What Are Essential Oils?
Essential oils are compounds extracted from plants. The oils capture the plant’s scent and flavor, also called its “essence.” Unique aromatic compounds give each essential oil its characteristic essence. Essential oils are obtained through distillation (via steam and/or water) or mechanical methods, such as cold pressing. Once the aromatic chemicals have been extracted, they are combined with a carrier oil to create a product that’s ready for use. The way the oils are made is important, as essential oils obtained through chemical processes are not considered true essential oils.
Stress, Anxiety and Depression
It has been estimated that 43% of people who have stress and anxiety use some form of alternative therapy to help with their condition (8). Regarding aromatherapy, initial studies have been quite positive. Many have shown that the smell of some essential oils can work as a complementary therapy to treat anxiety and stress. However, due to the scents of the compounds, it’s hard to conduct blinded studies and rule out biases. Because of this, many reviews on the stress- and anxiety-relieving effects of essential oils have been inconclusive. Interestingly, using essential oils during a massage may help relieve stress, although the effects may only last while the massage is taking place. A recent review of over 201 studies found that only 10 were robust enough to analyze. It also concluded that aromatherapy was ineffective at treating anxiety.
Headaches and Migraines
In the ’90s, two small studies found that dabbing a peppermint oil and ethanol mixture on participants’ foreheads and temples relieved headache pain. Recent studies have also found positive effects against headaches when applying peppermint and lavender oil to the skin. It has also been suggested that applying a mixture of chamomile and sesame oil to the temples may effectively treat headaches and migraines. This is a traditional Persian headache remedy. However, more high-quality studies are needed on this.
Sleep and Insomnia
Smelling lavender oil has been shown to positively affect the sleep quality of women after childbirth, as well as patients with heart disease. One review examined 15 studies on essential oils and sleep. The majority of studies showed that smelling the oils (mostly lavender) had positive effects on sleeping habits.
It has been suggested that essential oils may help fight inflammatory conditions. Some test-tube studies show that they have anti-inflammatory effects. One mouse study found that ingesting a combination of thyme and oregano essential oils helped induce the remission of colitis. Two rat studies on caraway and rosemary oils found similar results. However, very few human studies have examined the effects of these oils on inflammatory diseases. Their effectiveness and safety are unknown.
Antibiotic and Antimicrobial
The rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria has renewed interest in the search for other compounds that can fight bacterial infections. Essential oils, such as peppermint and tea tree oil, have been investigated extensively in test tubes for their antimicrobial effects. In fact, they have shown some positive results. However, while test-tube study results are interesting, they do not necessarily reflect what’s happening within your body. They don’t prove that a particular essential oil could effectively treat bacterial infections in humans.