Essential oils – essential for health or not

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A hot trend racing through social media, health food stores and even popping up at smoothie shops is the promotion of essential oils.  Typically thought of for creating pleasant smells, this old but now new trend is promoting full-body benefits ranging from aromatic to topical to dietary perks.

To sort through the marketing claims and social media hype, let’s look at what are the potential health benefits, what to look for on the labels, how to use them, and are they really beneficial after all.

What are essential oils?

Essential oils are nothing new as they have been used for thousands of years.  From cosmetic and dietary purposes to spiritual and religious uses, essential oils have been used in a variety of ways. 

Essential oils are technically not oils at all as they lack fatty acids.  Rather they are highly concentrated plant components.  These plant components are extracted from aromatic plants such as lavender and rosemary along with about 700 other different kinds of plants that contain useful essential oils - flowers, trees, shrubs, fruit, roots, rinds, resins, and herbs.  Each of these plants has an essential oil with a different chemical composition affecting how it smells, how it is absorbed and how the body uses it.  To retrieve these essential oils from these sources, the plant is either steam-distilled or mechanically pressed.

When compared to herbs, essential oils are incredibly concentrated and are far more potent – approximately 75 to 100 times more concentrated than dried herbs.  For example, in order to make 1 pound of lavender essential oil, it takes 220 pounds of lavender flowers. Another example is it takes 4,000 pounds of Bulgarian roses just to get one pound of oil.  This is one of the reasons for the intense concentration and why some essential oils are especially expensive.

What to look for on the label

Like vitamin and mineral supplements, essential oils are not regulated by the FDA.  This makes it extremely important to do your research before purchasing essential oils making sure to buy oils from a company that has a commitment to quality and purity.  There are three grades of oils: food, perfume and therapeutic with therapeutic-grade oils being the highest quality.  Food and perfume grade oils are typically synthetic unless stated otherwise.

Not all oils are made for internal consumption and should clearly state this on the bottle with the label reading “not for internal use” or “for external use only.”

Do they have health benefits?

Whether essential oils have health benefits is up for debate.  What is known is that the scent of the oils stimulates our nose, specifically the olfactory receptor cells.  This causes a reaction of where the scent travels to parts of our brain where mood, emotion and memory are evoked.  Think of the power of scent and how a particular smell can remind you of your grandmother’s perfume or the smell of certain foods taking you back to childhood memories. 

Proponents of essential oils also state they can have multiple benefits to help treat a broad range of conditions from arthritis to sleep to anxiety.

But there may be some truth in possible health benefits for common minor ailments.  Here are a few examples:

·      Lavender – A versatile oil and commonly known for its relaxing effects.  Often used to put a few drops in bath water to help relax you or even a sprinkle on your pillow right before you go to bed to help you drift off to sleep.

·      Peppermint – Peppermint oil is one of just a handful of oils that can be taken internally.  It has been shown to support healthy gut function and normal digestion and can also be used topically to soothe sore muscles.  But before applying it topically, peppermint oil should be diluted with a carrier oil like coconut oil.

·      Lemon – Many enthusiasts of essential oils recommend starting your day with lemon water, using a drop of lemon oil and a tiny pinch of salt.  A drop of lemon oil can also be used on savory foods like fish or chicken recipes that call for lemon juice or can be used to create vinaigrettes and marinades to summer salads and grilling.

Bottom line

Like with any type of product not regulated by the FDA and that has limited research conducted on their effectiveness, here are some general tips when using essential oils:

·      Use oils of a high-quality therapeutic grade – pure, medicinal and steam distilled

·      Never apply most oils directly to your skin as their high concentration can cause a reaction or irritation. Instead, they should be diluted with water or a carrier oil like jojoba, coconut or almond.

·      Always check with your doctor before beginning any new supplement regimen, especially if taking medications that could have a potential interaction with the oils.