Essential oils are highly concentrated natural plant extracts; a drop or two can produce significant results. An entire plant, when distilled, might produce only a single drop of essential oil, that is why their potency is far greater than dried herbs. Pressing or distillation extracts the subtle, volatile liquids (meaning they evaporate quickly) from plants, shrubs, flowers, trees, roots, bushes, and seeds, that make up essential oils.
Essential oils are the life-blood of the plant, protecting it from bacterial and viral infections, cleansing breaks in its tissue and delivering oxygen and nutrients into the cells. In essence, they act as the immune system of the plant. That is why they are so essential to the plant — without them, plants could not survive.
In the human body, they have a similar action — such as transporting valuable nutrients to the cells; increasing oxygen intake, and digesting toxic waste in the blood. This is because the three primary elements – carbon, hydrogen and oxygen – are common to both human beings and essential oils. This shared chemistry makes essential oils one of the most compatible of all plant substances with human biochemistry.
Not only that, but the lipid-soluble structure of essential oils and the fact that they have a protein-like structure similar to human cells and tissues makes them even more compatible with human tissue.
Essential oils are very different from vegetable oils (also called fatty oils), such as corn oil, olive oil, peanut oil, etc. Fatty oils are produced by pressing nuts or seeds. They are quite greasy, are not anti-microbial nor help transport oxygen, and will go rancid over time. Essential oils, however, are not greasy, nor do they clog the pores like vegetable oils can and they do not become rancid.
Essential oils are highly complex substances. They are mosaics of hundreds – even thousands – of different natural chemicals. The average essential oil may contain anywhere from 80 to 400 known chemical constituents. Many oils contain even more, occurring in minute quantities – but all contributing to the oil’s therapeutic effects. It requires years of study to understand these constituents, their activity and functions.
Different varieties of the same oil can have widely different therapeutic actions, depending on their chemistry. For example, basil high in linalool or fenchol is primarily used for its antiseptic properties. However, basil high in methyl chavicol is more anti-inflammatory than antiseptic. A third type, basil high in eugenol, has both anti-inflammatory and antiseptic effects.
In addition, essential oils can be processed in different ways, which dramatically effects their chemistry and medicinal action. Oils that have been redistilled two or three times are obviously not as potent as oils that have been distilled only once. Also, oils that are subjected to high heat and pressure in processing have an inferior profile of chemical constituents, since excessive heat and temperature fractures and breaks down many of the delicate aromatic compounds within the oil — compounds that are responsible for much of the therapeutic action of the oil.
Of even greater importance is the fact that some oils are thinned or cut (i.e. adulterated) with synthetic chemicals, often petroleum in nature.
The Different Types of Essential Oils
Essential oils are obtained by different methods — distillation being the most familiar. There are four types of essential oils:
- Absolutes vs. concretes
Absolutes are “essences,” rather than “essential” oils. They are generally obtained from the extraction of a concrete with alcohol. A concrete is the solid waxy residue derived from hexane extraction of plant material (usually the flower petals). This method of extraction is used for botanicals where the fragrance and therapeutic parts of the plant can only be unlocked using solvents. These are not to be used internally, as traces of petrochemicals remain in the oil. Jasmine and neroli are examples of absolutes.
Expressed oils are pressed from the rind of fruits (usually citrus). Tangerines, grapefruits, lemons and oranges are produced by this method. Technically speaking, these are not “essential oils” – they are expressed oils, but they are highly regarded for their therapeutic properties, none the less. It is best to use only organically grown crops for this method, since pesticide residues, especially highly toxic, oil-soluble carbamate and chloride-based petrochemicals, can become highly concentrated in the oil.
Solvent extraction involves the use of oil-soluble solvents, such as hexane, dimethylenechloride, and acetone. There is no guarantee that the finished product will be free of solvent residues.
Steam distillation is the oldest and most traditional method of extraction. Plant material is inserted into a cooking chamber, and steam is passed through it. After the steam is collected and condensed, it is processed through a separator to collect the oil. The amount of pressure used, the amount of time the plant material is steamed and the material the steam chamber is constructed of contribute a great deal to the quality of (or lack of) the oil .
How Essential Oils Are Used
Historically, there have been three models for using essential oils: the French, the German, and the English methods.
The English traditionally dilute a small amount of essential oil in vegetable oil and massage the body to relax and relieve stress.
The French prefer to ingest (swallow) therapeutic-grade essential oils. Many French practitioners have found that taking the oils internally is highly effective.
The Germans recommend inhalation of the essential oils. There is good reason for this – research has shown that these aromatic compounds can exert strong effects on the brain, especially on the hypothalamus (the hormone command center of the body) and the limbic system (the seat of emotions). Some essential oils can dramatically increase oxygenation and activity in the brain. Oils also increase ozone and negative ions, which inhibit bacterial growth. Essential oils can make chemicals non-toxic by fracturing their molecular structure.
European scientists have found that essential oils work as natural chelators, bonding to metallics and chemicals and carrying them out of the body. Diffused essential oils make outstanding air filtration systems, helping to remove dust particles from the air and destroying odors from mold, cigarettes, animals, etc.
When diffused, the oils reach the brain by means of the olfactory system. The olfactory membranes have about 800 million nerve endings that receive micro-fine, vaporized oil particles. They carry them along the axon of the nerve fibers and connect them with the secondary neurons in the olfactory bulb. The impulses are then transported to the limbic system and the olfactory sensory center at the base of the brain. Then they pass between the pituitary and pineal gland and move to the amygdala – the memory center. The impulses then travel to the gustatory center where the sensation of taste is perceived.
The best method of application depends on the need. In some cases, inhalation might be preferred over topical application if the goal is to induce weight loss or balance mood and emotions. In other cases, topical application would produce better results, as in the case of muscle or spinal injuries. For indigestion, peppermint oil taken orally is very effective. Yet peppermint can also produce the same results when massaged on the stomach. In some cases, all three methods of application (topical, inhalation and ingestion) are interchangeable and may produce similar benefits.
The two most common methods of essential oil application are cold-air diffusing and neat (undiluted) topical application. Healing response is greatly enhanced when essential oils are incorporating into the disciplines of reflexology, Vita Flex, acupressure, acupuncture, auricular techniques, lymphatic massage, spinal touch, and the Raindrop Technique ®.Carla Golden is a vegan nutritionist and a massage therapist in private practice specializing in therapeutic essential oils. With a Bachelor of Science degree in Holistic Health & Healing, she enjoys helping others discover the benefits and liberation inherent in a whole food, plant-based diet. The Vegan Key™ is her newest online nutrition program based on tried and true methods which foster performance, vitality, and purpose.