Mindfulness & Anxiety

What Are Essential Oils—How They Are Made and Their Health Benefits

By Justin Fowler-Lindner

From the ancient Egyptians to the Greeks, cultures around the globe have valued essential oils for their aromatic and medicinal qualities.

Fast-forward to today, and the clinical evidence has really begun to stack up.

According to recent research, essential oils can…

  • Heal inflammatory skin conditions
  • Combat the common cold
  • Fight cancer
  • Reduce pain
  • Relax sore muscles
  • Reduce anxiety and depression
  • Improve behavior in dementia patients
  • Balance hormones
  • Support digestion

Many essential oils are anti-inflammatory and antibacterial, others are antiviral and antifungal, and some are all of the above. Lavender oil, for example, is somewhat of a super-substance, but more on that later…

Believe it or not, a handful of essential oils are even routinely used in conventional hospitals like United Hospital in St. Paul, Minneosota, where lavandin oil, a hybrid of lavender, is used to calm the nerves of preoperative patients.

Later on in this article, we’ll discuss the health benefits of the following popular essential oils:

  1. Lavender
  2. Peppermint
  3. Rose
  4. Tea tree
  5. Citrus

But first, we’re going to answer the question, “What are essential oils?”

Keep reading to learn why essential oils are all the rage for alternative medicine practices. 

What Are Essential Oils?

Essential oils are natural plant extracts that come from the flowers, bark, leaves, fruits, seeds, and roots of plants and trees. You can apply essential oils to the skin, ingest them, or inhale them.

Inhaling these strong aromatic compounds can treat anxiety and reduce stress.

Essential oils are unique in that, unlike fatty oils like coconut, they have the ability to penetrate cell walls. This allows them to deliver nutrients directly to the cells. 

How Essential Oils Are Made

Essential oils are extracted through steam distillation, which separates the oil from the water in the plants. Another option is cold-pressing, which squeezes the oil right out of the plant.

A lot of the time, topical essential oil products are made with a carrier oil like coconut. Other common carrier oils include avocado oil, olive oil, pomegranate seed oil, almond oil, and jojoba oil.

Carrier oils work by increasing the amount of time that the compounds sit on the skin.

Always make sure to dilute your essential oils with carrier oils. Dilution improves absorption and reduces the likelihood of severe skin reactions.

Additionally, you shouldn’t have to take more than a few drops of essential oil at a time to achieve the desired effects.

How to Use Essential Oils

Are you ready to experience the healing power of essential oils?

Here are the three most common ways to use essential oils:

  1. Topical application: essential oils pass through the skin barrier effortlessly due to their small molecular weight. For skin irritation, pain, and muscle tension, rub it directly into the affected area. 
  2. Aromatherapy: essential oils are also easily absorbed into the bloodstream when inhaled. From there, they rapidly circulate throughout the body, providing fast-acting relief. Apply a drop or two to the neck or put them in a diffuser and spread the aroma throughout the room.
  3. Ingestion: several essential oils, including oregano oil and clove oil, can provide powerful health benefits when ingested. Lemon, peppermint, and frankincense also have therapeutic benefits when taken orally. However, it’s important not to ingest essential oils for more than a week-or-two at a time because they may cause side effects such as an upset stomach.

5 Popular Essential Oils and Their Health Benefits

Some essential oils have widespread effects on the immune system. For example, studies show that essential oils can fight viral, fungal, and bacterial pathogens that cause infections.

Essential oils can also be a safe, natural way to promote better sleep and support mental health.

Let’s take a closer look at a few popular essential oils and the scientific evidence behind them:

1. Lavender

Lavender oil is one of the most widely-studied essential oils. It can be used to treat wounds, burns, skin infections, stress, anxiety, and inflammation. Plus, it may even enhance memory and boost physical performance.

Here’s what recent studies have discovered about the benefits of lavender oil:

  • Sleep: a 2014 review of 26 studies determined that lavender oil is one of the most effective essential oils for sleep. For example, a 2017 study found that lavender aromatherapy can improve sleep quality in anxious cardiac-surgery patients. 
  • Stress and Anxiety: a 2016 study found that inhaling lavender can reduce blood cortisol and anxiety in open-heart surgery candidates. 
  • Headaches: a 2012 clinical trial found that inhaling lavender can reduce the severity of migraines within 30 minutes. Out of the 129 total migraine attacks, 92 responded partially or entirely to lavender treatment. 
  • Dementia: a 2017 study published in the Journal of Drug Assessment concluded that, “The use of diffused lavender twice daily has shown to reduce the frequency of agitation in elderly patients with dementia, especially in the 70–85 age cohort.”
  • Wound healing: in a 2017 study, topical lavender oil increased collagen synthesis and accelerated wound healing in rats with full-thickness skin wounds. 
  • Menstrual Pain: a 2016 triple-blind clinical trial found that, “Using lavender aromatherapy for 2 months may be effective in decreasing the pain severity of primary dysmenorrhea.”

