As a medical doctor/registered nurse practitioner team, we received
conventional medical training at university hospitals while getting our
degrees. Since that time, however, we have explored various alternative
methods of healing; this is not to replace our education, but as a
supplement and as an additional tool in the medical woodshed.
One class of alternative remedies that are commonly used is essential
oils. These substances are called "essential" because they capture the
"essence" of the plant. Unlike cooking oils, such as olive or corn,
these oils are less fixed and more volatile. That means that they tend
to evaporate easily, unlike the "fixed" oils, which don't evaporate even
in high temperatures. As such, essential oils are popular in
Although you might not realize it, you've been using essential oils
all your life. You've no doubt used them in soaps, furniture polishes,
perfumes, and ointments. Although it only takes a few leaves of
peppermint to make a tea, it takes five pounds of leaves to make one
ounce of essential oil. One source states that it takes an entire acre
of peppermint to produce just 12 pounds of oil. The same source says
that 12,000 rose blossoms are required to produce a tablespoon of rose
oil! These concentrated versions are the ones you see marketed in small,
You might be surprised to learn that the Food and Drug Administration
only requires 10% essential oil in the bottle to be considered "Pure
Essential Oil." Beware of claims of FDA certification; the FDA has no
certification or approval process for these products.
Essential oils are produced by plants to serve as either an
attractant to pollinator insects (hence their strong fragrance) or as a
repellent against invading organisms, from bacteria to animal predators.
These substances usually contain multiple chemical compounds, making
each plant's essential oil unique. Oils may be produced by leaves, bark,
flowers, resin, fruit, or roots. For example, lemon oil comes from the
peel, lavender oil from flowers, and cinnamon oil from bark. Some plants
are sources of more than one essential oil, dependent on the part
processed. Some plant materials produce a great deal of oil; others
produce very little. The strength or quality of the oil is dependent on
multiple factors, including soil conditions, time of year, sub-species
of plant, and even the time of day the plant is harvested.
oils are commonly used in alternative remedies. They are called
"essential" because they capture the "essence" of the plant.
How it is made
As each essential oil has different chemical compounds in it, it
stands to reason that the medicinal benefits of each are also different.
As such, an entire alternative medical discipline has developed to find
the appropriate oil for the condition that needs treatment.
The manufacture of essential oils, known as "extraction," can be achieved by various methods:
Distillation method: Using a "still" like old-time moonshiners, water
is boiled through an amount of plant material to produce a steam that
travels through cooled coils. This steam condenses into a "mixture" of
oil and water (which doesn't really mix) from which the oil can be
Pressing method: The oils of citrus fruit can be
isolated by a technique which involves putting the peels through a
"press." This works best only with the oiliest of plant materials, such
as orange skins.
Maceration method: A fixed oil (sometimes called a
"carrier" oil) or lard may be combined with the plant part and exposed
to the sun over time, causing the fixed oil to become infused with the
plant "essence." Oftentimes, a heat source is used to move the process
along. The plant material may be added several times during the process
to manufacture a stronger oil. This is the method by which you obtain
products such as "garlic-infused olive oil." A similar process using
flowers is referred to as "enfleurage."
Solvent method: Alcohol and other solvents may be
used on some plant parts, usually flowers, to release the essential oil
in a multi-step process.
you might not realize it, you've been using essential oils all your
life. You've no doubt used them in soaps, furniture polishes, perfumes,
How to administer
The method of administration may differ, as well. Common methods include:
Inhalation therapy: This method is also known as "aromatherapy." Add a
few drops of the essential oil in a bowl of steaming water (distilled
or sterilized), and inhale. This method is most effective when placing a
towel over your head to catch the vapors. Many people will place
essential oils in potpourri or use a "diffuser" to spread the aroma
throughout the room; this technique probably dilutes any medicinal
Topical application: The skin is an amazing absorbent surface, and
using essential oils by direct application is a popular method of
administration. The oil may be used as part of a massage, or directly
placed on the skin to achieve a therapeutic effect on a rash or muscle.
Before considering using an essential oil in this manner, always test
for allergic reactions beforehand. Even though the chemical compounds in
the oil are natural, that doesn't mean that they couldn't have an
adverse effect on you (case in point: poison ivy).
A simple test involves placing a couple of drops on the inside of
your forearm with a cotton applicator. Within 12-24 hours, you'll notice
a rash developing if you're allergic. Mixing some of the essential oil
with a fixed or "carrier" oil such as olive oil before use is a safer
option for topical use. Another concern, mostly with topically-applied
citrus oils, is "phototoxicity" (an exaggerated burn response to sun
I have some reservations about whether applying an essential oil on
the skin over a deep organ, such as the pancreas, will have any specific
effect on that organ. It is much more likely to work, however, on the
skin itself or underlying muscle tissue.
