Essential oils are a basic component of aromatherapy, widely used with diffusers or during a massage. But what is it that makes them ‘essential’? Just what can they do for us, and how do we know they are safe?
The word ‘essential’ relates to how the oils capture the ‘essence’ of the plants from which they are derived. Through a variety of methods – most typically steam distillation – roots, bark, seeds, leaves or fruit are turned into an oil. This contains many substances, sometimes hundreds, including volatile organic compounds. These compounds give the oils their smell: They are volatile in the sense that they quickly evaporate in air, transporting the distinctive scent of lavender, say, or peppermint.
Practitioners in the field often take the idea of ‘essence’ further. Farida Irani is founder of Australian brand Subtle Energies, who marry aromatherapy with Ayurvedic principles. She describes essential oils as “the very essence of the plant, the very prana, chi or life force”.
“What an essential oil contains are potent compounds of the plant and that is why we refer to essential oils as concentrated,” says Joanne Bruce, founder and director of Malaysia-based brand Biossentials. “Only a few drops are needed for a therapeutic benefit via inhalation, massage, bath or compress.”
The precise set of substances in those potent compounds though can alter between varieties of the same plant species and even with the location of a given colony of the plant – think of it like the terroir associated with wine.
The industry’s way to get a handle on a given product is to analyse it using gas chromatography mass spectrometry (GC-MS) to establish that it contains only what it is supposed to.
“What is very important when considering using essential oils is that they are genuine (correct botanical species), and are not adulterated, modified or blended,” says Bruce. “Lavender, for instance, has many species but the one that has the calming, healing benefits is known as Lavandula angustifolia. Companies who just put ‘lavender’ or ‘eucalyptus’ on a label without stating the botanical species are not telling the consumer what they are buying. A label should state: 100 per cent Pure & Natural Essential Oil and should have a batch number and use-by date. Consumers should be able to request documents to verify the quality of the oil.”
Once you have a reputable source, you need to understand what these oils can do for you. That is not always straightforward. Although essential oils have been used therapeutically for centuries, and their use in complementary medicine is widespread, especially in Europe, there is relatively little published research on many of them.
Beyond the nose
Most people first encounter essential oils through the use of a diffuser, allowing the smell to permeate a room. There is some evidence to suggest that certain oils, beyond simply smelling good, do alter our state of mind. Though the mechanism is still not completely understood, the most accepted explanation is that when breathed in, these oils stimulate smell receptors in the nose which connect with the brain’s limbic system to regulate our mood and emotions.
Lavender is probably the oil most widely used in this fashion. Often said to promote calmness, it is used by aromatherapy practitioners for anxiety, insomnia, depression, headaches and other ailments. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the US: “There is little scientific evidence of lavender’s effectiveness for most health uses.” Nevertheless, today there are numerous lavender-based products on the market, with Bruce citing “clinical studies conducted in the UK in hospitals and homes for the elderly to see how essential oils can enhance sleep”.
Essential oils can also be applied to the skin. This is most often done in the course of an aromatherapy massage, with a few drops diluted with a carrier such as olive or almond oil. Some essential oils are combined with bath salts, lotions or dressings.
Irritation or even allergic reaction is possible so people with a known sensitivity should try them out on a small patch of skin first. A few studies also suggest enhanced sensitivity to sun with citrus-based oils. Another, very small, 2007 study in the New England Journal of Medicine suggested that because oils such as lavender and tea tree work in a similar way to the female hormone estrogen, they may have unwanted effects on prepubertal males.
More positively, tea tree oil has been indicated as an effective treatment for acne, according to the NIH, and with fewer side effects than the usual drug-based approaches. Another study found it as effective in clearing antibiotic-resistant MRSA bacteria from the skin of hospital patients as the standard treatment.
As Nick Irani, director of operations and brand development for Subtle Energies, explains: “[Essential oils] are the defence mechanism of the plant and we are using that very defence mechanism, which is antimicrobial, antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral, thereby enhancing our own immunity.”
Art of blending
The originator of the term ‘aromatherapy’, a French chemist called René Gattefossé, investigated the effects of essential oils on the progress of disease and his countryman, Dr Jean Valnet, used them to treat the wounded in World War II. Today the French are among the most enthusiastic medicinal users of essential oils, with physicians issuing prescriptions for oils to be taken internally.
This is one area though where practitioners urge caution and close supervision: “Outrageous claims made by some direct-selling companies encouraging ingesting of oils is in my opinion dangerous,” says Bruce, of the recent rise in Internet-based businesses. “They are concentrated plant extracts. They can accumulate and be toxic if not used correctly.”
Happily, essential oils have shown few detrimental side effects or risks when used as directed. But with much of the research done so far in the laboratory and on animals, more human trials are needed. That is beginning to happen, in part because of interest from the food, cosmetic and tobacco industries.
They face particular problems in testing essential oils: not least the obvious issue of how to conduct blind trials with aromatic substances. A further complication is that although some oils are commonly used to treat specific conditions, in many cases the oils used and the ways they are combined may vary with the practitioner.
The classical Western approach would be to tease out the ‘active’ chemical or chemicals, then analyse them. Aromatherapy practitioners resist this, insisting that on using the oil in its natural state. Robert Tisserand, regarded as one of the practice’s foremost experts, says, “The main point of natural medicine is that we don’t isolate ‘active ingredients’ and use them instead of the whole natural product. Once we do that, we call it a drug. And, once we do that there is no longer any possibility for synergistic action. Synergy is the interplay, or interaction between constituents of plant-based medicines, that often give them effects that cannot be obtained by using a single, isolated substance.”
As an Ayurveda practitioner and clinical aromatherapist, Farida Irani has a firm belief in such interplay. She uses many lesser known essential oils encountered in India – such as mogra, kewda and gul heena – along with more familiar names, in some cases blending them. Irani says, “The synergy we create through the art of blending is very important in getting the multiple therapeutic benefits of the essential oils, not forgetting the carrier oils which are cold-pressed vegetable oils rich in nutrients, vitamins and essential fatty acids such as black seed sesame, amla and jojoba.”
Around 20 per cent of all plants yield essential oils so there is much scope for further development. Nick Irani talks of “Rambos”, oils with particularly pronounced antiviral, antibacterial action. Online, some authorities credit oils with alleviating the symptoms of cancers and other potentially fatal conditions.
In a world with an increasingly aged, health-obsessed population, interest in natural products to supplant or supplement man-made treatments and drugs is only going to grow. Whether you should make them part of your approach to wellness may depend on how successful you find mainstream approaches to be. But it seems likely that ongoing research will also tell us that the truth, in essence, is that our bodies are wondrously complex and there is room for many complementary ways to stay fit and well.
This article was first published on Asia Spa