2. Peppermint 

Peppermint oil is another widely-studied essential oil with a variety of health benefits, including digestion, brain oxygenation, exercise performance, and pain management.

Here’s what the studies have to say:

  • Digestion: a 2016 clinical trial tested a new sustained-release formulation of peppermint oil for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Researchers found that, “A novel PO formulation designed for sustained release in the small intestine is a safe, effective treatment capable of providing rapid relief of IBS symptoms.”
  • Exercise performance: a 2013 study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that peppermint oil can enhance physical performance, reduce fatigue, and increase brain oxygenation in healthy male athletes after just 10 days of treatment. 
  • Pain: in a 2014 study, participants were treated with a topical cream consisting of multiple oils, including peppermint oil. After four weeks of treatment, the experimental group had better pain tolerance and improved range of motion.

3. Rose

Rose oil is known for its ability to treat anxiety, depression, inflammation, and hormone imbalances. 

Here’s what recent medical studies have discovered about rose oil:

  • Anxiety: a 2016 clinical trial found that rose water aromatherapy can reduce anxiety in hemodialysis patients after just four weeks of treatment.  
  • Depression: in a 2012 clinical trial, postpartum patients reported lower scores for depression and anxiety compared to the control group.
  • Hormones: a 2017 study published in the medical journal Neuro Endocrinology Letters indicates that rose oil can increase salivary estrogen levels in menopausal women.
  • Skin Inflammation: in a 2010 laboratory test, rose oil exhibited strong antibacterial properties and killed inflammatory P. acnes cells in roughly five minutes.

4. Tea Tree

Tea tree oil’s antibacterial and antifungal properties can stimulate the immune system, fight bad breath, and treat skin diseases.

Here’s what the research has to say:

  • Athlete’s foot: a recent study conducted at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in New South Wales, Australia, found that highly concentrated, therapeutic-grade tea tree oil can cure athlete’s foot in 68 to 72 percent of cases when applied directly to the skin. 
  • Acne: a 2017 pilot study found that tea tree gel can significantly reduce acne sores. Treatments were applied directly to the sores twice a day for 12 weeks. 
  • Dandruff: in a recent study, a tea tree oil shampoo containing 5 percent pure essential oil reduced dandruff by 41 percent. 

5. Citrus 

Citrus oils like lemon, lime, and orange are common ingredients in household cleaning products. However, they can also be used medicinally to support the immune system and fight disease.

Here’s what the medical literature has to say about the therapeutic qualities of lemon oil, lime oil, and sweet orange essential oil:

  • Lemon Oil: according to a 2006 rodent study, inhaling lemon essential oil can have potent anti-stress, anti-anxiety, and antidepressant effects on Wistar rats. 
  • Key Lime Oil: in a 2016 study published in the journal PLoS One, lime essential oil exhibited anti-inflammatory effects, including reduced cytokine production and cell migration. 
  • Sweet Orange Oil: in a 2012 test, sweet orange essential oil induced cell death in human colon cancer cells.

Every one of these essential oils is brimming with unique healing qualities, but many more are also worth exploring, including:

  • Frankincense: fights cancer, boosts immunity, reduces inflammation
  • Grapefruit: reduces cellulite and supports metabolism
  • Cypress: improves circulation
  • Eucalyptus: heals respiratory issues like bronchitis
  • Ginger: anti-inflammatory, improves digestion, supports joint health
  • Myrrh: reduces skin inflammation and fights infection
  • Rosemary: for thicker, fuller hair
  • Sandalwood: boosts libido

Whenever you’re trying an essential oil for the first time, always start with a small dose and gradually increase over time. You should also try to avoid synthetic oils that use chemical fillers in their products, and look for pure oil extracts to ensure the essential oils are safe to use. If you’re applying these oils topically, test it on a small skin surface first—this way if you have an allergic reaction it won’t be as severe.

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