About Essential Oils…

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As a medical doctor/registered nurse practitioner team, we received conventional medical training at university hospitals while getting our degrees.  Since that time, however, we have explored various alternative methods of healing; this is not to replace our education, but as a supplement and an additional tool in the medical woodshed.

One class of alternative remedies that are commonly used is Essential Oils.  These substances are called “essential” because they capture the “essence” of the plant.  Unlike cooking oils, such as olive or corn, these oils are less fixed and more volatile.  That means that they are less viscous in nature, and tend to evaporate easily.  This is unlike olive or other “fixed” oils, which don’t evaporate even in high temperatures.  As such, essential oils are popular in aromatherapy.

Essential Oils and Aromatherapy

Although you might not realize it, you’ve been using essential oils all your life.  You’ve no doubt used them in soaps, furniture polishes, perfumes and ointments.  Although it doesn’t take a lot of, say, peppermint leaves to make a tea, it takes a boatload of leaves to make a significant amount of essential oil.  One source states that it takes an acre of peppermint to produce just 12 pounds.  The same source says that 12,000 rose blossoms are required to produce a tablespoon of rose oil!  These concentrated versions commonly are sold in small, dark bottles.  You might be surprised to learn that the Food and Drug Administration only requires 10% essential oil in the bottle to be considered “Pure Essential Oil”.

Essential oils are produced by plants to serve as either an attractant to pollinator insects (hence their strong fragrance) or as a repellant against invading organisms, from bacteria to animal predators. These substances usually contain multiple chemical compounds, making each plant’s essential oil unique.  Oils may be produced by leaves, bark, flowers, fruit or roots.  Lemon oil comes from the peel, Lavender oil from flowers, and Cinnamon oil from bark.  Some plants are sources of more than one essential oil, dependent on the part processed.   Some plant material produces a great deal of oil; other produce very little.  The strength or quality of the oil is dependent on multiple factors, including soil conditions, time of year, sub-species of plant, and even the time of day the plant is harvested.

How Are Essential Oils Made and Used?

The manufacture of essential oils, known as “extraction”, can be achieved by various methods:

  • Distillation Method:   Using a “still” like old-time moonshiners, water is boiled through an amount of plant material to produce a steam that travels through cooled coils.  This steam condenses into a “mixture” of oil and water (which doesn’t really mix) from which the oil can be extracted.
  • Pressing:   The oils of citrus fruit can be isolated by a technique which involves putting the peels through a “press”.  This works best only with the oiliest of plant materials, such as orange skins.
  • Maceration:  a fixed oil (sometimes called a “carrier” oil) or lard may be used with the plant part and exposed to the sun over time, causing the fixed oil to become infused with the plant “essence”.  Oftentimes, a heat source is used to move the process along. The plant material may be added several times during the process to manufacture a stronger oil. This is the method by which you obtain products such as “garlic-infused olive oil”. A similar process using flowers is referred to as “Enfleurage”.
  • Solvent Method:  Alcohol and other solvents may be used on some plant parts, usually flowers, to release the essential oil in a multi-step process.

As each essential oil has different chemical compounds in it, it stands to reason that the medicinal benefits of each are also different.  As such, an entire alternative medical discipline has developed to find the appropriate oil for the condition that needs treatment.  The method of administration differs, as well.  Common methods include:

1) Inhalation Therapy: This method is also known as “aromatherapy”. Add a few drops of the essential oil in a bowl of steaming water (distilled or sterilized), and inhale.  This method is most effective when placing a towel over your head to catch the vapors.  Many people will place essential oils in potpourri or use a “diffuser” to spread the aroma throughout the room; this technique most probably dilutes any medicinal effects, however.

2) Topical Application:  The skin is an amazing absorbent surface, and using essential oils by direct application is a popular method of administration. The oil may be used as part of a massage, or directly placed on the skin to achieve a therapeutic effect on a rash or muscle. Before considering using an essential oil in this manner, always test for allergic reactions beforehand.  Even though the chemical compounds are natural, that doesn’t mean that you couldn’t have an adverse reaction to them (case in point: poison ivy).

A simple test involves placing a  couple of drops on the inside of your forearm with a cotton applicator.  Within a few hours, you’ll notice a rash developing if you’re allergic.  Mixing some of the essential oil with a fixed or “carrier” oil such as olive oil before application is a safer option for topical use.  Another concern, mostly with topically-applied citrus oil, is “phototoxicity, an exaggerated burn response to sun exposure.

I have some reservations about whether applying an essential oil on the skin over a deep organ such as the pancreas will really have any specific effect on that organ.  It is much more likely to work, however, on the skin or underlying muscle tissue.

