Do Essential Oils Really Work?
Although aromatic plants have been used for medicinal, religious and perfumery purposes for thousands of years, Western societies largely moved away from plant medicine around the turn of the 20th Century, with the discovery of synthetic drugs and the establishment of the pharmaceutical industry. To date we rely on this pragmatic approach to cure what ails us. We pop a pill when we have a headache or our muscles are sore. The pill ingredients are isolated chemicals and the target area is an isolated part of the body. It’s scientific and it’s focused.
So why then is there a strong resurgence in the use of aromatic plants, specifically in the form of essential oils? Why are these century old traditions coming back? Maybe it’s because more people recognize the benefits of a natural and holistic approach to wellbeing. We certainly need pharmaceutical drugs to treat disease and illness with the help of science and targeted approaches. Essential oils can, and should, play a complementary role in an overall healthy and healing lifestyle.
ESSENTIAL OILS ARE NOT LIKE PHARMACEUTICAL DRUGS
Today you can find essential oils in all kinds of consumer products - shampoos, creams, lotions, candles, cleaning products - and each promises to make you feel happy, to help you sleep, to lower your stress, to reduce anxiety or to clear your acne.
You can also buy essential oil blends in your local health store, from your friends, or online. You can learn to make your own aromatherapy product with these blends - DIY recipes on Pinterest and Facebook abound.
SO, HOW CAN YOU BE SURE THE ESSENTIAL OILS ARE ACTUALLY WORKING?
The truth is that they CAN provide benefits... but it’s not simple, it’s not like popping a pill and getting results. You have to use them in the right way and in the right amounts.
Let’s take a look at some different ways essential oils really can provide support:
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE DOSE
In many parts of the world, including the U.S. and the E.U., consumer products have to meet strict safety and allergen requirements, which includes guidelines for a maximum level of fragrance (incl. essential oils) allowed in a wash-off product like a shampoo or body wash, and a leave-on product like a lotion or deodorant . The restriction is so great that, in terms of essential oils in the product, the medicinal value is minimized and the oils will only give the product a fragrance effect. You won’t see any therapeutic action from the essential oil itself. This is because a much higher percentage of essential oil is needed in the product to have a therapeutic effect (between 0.1% - 5%). There’s nothing wrong with a cosmetic effect - it’s nice to have a pleasant, natural fragrance in your lotion. But you need to know that it won’t get you to sleep. The lotion is not a sleeping pill. It’s cosmetic, and it’s feel-good.
What this means for you: In order to get therapeutic benefits, you need to formulate the product at the appropriate dosage, with the right essential oil(s), in order for it to provide you with the healing help you want.
Just putting a few drops of “sleep” oil blend in your diffuser at night while you sleep won’t necessarily keep you asleep. Using a “headache relief” face serum you bought at the store won’t work like a headache tablet - it’s not immediate. It’s important to think about the context in which you use your essential oils - the method of application can help provide the beneficial effect.
Inhalation is a common way to use essential oils. The aromatic molecules travel to the lungs and enter the bloodstream. If you have a cold or sinus infection, essential oils can provide movement in the airways and open up congestion. Inhaling the volatile molecules is a “quick release” method because it enters the body immediately. It’s a good method for acute, short-term issues that need to be addressed.
Importantly, aromatic molecules also travel to the brain, providing information to the limbic system and the cerebral cortex, which allows the nervous system to respond and behave according to what the molecules trigger. Scent memory plays an important role here.
Topical application is another common way to use essential oils. Essential oils are generally easily absorbed by the skin, but are more slowly released in the body. Many essential oils are themselves beneficial to the skin and so add an extra health benefit.
A skin application is great for chronic or longer term issues that need to be addressed. It’s also a helpful method to target a particular area because, unlike inhalation, you can apply the essential oil (with a carrier oil!) directly to where you need it.
What this means for you: in order to get therapeutic benefit, you need to think about the intention of your treatment. Did the issue just occur? Have you had it for a long time? Does it need to be addressed quickly or do you want support over a period of time?
YOU NEED A HOLISTIC OUTLOOK
This is critical. With most over-the-counter drugs, you want to resolve a specific symptom (ie. headache) as quickly as possible (1-2 hours). We seem to be treating essential oils the same way - fragmenting the body into parts and separating the mind and spirit into various “states of being” where we “treat” each with a specific essential oil.
It’s not that simple.
Besides addressing the symptom “I can’t sleep” alone, think about what might be causing it. Take a step back and evaluate the cause. Have I had a stressful day? Am I bloated from indigestion? Do I worry about my finances?
The goal is not to have a quick fix cure that treats a specific ailment in the shortest time. The real aim is to truly heal and then begin a preventative journey. It’s about balancing the body, the mind and the soul.
What this means for you: look at the big picture. If you have hypertension, for example, and you get a drug to cure the issue, try thinking about it more holistically - how can I change my diet, do I need to exercise more, what can I do to reduce my stress - this is where essential oils can help play a part.
PATIENCE AND CONSISTENCY IS KEY
Essential oils are not a natural alternative to prescription drugs. They can, however, be a natural support to a holistic lifestyle. It’s a mindset that requires patience and consistent use. There are no quick-fix remedies. That isn’t their power. Their power lies in their wholeness and in their ability to provide as only nature can.