Essential oils - is this the future?

Essential oil (EO) is an oily mixture of volatile, strong-smelling substances secreted by plants. Unlike vegetable oils (olive, sunflower, linseed), essential oils do not leave greasy stains on surfaces, they quickly evaporate and dissipate. Each plant produces its own, unique in composition and properties, which performs a number of important functions in nature:

  •  attracts insects for pollination;
  •  protects against pathogens;
  •  repels herbivorous animals;
  •  retains moisture and protects from direct sunlight.

A bit of history

The unique and beneficial properties of essential oils secreted by plants have been noticed by people several millennia ago. In ancient Egypt, they were used as early as 3500 BC as incense during religious ceremonies, for cosmetic and medicinal purposes. In China they were used in combination with massage and acupuncture. Their use has a deep tradition in Ayurveda (the ancient Indian system of medicine and a healthy lifestyle).

The ancient Greek philosopher and doctor Hippocrates said, “The path to health is an aromatic bath and a massage with incense every day.”

According to some historical sources, the famous Persian physician Avicenna (980 - 1037), invented the process of distillation of essential oils, and in this way obtained a rose oil concentrate. He wrote about it, “Rose oil enhances the capabilities of the mind and increases the speed of thinking.”

In Europe, the healing properties of aromatic essential oils were actively used during the Renaissance.

The relevance of the topic is due to the ongoing process of learning, the desire for naturalness, a serious appeal to the experience of previous generations. An important aspect is concern for the environment, which is polluted by synthetic medicinal, cosmetic, and perfumery products. However, it must be taken into account that essential oils are extremely complex substances in terms of chemical composition with a variety of properties that depend not only on the plant, but also on its parts (leaves, stems, fruits, roots ...), the region of growth, the application of fertilizers to the soil, the method of extraction, in connection with which their influence on the human body is multifaceted and not fully understood.

Modern research – what about and in what direction...

Yale J Biol Med (YJBM), a quarterly medical journal, published an article Essential Oils and Health in June 2020 highlighting research findings on essential oils, their health benefits, and possible negative side effects.

The authors of the article point out that essential oils and “some of their individual components have antimicrobial, antiviral, antibiotic, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, as well as alleged psychogenic effects: stress relief, treatment of depression, help with insomnia.”

Experts consider most essential oils to be safe, but warn of the possibility of side effects and rare cases of serious toxic reactions.

Mass media and advertising contribute to the fact that the use of essential oils is becoming widespread: they replace traditional medicines, they are contained in hygiene and cosmetic products, in food flavorings and flavoring additives. In this regard, new in-depth studies of the effects of essential oils on human health are required.

Antimicrobial effects

A variety of infectious diseases regularly pose a huge threat to human health and life, and bacterial infections often show resistance to antibiotics. This forces scientists to look for alternative antimicrobial agents, including among essential oils. According to data published in YJBM, the experiments demonstrated that essential oils obtained from oregano affected the polio virus and adenovirus; from garlic - enterobacteria and fungal infections of the Candida species; from lavender - Escherichia coli; from medicinal lemon balm - bird flu virus. This list of bacteria and viruses that can be destroyed by essential oils is constantly expanding in the process of research.

The researchers have also noticed that extracts of certain plants (fennel, basil, cloves, citrus fruits) could potentially be useful in the treatment of human fungal diseases.

Repellents - synthetic or organic?

There are a number of diseases that are spread by insects. Despite the availability of vaccines, it is important to avoid being bitten by infected mosquitoes, fleas, midges, and ticks. Odorous synthetic and organic repellents can be of help. The authors of the YJBM publication once again emphasize the danger of chemical repellents for the environment and human health, and consider essential oils as an alternative. At the same time, researchers note the presence of negative side effects of the use of essential oils: there have been cases of asthma, headache, eye irritation, neuro- and immunosuppression. Due to the fact that many repellents are applied directly to the skin to increase their effectiveness, contact dermatitis is a particular problem.

In general, additional research is needed to fully and comprehensively assess the qualities of essential oils as an alternative to synthetic repellents.

Anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties

Inflammation is a protective biological reaction of the body to a harmful external influence (infection, tissue damage) and is usually accompanied by an increase in body temperature, pain, and a disruption of the normal functioning of organs and systems. Too high a temperature not only kills viruses and bacteria, but can damage your own cells.

As reported in YJBM, studies have found that “essential oils of chamomile, eucalyptus, rosemary, lavender and yarrow block mediate the inflammatory response” and have antioxidant properties. They help reduce inflammation, normalize temperature, and have an analgesic effect.

Psychotherapeutic properties

Depression, anxiety and emotional stress are a serious problem for many. Conventional treatments typically involve cognitive behavioral therapy and drug therapy with the use of antidepressants. Research shows that essential oils can be an alternative.

According to YJBM, during clinical trials the properties of some essential oils (lavender, orange, bergamot) were confirmed to reduce patients' feelings of fear, anxiety, and have a calming effect.

About endocrine disorders

An article in YJBM demonstrates the negative impact of certain essential oils on the human endocrine system. Scientists have discovered that regular use of hygiene products with tea tree or lavender oil can lead to hormonal disorders in the body of adolescents. In this case, essential oils act as “endocrine disruptors” at the cellular level.

Research perspectives

Note that the range of applications of essential oils is quite large: medicine, veterinary medicine, cosmetology, agriculture (as a replacement for insecticides and pesticides). 

Ongoing research confirms the diverse effects of essential oils on human health, with both positive outcomes and undesirable side effects. Since essential oils are considered by many experts as an alternative to synthetic medicines, many additional tests are required for a more complete and in-depth understanding of their properties.