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Science of Essential Oils

From ancient times, essential oils have been valued as healing & cosmetic agents, especially for their rejuvenating & anti-aging qualities. Scientific research is now confirming many of the traditional usages of essential oils as well as making new and valuable discoveries. For example, it is now being found that essential oils interact with our own biological activity in such a way that makes them very effective skin care agents on a basic molecular level.

“A growing number of in-vitro and in-vivo studies document the specific actions of essential oils, particularly anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and anti-fungal properties. Baylac and Racine (2003) suspected that the mechanism for anti-inflammatory properties of some essential oils is inhibition of enzymatic reactions in the epidermis and other tissues. They evaluated 32 essential oils, 10 absolutes and 26 chemical constituents in vitro for their ability to inhibit 5-lipooxygenase, an important enzyme in a complex case of inflammatory events. Many of the oils used in aromatherapy for inflammation (e.g., myrrh, Copaiba balsam, Himalayan cedar, sandalwood, juniper berry and German Chamomile) had strong to good activity. The authors were surprised to find other essential oils, primarily Citrus species, also had strong activity in vitro, but were not reportedly used in aromatherapy for inflammation.” (Leonard Pearlstine, Aromatherapy Science 2006. ‘AromaScents Journal 35)

Massage is the most popular method utilized in the practise of aromatherapy today. In this case, the topical application of essential oils is combined with the beneficial effects of touch and physical massage techniques to make a potent healing method, especially when applied to many of our modern stress-related conditions. But how do the essential oils contribute to the therapeutic process in this case? Scientific research has confirmed that a proportion of the constituents in each essential oil are absorbed into the body when applied to the skin:

“Absorption through the skin was observed by Jager (1992). When a 2% solution of lavender was applied to the abdomen, 10% of the lavender was absorbed into the general blood circulation with plasma levels peaking after 20 minutes. Levels of linalool and linalyl acetate, active constituents of lavender oil, dropped to zero after 90 minutes. During this period after application, the lavender oil constituents were circulated to tissue via capillaries. Potentially higher levels of absorption are likely across the highly vascular cribiform plate in the nose with a direct pathway to the brain (Jager 1992)”. (Ibid.)

Thus in aromatherapy practice, when essential oils are applied externally they are transported via the blood to various parts of the body and are able to influence the internal systems of the organism not just the surface skin. Indeed, it is now well accepted that essential oil components can be absorbed through the skin to reach internal organs … in fact, the use of skin patches has become a common mechanism for dispensing pharmaceuticals.

But perhaps an aspect of aromatherapy which is less understood is that the inhaled aromatic molecules absorbed via the lungs acts as fast-acting pathway by which the chemical constituents of essential oils reach internal tissues. In this way they are absorbed into the blood stream by thin membranes of the nose, bronchioles and lungs & where the mechanism for absorption via this route works much more rapidly than through the skin. Therefore, whenever essentials are inhaled, such as during a massage, in the bath or shower, or as a steam inhalation or room fragrance, the effect of the particular essential oil influences us on a chemical level almost instantaneously! At the same time, the inhaled molecules also react with nerves in the olfactory bulb and relay nerve messages to the limbic system, which controls factors such as mood and memory. This accounts for the reason why certain fragrances or perfumes can have such an immediate effect on our emotional make-up. Essential oils can consequently have a direct effect both psychologically and physically simply when they are inhaled, not only by lifting or improving our mood as with a perfume or room spray, but also on a molecular level when they are absorbed via our lung tissue.

The complexity of this process was shown by Richard Axel and Linda Buck in 2004, when they won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine by demonstrating that different odours were detected by different combinations of olfactory receptors. It is the combined power of multiple receptors, each distinguishing a limited piece of aromatic code, that results in our ability to distinguish and form memories of more than 10,000 different scents!

The internal use of essential oils is not covered here, as although aromatherapy is practiced in this way in parts of Europe by qualified physicians, direct ingestion of essential oils is not recommended under any circumstances by the lay-person due to their potent concentration. For further information about the action & science of essential oils see Julia Lawless’s books, such as ‘Tea tree Oil: Nature's Miracle Healer’.