What Are Essential Oils, and Do They Work?

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Essential oils are often used in aromatherapy, a form of alternative medicine that uses plant extracts to promote health and wellness. However, some of the health claims associated with these oils are inconsistent. This article clarifies everything you need to know about essential oils and their health effects.

What are essential oils?

Essential oils are compounds extracted from plants. Oils captured the smell and taste of the plants. Unique aromatic compounds give each essential oil a distinctive essence. Essential oils are obtained by distillation or mechanical methods such as cold pressing.

Once the aromatic chemicals are removed, they are combined with a carrier oil to create a ready-to-use product. The way oils are made is important, as essential oils obtained through chemical processes are not considered true essential oils.

How do essential oils work?

Essential oils are most often used in the practice of aromatherapy, in which they are inhaled in a variety of ways. Essential oils are not signified to be swallowed.

The chemicals in essential oils can interact with your body in several paths. When applied to the skin, some plant chemicals are absorbed. It is believed that certain methods of application can improve absorption, such as applying heat to different areas of the body. However, research in this area is lacking.

Inhaling the aromas of essential oils can stimulate areas of your limbic system, which is the part of your brain that plays a role in emotions, behavior, smell, and long-term memory.

Health benefits of essential oils

Despite their widespread use, little is known about the ability of essential oils to treat certain conditions.

Here is evidence regarding some of the common health problems that essential oils and aromatherapy have been used to treat.

Stress and anxiety

It has been estimated that 43% of people suffering from stress and anxiety use some form of alternative therapy to relieve their symptoms.

When it comes to aromatherapy, initial research has been very positive. Many have shown that the scent of certain essential oils can work alongside traditional therapy to treat anxiety and stress.

However, the odor of the compounds makes it difficult to blind studies and rule out bias. As such, many reviews on stress and anxiety relief with essential oils have been inconclusive.

Headaches and migraines

In the 90s, two small studies found that applying a mixture of peppermint oil and ethanol to the forehead and temples of participant’s alleviated headaches.

Recent studies have also shown a reduction in headaches after applying peppermint and lavender oils to the skin.

Moreover, it has been suggested that applying a mixture of chamomile and sesame oil to the temples can treat headaches and migraines. It is a customary Persian remedy for headaches.

Sleep and insomnia

The smell of lavender oil has been proven to improve the quality of sleep in women after childbirth, as well as in patients with heart disease.

One review looked at 15 studies on essential oils and sleep. Most studies have shown that the smell of oils, mainly lavender, has a positive effect on sleep habits.

Reducing inflammation

It has been suggested that essential oils can help fight inflammatory diseases. Some test-tube studies show that they have anti-inflammatory effects.

One study in mice found that taking a combination of thyme and oregano essential oils helped induce remission of colitis. Two studies of cumin oil and rosemary in rats produced similar results.