Plant-based medicine has existed for thousands of years, and one of its oldest forms is now growing in popularity — essential oils.
Sales of essential oils are projected to grow by double-digits for the next several years, according to a 2020 report from Research and Markets, and for good reason. Their scent creates a positive emotional response that people respond to immediately, and this can trigger a cascade of changes in the nervous system that make you feel good.
Essential oils are highly concentrated extracts of oils that are naturally present in plants. These can be found in the flowers, roots, seeds or even the stems. They are used widely as tools for healing and have been used for a wide range of symptoms and complaints. Whether you are suffering from depression, anxiety, pain, fatigue, difficulty sleeping or other complaints, essential oils may be worth a try.
Essential oils are sold over-the-counter in small glass bottles, making them practical and easy to travel with. They are also long-lasting, so you can keep a range of oils in your home dispensary or first-aid kit for surprise maladies. They are also less inexpensive than many other therapies, both natural and pharmaceutical.
Scientific studies are also starting to support the benefits of essential oils that have been used for centuries. A PubMed search for clinical trials of essential oils yielded 804 results, including studies on lavender, lemon balm, rosemary and many others. Frankincense and myrrh, from the famous Biblical story, have also been studied by researchers. In one recent controlled clinical trial of lavender oil, it improved sleep among young men and women.
Essential oils can affect the physiology of the brain and the body, through links between smell and the limbic system. When you inhale essential oils, the compounds in the oils interact with olfactory receptors in your nose. Those receptors then send messages that travel through to olfactory bulb, which relays this information to the limbic system, the part of the brain that triggers the fight-or-flight response and many other emotions.
Strictly speaking, most essential oils should still be considered unproven. As with most natural health products, the existing research is promising but not yet conclusive. This means that the best approach is to try one at a time to see how they affect you. You can do this on your own or under the supervision of a physician or healthcare provider.
The easiest way to use essential oils is to simply inhale them. When you feel tired, stressed or nervous, open the bottle, hold it to your nose and inhale deeply. Notice how you feel a few minutes later.
Before putting it on your skin, especially if you have sensitive skin, try diluting one drop in a teaspoon of water, put this in your hand and rub it onto the area you want to treat. You can also do this when using oils to rinse your mouth and gums. While many people ingest essential oils, like oregano oil or peppermint oil for digestion, I recommend you do this with a healthcare provider.
While aromatherapy is not a licensed or regulated health profession, there are many books on the subject, and certificate courses are available online and even at some community colleges. These provide guidance about the specific oils that are commonly used to help manage different symptoms, and all the background information that you might consider the art and science of this healing modality.
Evidence-based medicine relies on clinical trials to determine whether a given treatment is better than placebo in a large group of patients. This kind of evidence is valuable, but it is difficult and expensive to ensure that a study is large enough and controls for all the possible sources of error and bias.
It is unlikely that this will ever happen for the thousands of natural health products that are not protected by patents. If we ever want global healthcare to include natural alternatives like essential oils, we will need to crowdsource real-world data from the millions of people who use them every day.
If you are interested in trying essential oils for your health problem, go to your local pharmacy or wellness store and choose the one you like the best. Smell them one by one, and notice how they make you feel. If you are highly sensitive to scents, be careful doing this. But if a particular essential oil leads you to feel a wave of pleasant, relaxing release, it is much more likely to be helpful over the long-term. You can choose a few essential oils at the same time, and try them one by one.
If you have scars, wounds or soreness in parts of your body that have experienced trauma, injury or tissue damage, consider applying essential oils to these sensitive areas. These can act as blockages, where the nerves can be more irritable and can contribute to stress or inflammation in the body as a whole. This concept of blockages is described in Traditional Chinese Medicine and other healing systems of the world, but it has not yet known to western medicine. It should be.
If you already use and love essential oils, then consider taking a systematic approach to see which ones work best for you. If you have a health problem that has not responded to conventional treatment, or simply want to find out whether essential oils might help you improve a specific symptom or your general well-being, use the approach described above to try them out, one at a time. This is the safest and most responsible way to manage your wellness.