Ingestion: Direct ingestion is unwise for many essential oils, and
this method should be used with caution. Most internal uses of an
essential oil should be of a very small amount diluted in at least a
tablespoon of a fixed oil such as olive oil. Professional guidance is
imperative when considering this method. You can always consider a tea
made with the herb as an alternative. This is a safer mode of internal
use, although the effect may not be as strong.
Essential oils have been used as medical treatment for a very long
time, but it's difficult to provide definitive evidence of their
effectiveness for several reasons. Essential oils are difficult to
standardize, due to variance in the quality of the product based on soil
conditions, time of year, and other factors that we mentioned above. An
essential Eucalyptus oil may be obtained from Eucalyptus Globulus or
Eucalyptus Radiata, for example, and have differing properties as a
result. These factors combine to make scientific study problematic.
In most university experiments, a major effort is made to be certain
that the substance tested caused the results obtained. As essential oils
have a number of different chemicals and are often marketed as blends,
which ingredient was the cause of the effect? If the oil is applied with
massage, was the effect related to the oil itself or the therapeutic
benefit of the physical therapy?
The majority of studies on essential oils have been conducted by the
cosmetics and food industries; some have been conducted by individuals
or small companies. Standard studies for medicinal benefit are usually
performed by the pharmaceutical industry, but they generally have little
interest in herbal products. This is because they have few options in
patenting these products. Therefore, serious funding is hard to find
because of the limited profit potential. Despite this, essential oils
have various reported beneficial effects, mainly based on their
historical use on many thousands of patients by alternative healers.
Common essential oils
Although there are many essential oils, a number of them are
considered mainstays of any herbal medicine cabinet. Here are just some:
it only takes a few leaves of peppermint to make a tea, it takes five
pounds of leaves to make one ounce of essential oil.
Lavender oil: An analgesic (pain reliever),
antiseptic, and immune stimulant. It is thought to be good for skin care
and to promote healing, especially in burns, bruises, scrapes, acne,
rashes, and bug bites. Lavender has a calming effect, and is used for
insomnia, stress, and depression. It has been reported effective as a
decongestant through steam inhalation. Lavender oil may have use as an
antifungal agent, and may be used for Athlete's foot or other related
Eucalyptus oil: An antiseptic, antiviral, and
decongestant (also an excellent insect repellent), Eucalyptus oil has a
"cooling" effect on skin. It also aids with respiratory issues and is
thought to boost the immune system. Consider its use for flus, colds,
sore throats, coughs, sinusitis, bronchitis, and hay fever. When
exposure is expected, it has been reported to have a preventative
effect. Eucalyptus may be used in massages, steam inhalation, and as a
bath additive. Although eucalyptus oil has been used in cough medicine,
it is likely greatly diluted and should not be otherwise ingested in
Melaleuca (Tea Tree) oil: Diluted in a carrier oil
such as coconut, Tea Tree oil may be good for athlete's foot, acne, skin
wounds, and even insect bites. In the garden, Tea Tree oil is a
reasonable organic method of pest control. In inhalation therapy, it is
reported to help relieve respiratory congestion. Studies have been
performed which find it effective against both Staphylococcus and fungal
infections. Some even recommend a few drops in a pint of water for use
as a vaginal douche to treat yeast. Tea Tree oil may be toxic if used in
high concentrations, around sensitive areas like the eyes, or ingested.
Peppermint oil: This oil is said to have various
therapeutic effects: antiseptic, antibacterial, decongestant, and
anti-emetic (stops vomiting). Peppermint oil is applied directly to the
abdomen when used for digestive disorders such as irritable bowel
syndrome, heartburn, and abdominal cramping. Some herbalists prescribe
peppermint for headache; massage a drop or two to the temples as needed.
For sudden abdominal conditions, achy muscles or painful joints,
massage the diluted oil externally onto the affected area. As mentioned
previously, definitive proof of the topical application effects on deep
organs is difficult to find.
Lemon oil: Used for many years as a surface
disinfectant, it is often found in furniture cleaners. Many seem to
think that this disinfecting action makes it good for sterilizing water,
but there is no evidence that it is as effective as any of the standard
methods of doing so, such as boiling. Lemon oil is thought to have a
calming effect; some businesses claim to have better results from their
employees when they use it as aromatherapy. Don't apply this oil on the
skin if you will be exposed to the sun that day, due to possible
Clove oil: Although thought to have multiple uses as
an anti-fungal, antiseptic, antiviral, analgesic, and sedative, clove
oil particularly shines as an anesthetic and antimicrobial. It is
marketed as "Eugenol" to dentists throughout the world as a natural pain
killer for toothaches. A toothpaste can be made by combining clove oil
and baking soda; when mixed with zinc oxide powder, it makes an
excellent temporary cement for lost fillings and loose crowns. Use clove
oil with caution, as it may have an irritant effect on the gums if too
much is applied.
