They must be treated with smaller radiation, proton or cobalt therapies, amongst others.
To pass through the BBB, a molecule must be inordinately small, which of course those contained in essential oils are! Research shows that certain parts of essential oils are capable of passing through this barrier, opening up a new exciting arena for my friends in their lab coats.
"Aromatherapy uses essential oils to make people better. It does this by administering oils in two ways, by inhalation and absorption through the skin.”
Excerpt from: The Complete Guide To Clinical Aromatherapy and The Essential Oils of the Physical Body – Elizabeth Ashley – The Secret Healer.
Concentration of the Oil
Essential oils can be manufactured differently depending on who makes the oil. Sometimes oils are changed by the addition of other similar essential oils or via synthetic chemicals. The oil could also be diluted with other inert oils such as olive oil. Make sure your product lists the concentration of actual essential oil so that you know how potent your oil truly is. If it is heavily diluted, and is not 100% pure, you may not see the expected results from using a weak concentration.
Amount to Use
Every oil is different and contains different chemicals. Some essential oils used in large amounts that are unsafe can cause negative effects on the body. Make sure you understand what a safe dose is before you use an essential oil for yeast infection.
Type of Use
Each essential oil may have methods of use that are safe and some that are certainly unsafe. Tea tree oil can be used safely externally on the skin, but can be fatal if ingested. Many citrus oils have phototoxicity and can cause burns on the skin if exposed to sunlight after application. Make sure you know the proper procedure for utilizing an essential oil before starting your treatment regimen.
Plant Parts Used
Different plant parts can be used to create oils from the same species that have different chemical compositions; and thus different competencies. Make sure you understand if there are varying ways for a certain type of oil to be made. Some oils may always be made from the same plant elements so there may not always be this concern.
- Industry standard is 1ml = 20 drops (not an exact science as some oils are more viscous than others).
- Essential oils are extremely potent and it is recommended that they always be diluted in some way – either with a lotion, oil or in a bath.
- Suggested dilution: 25 drops of carrier oil to 1 drop of essential oil.
Mixes / Blends
When making a mix, make a lot at one time. Use a 50ml bottle of carrier and add the essential oils to that. Based on the industry standard for dilution, 50mls = 10000 drops of oil therefore 1000/25 = 40 drops of mixed essential oils to make a blend.
Internal Use of Essential Oils
This will be a controversial point, but many essential oils are not safe for internal use and others should be used with extreme caution. Since essential oils are the equivalent of 10-50 cups of herbal tea (depending on the herb) or 20x the recommended dose of an herbal tincture of the same herb, they should only be taken internally in situations where they are absolutely needed and with extreme care (and under the guidance of a trained professional).
Here’s the thing- essential oils are extremely potent plant compounds that can have a very dramatic effect on the body. Many online sources tout their “antibacterial, antimicrobial, antiviral and antifungal” properties. You know what is teeming with many types of bacteria? Your gut.
Research is emerging constantly about our extremely diverse gut microbiomes, but we do not fully understand them yet. We do know that gut health drastically affects other aspects of health and that imbalances in the gut can cause problems in the skin, brain and other parts of the body. The effects of essential oils on gut bacteria have not been well studied yet and the very real antibacterial properties of essential oils may kill many types of bacteria in the gut (including beneficial and necessary bacteria).
In fact, the studies conducted about the antibacterial properties of essential oils compare them to antibiotics and suggest that they may be an effective alternative to antibiotics (here’s one study). In most cases, some of the same benefits of an essential oil (taken internally) can be obtained by using the herb itself (fresh or dried) or a tea or tincture of that herb.
Many essential oils are considered “GRAS” or Generally Recognized as Safe for food and cosmetic use. However, most essential oils have not been studied, especially in concentrated internal amounts. Things like vinegar, salt and baking soda also are given this status, but that doesn’t mean they should be consumed regularly or in large amounts. Always do your research first!
