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The immune response is orchestrated by three distinct groups of cells, the phagocytes, the ‘T’ cells and the ‘B’ cells. These all originate from white blood cells in the bone marrow and serve to protect the body from infection. If this defensive barrier is damaged for some reason, the body becomes more vulnerable to invasion from all sorts of pathogenic organisms. The immune system is supported by and closely related to other body functions including the lymphatic and nervous systems. Recent research tends to suggest that emotional and psychological factors play a vital role in the efficiency of the immune response and this may help to account for the fact that viral infections and suppressed immune systems are becoming an increasing problem today.

Many essential oils actively support the immune system when used on a daily basis and provide a natural form of protection against infection, and as Hippocrates famously said: “prevention is better than cure.” This is because many essential oils possess a wide range of powerful bactericidal, antiviral and antiseptic properties… a well-known fact in earlier times, as exemplified by the case of the ‘Four Thieves’ - see my blog: ‘Winter Wellness & the Story of the Four Thieves’. The secret aromatic recipe used by the famous four thieves which was used to combat the plague epidemic, is known to have consisted of a combination of cinnamon, cloves, camphor, eucalyptus, rosemary and lemon. In Europe during the 16th century, rosemary was also burned in public places to help contain the Great Plague and was carried by individuals in special pouches whilst travelling. All these essential oils were subsequently tested at Weber State University (Utah) in 1997 and found to have 99.96 % effectiveness against airborne bacteria. These aromatics are still amongst the most effective preventative oils for protecting against airborne contagious infections, although today there are many other essential oils, due to the advantages of global trade, which can be added to this list.

Essential oils are especially effective as preventives against airborne infections that are often prevalent over the winter months. Because essential oils vaporise naturally – as their biochemical name ‘volatile oils’ implies – they have an intrinsic affinity with the respiratory system and many oils therefore exert a powerful therapeutic effect when inhaled directly.

"Natural aromatics have held a traditional place in the preventive medicinal practices of many cultures, both ancient and modern. It is certainly true that people who are exposed to the beneficial effects of essential oils on a daily basis tend to have a greater resistance to disease in general.” ('The Complete Illustrated Guide to Aromatherapy', by Julia Lawless)

Rosemary oil, is still one of my favourite ‘go to’ oils for supporting the immune system overall. It is a powerful prophylactic agent, that is, it has good anti-viral and bactericidal properties, which can help prevent the spread of infection, especially those connected with the respiratory system. To make a steam inhalation, add a few drops to a bowl of boiling water and breathe in the vapours deeply for 5 minutes, keeping the eyes closed. For further information and directions on how to make a chest rub plus other practical guidelines please see my book ‘Rosemary Oil’. (Note: rosemary oil is contra-indicated for epileptics, those with high blood pressure and during pregnancy). To help protect from germs and prevent airborne bugs from spreading to others in the same room or vicinity, it is beneficial to use rosemary oil or tea tree oil in a vaporiser throughout the day both in the home as well as in the work place. A few drops of these oils can also be added to a hankie or to a scarf (as they leave no stain) to act as a general protective ‘screen’, then wrapped around the neck whilst out and about.

Tea tree oil especially has been subjected to a great deal of scientific research in the last few decades regarding its bactericidal and anti-viral properties plus its ability to support the immune system. For example, in an experiment carried out in Australia in 1980, tea tree oil was found to be an effective germicide at only 4 parts essential oil to 1000 parts water. In another trial in 1983, it was found that tea tree oil reduced the bacteria count on hands from 3000 per 50cm to 3 per 50 cm. (Ref: page 15, ‘Tea tree Oil’ by Julia Lawless). The effectiveness of tea tree oil in fighting infection is further backed up by its ability to stimulate the immune system, that is, tea tree oil increases the body’s own capacity to protect itself and respond defensively. In some hospitals, tea tree oil is already being used to help increase the immune response of patients waiting for surgery and aid recovery of those with long-term debilitating illness. What makes tea tree remarkable is that the oil is active against all three types of infectious organisms: bacteria, fungi and viruses (ref: page 25. Ibid). Tea tree oil is also useful in combatting feverish conditions associated with viral infection, used in vaporisers and steam inhalations. In addition, Tea Tree water is ideal for general household disinfectant use, for hands and for cleaning surfaces. (Note: tea tree oil can cause skin sensitization in some individuals – always do a patch test before use).

Many citrus oils such as bergamot, grapefruit, lemon or lime are very effective to use in vaporisers at home or in the office to purify the air as they create a fresh, uplifting feeling, whilst disinfecting the environment naturally. According to modern scientific research, lemon eucalyptus, may chang and lemongrass which all contain high amounts of citral or citronellal, exhibit good anti-microbial activity while juniperberry, thyme and pine oil (which contain borneol and esters) also exhibit excellent bactericidal properties. Other camphoracous essential oils that have valuable anti-bacterical properties include, eucalyptus (all types), ravintsara, ravensara, cajeput and naouli.

In addition, there are several essential oils that help build up immunity by actively supporting the respiratory system, including frankincense, sandalwood and myrrh, which are all powerful anti-bactericidal oils in their own right. All the spice oils help to bring heat to our whole metabolism thereby supporting the immune system by helping to combat chills alongside powerful anti-septic, anti-bactericidal and anti-viral properties. Oils such as clove, cinnamon leaf, black pepper, ginger and cardamom therefore make potent additions to blends. For example, our ‘Festive’ diffusion blend which includes frankincense, myrrh, cinnamon & sweet orange together with cedarwood and cypress oils acts as an excellent protective, warming and elevating air-freshener. While our ‘Clear Head’ diffusion blend which includes eucalyptus and ravensara as well as balsam of Peru, has an underlying rich-warm spicy note, that facilitates breathing, soothes coughs and acts as a purifying air-freshener to ward off infection. It is certainly worthwhile investing in an efficient electric diffuser in times of contagious infection together with a range of essential oils to help combat the spread of germs and to support the immune and respiratory systems naturally.