Arnica oil: Arnica oil is used as a topical agent
for muscle injuries and aches. Thought to be analgesic and
anti-inflammatory, it is found in a number of sports ointments. As a
personal aside, I have tested this oil on myself, and found it to be
effective though not very long lasting. Frequent application would be
needed for long term relief. Although some essential oils are excellent
as aromatherapy, Arnica oil is toxic if inhaled.
Chamomile oil: There are at least two versions of
chamomile oil, Roman and German. Roman chamomile is a watery oil, while
German chamomile seems more viscous. Both are used to treat skin
conditions such as eczema as well as irritations due to allergies.
Chamomile oil is thought to decrease gastrointestinal inflammation and
irritation, and is thought have a calming effect as aromatherapy,
especially in children.
A typical small essential oil distiller
Geranium oil: Although variable in its effects based
on the species of plant used, geranium oil is reported to inhibit the
production of sebum in the skin, and may be helpful in controlling acne.
Some believe that it also may have hemostatic (blood-clotting)
properties, and is often recommended for bleeding from small cuts and
bruising. When a small amount of oil is diluted in shampoo, it may be
considered a treatment for head lice.
Helichrysum oil: Thought to be a strong analgesic
and anti-inflammatory, helichrysum is used to treat arthritis,
tendonitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, and fibromyalgia as part of massage
therapy. It has also been offered as a treatment for chronic skin
Rosemary oil: Represented as having multiple uses as
an antibacterial, anti-fungal, and anti-parasitic, rosemary oil is
proven to control spider mites in gardens. Use a few drops with water
for a disinfectant mouthwash. Inhalation, either cold or steamed, may
relieve congested or constricted respiration. Mixed with a carrier oil,
it is used to treat tension headaches and muscle aches.
Clary sage oil: One of the various chemical
constituents of Clary sage has a composition similar to estrogen, and
has been used to treat menstrual irregularities, premenstrual syndrome,
and other hormonal issues. It is also believed to have a mild
anticoagulant effect, and may have some use as a blood thinner. Clary
sage also is thought to have some sedative effect, and has been used as a
Neem oil: With over 150 chemical ingredients, the
Neem tree is referred as "the village pharmacy" in its native India. The
majority of Ayurvedic alternative remedies have some form of Neem oil
in them. Proven as a natural organic pesticide, we personally use Neem
oil in our vegetable garden. Reported medicinal benefits are too
numerous to list here and seem to cover just about every organ system.
It should be noted, however, that it may be toxic when the oil is taken
Wintergreen oil: A source of natural salicylates,
wintergreen oil is a proven anticoagulant and analgesic. About 1 fluid
ounce of wintergreen oil is the equivalent of 171 aspirin tablets if
ingested, so use very small amounts. It may also have beneficial effects
on intestinal spasms and might reduce blood pressure in hypertensives.
Frankincense oil: One of the earliest documented
essential oils, evidence of its use goes back 5000 years to ancient
Egypt. Catholics will recognize it as the incense used during religious
ceremonies. Studies from Johns Hopkins University and Hebrew University
state that Frankincense relieves anxiety and depression in mice (how,
exactly, was this determined?). Direct application of the oil may have
antibacterial and antifungal properties, and is thought to be helpful
for wound healing. As a cold or steam inhalant, it is sometimes used for
lung and nasal congestion.
Blue Tansy oil: Helpful as a companion plant for
organic pest control, Blue Tansy is sometimes planted along with
potatoes and other vegetables. The oil has been used for years to treat
intestinal worms and other parasites. One of its constituents, camphor,
is used in medicinal chest rubs and ointments. In the past, it has been
used in certain dental procedures as an antibacterial.
Field of lavender
Oregano oil: An antiseptic, oregano oil has been
used in the past as an antibacterial agent. It should be noted that
oregano oil is derived from a different species of the plant than the
oregano used in cooking. One of the few essential oils that are safe to
ingest, it is thought to be helpful in calming stomach upset, and may
help relieve sore throats. Its antibacterial action leads some to use
the oil in topical applications on skin infections when diluted with a
carrier oil. It may reduce the body's ability to absorb iron, so
consider an iron supplement if you use this regularly.
Thyme oil: Reported to have significant
antimicrobial action, diluted thyme oil is used to cure skin infections,
and may be helpful for ringworm and athlete's foot. Thyme is sometimes
used to reduce intestinal cramps in massage therapy. As inhalation
therapy, it may loosen congestion from upper respiratory infections.
Many essential oils are marketed as blends, such as "Thieves' Oil."
This is a combination of clove, lemon, cinnamon bark, eucalyptus, and
rosemary essential oils. Touted to treat a broad variety of ailments,
studies at Weber State University indicate a good success rate in
killing airborne viruses and bacteria. Of course, the more elements in
the mixture, the higher chance for adverse reactions, such as