3) Ingestion:  Direction ingestion is unwise for most essential oils, and should be used with caution. Some essential oils have detrimental effects on chronic medical conditions such as hypertension and epilepsy, and could even increase the chance of miscarriage in pregnant women. Any internal use of an essential oil should be a very small amount in at least a tablespoon of a fixed oil such as olive oil.  Professional guidance is imperative when considering this method.  You can always consider a tea made with the herb as an alternative, although the effect may not be as strong.

Although essential oils have been used as medical treatment for a very long time, it’s difficult to provide definitive evidence of their effectiveness for several reasons.  Essential oils are difficult to standardize, due to variance in the quality of the product based on soil conditions, time of year, and other factors that we mentioned above.  An essential Eucalyptus oil may be obtained from Eucalyptus Globulus or Eucalyptus Radiata, for example, and have differing properties as a result.   These factors combine to make scientific study problematic.

In most university experiments, a major effort is made to be certain that the substance tested caused the results obtained.  As essential oils have a number of different chemicals and are often marketed as blends, which ingredient was the cause of the effect?  If the oil is applied with massage, was the effect related to the oil itself or the therapeutic benefit of the physical therapy?

Most studies on essential oils have been conducted by the cosmetics and food industries; some have been conducted by individuals or small companies.  Standard studies for medicinal benefit are usually performed by the pharmaceutical industry, but they generally have little interest in herbal products.  This is because they have few options in patenting these products. Therefore, serious funding is hard to find because of the limited profit potential.

Despite this, essential oils have various reported beneficial effects, mainly by their historical use on many thousands of patients by alternative healers.  Although there are many essential oils, several are considered mainstays of any herbal medicine cabinet.   Here are just some:

Lavender Oil:  An analgesic (pain reliever), antiseptic (antimicrobial substance applied to living tissue/skin to reduce the possibility of infection) and immune stimulant. It is thought to be good for skin care and to promote healing, especially in burns, bruises, scrapes, acne, rashes and bug bites.  Lavender has a calming effect, and is used for insomnia, stress and depression. It is also used as a decongestant through steam inhalation (1 drop per cup of steaming water). Lavender is also available as a tea for internal use.

Eucalyptus- An antiseptic, antiviral, and decongestant (also an excellent insect repellent), Eucalyptus oil has a “cooling” effect on skin. It also aids with  respiratory issues and is thought to boost the immune system.  Consider its use for flus, colds, sore throats, coughs, sinusitis, bronchitis, and hay fever. When exposure is expected, it has been reported to have a preventative effect. Eucalyptus may be used in massages, steam inhalation, and as a bath additive. Although eucalyptus oil has been used in cough medicine, it is likely greatly diluted and should not be otherwise ingested in pure form.

Melaleuca (Tea Tree) Oil:  Diluted in a carrier oil such as coconut, Tea Tree oil may be good for athlete’s foot, acne, skin wounds, and even insect bites.  In the garden, Tea Tree oil is a reasonable organic method of pest control.  In inhalation therapy, it is reported to help relieve respiratory congestion. Studies have been performed which find it effective both Staphylococcus and fungal infections.  Some even recommend a few drops in a pint of water for use as a vaginal douche to treat yeast.  Tea Tree oil may be toxic if used in high concentrations or around sensitive areas like the eyes.

Peppermint Oil: This oil is said to have various therapeutic effects:  antiseptic, antibacterial, decongestant, and anti-emetic (stops vomiting). Peppermint oil is applied directly to the abdomen when used for digestive disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome, heartburn, and abdominal cramping. Some herbalists prescribe Peppermint for headache; massage a drop or two to the temples as needed. For sudden abdominal conditions, achy muscles or painful joints, massage the diluted oil externally onto the affected area

Lemon Oil:   Used for many years as a surface disinfectant, it is an ingredient in furniture cleaners.  Many seem to think that this disinfecting action makes it good for sterilizing water, but there is no evidence that it is as effective as any of the standard methods of doing so, such as boiling. Don’t apply on the skin if you will be exposed to the sun that day.

Clove Oil:   Although thought to have multiple uses as an anti-fungal, antiseptic, antiviral, analgesic, and sedative, Clove oil particularly shines as an anesthetic and antimicrobial. It is marketed as “Eugenol” to dentists throughout the world as a natural pain killer and for toothaches. A toothpaste can be made by combining clove oil and baking soda; when mixed with zinc oxide powder, it makes an excellent temporary cement for lost fillings and loose crowns.

There are many more essential oils with possible medicinal benefits, and I’ll discuss them in future articles.  Do your own research and come to your own conclusions, but always consider every option when it comes to keeping your loved ones healthy in bad times as well as good times.

Dr. Bones

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