Essential Oils During Pregnancy or Nursing
Essential oils can affect hormones, gut bacteria and other aspects of health and extreme care should be used when taking them while pregnant or nursing. There is evidence that essential oils can cross the placenta and get to the baby. The effects of essential oils can be compounded in utero and extreme care should be taken with essential oil use during pregnancy. Again, I’m not saying they should not be used during pregnancy, but that extreme care should be taken and research done first.
I personally would not take any essential oil internally during pregnancy (or even while nursing). At these times, I stick to aromatherapy and very diluted use of approved essential oils in skin care recipes and baths. I also always re-test an oil in a diluted skin test before using it during pregnancy.
Many oils are considered safe during pregnancy, especially after the first trimester (depending on the source), but again, I’d check with a professional and use caution with any herbs used during pregnancy. Even oils that are considered safe may be harmful to certain women and there is some speculation that the actions of some oils on hormones can cause dangerous hormone imbalances during pregnancy.
Oils Considered NOT Safe During Pregnancy
Aniseed, Angelica, Basil, Black pepper, Camphor, Cinnamon, Chamomile, Clary Sage (often used during labor by midwives safely), clove, fennel, fir, ginger, horseradish (should not be used by anyone), Jasmine, Juniper, Marjoram, Mustard, Mugwart (should not be used by anyone), Myrrh, Nutmeg, Oregano, Peppermint, Rosemary, Sage, Thyme, Wintergreen.
Check with a doctor or midwife before taking an essential oils during pregnancy. Peppermint essential oil may decrease milk supply while nursing, and as such, avoid it topically while nursing.
Use on Babies and Children
This is one of the things that concerns me the most with a lot of the essential oil recommendations I see online. In my opinion, essential oils should never be given internally to children or used undiluted on the skin. They should be diluted more than they are for adult application and care should be taken with any essential oils considered “hot” as they may cause damage to the skin. In general, oils like lavender, chamomile, orange, lemon and frankincense are considered safe for diluted use on children, but I would personally still do a skin test and check with a doctor first.
Some oils have caused seizures in children and extreme caution should be used (this article from a naturopathic pediatrician explains more and gives some case studies– since people have commented, I want to mention that I do think her post is overly alarmist but she makes some good points as well). To clarify- these seizure reactions were rare and most were in people who were predisposed to seizures, but this still isn’t a risk I would take with small children.
Others, like peppermint, rosemary, eucalyptus and wintergreen should not be used around young children or babies. These herbs contain menthol and 1,8-cineole. These compounds can slow breathing (or even stop it completely) in very young children or those with respiratory problems. Of course, they should never be used internally or undiluted on the skin for children, but these particular oils warrant caution even for aromatic use. I would not personally ever use these oils on or around babies for this reason.
This article from the University of Minnesota cautions about the use of peppermint and similar oils in children under six, because: “Menthol-one of the major chemicals in peppermint oil-has caused breathing to stop in young children, and has caused severe jaundice in babies with G6PD deficiency (a common genetic enzyme deficiency) (Price & Price, 1999).”
Since the effects of essential oils are more concentrated on children, it is prudent to exercise extra caution when using essential oils on them. Personally, I stick to using safe essential oils in a diffuser or in very diluted amounts in beauty and cleaning products.
Essential Oils in Plastics
Another thing that is not often mentioned is that essential oils should never be stored in plastic containers, especially in concentrated forms. Many essential oils can eat through plastics when undiluted, and even when diluted, they can degrade plastics over time.
This caution also extends to other surfaces in the house. Be extremely careful about leaving any oils, especially citrus oils, on wood or other stained surfaces.
As we are an educational site, we thought it best to inform people of ways in which to best make use of aromatherapy oils, as there is so much misinformation 'out there'.
The information used on this section of the website is gathered from several sources and re-edited. Our thanks however, must go to The school for Aromatic Studies whose material has been used widely. For those wishing to study aromatherapy, please go to their website for more information or see our website: University of Doctors Beyond Medicine.
We are obliged to notify you that the information on this website is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Doctors Across Borders NPO t/as Doctors Beyond Medicine, the author(s) nor publisher(s) take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.