How Do Essential Oils Affect the Body?

Essential oils affect the body through inhalation, application to the skin, and by ingestion. When essential oil molecules enter through the nose, they reach the lungs and find their way into the blood stream and every part of the body.

Chemical interactions occur between the oils and our bodies that initiate physical changes. Hormone and enzyme responses to the oil molecules can take place.

Our bodies can become sedated, stimulated or relaxed by the action of certain oils. Pain may be relieved, wounds may heal, inflammation and spasms may cease.

Essential oils can perform many functions for our bodies; supporting and balancing many systems – circulatory, digestive, respiratory, nervous, endocrine and reproductive. Some oils will affect more than one system within the body. Peppermint for instance, is used as an inhalant to open respiratory passages. It’s also used to calm an upset digestive tract and when used on muscle spasms will tend to release those as well.

Some oils can relieve allergy symptoms, others help metabolize nutrients for our bodies, or boost our natural immune systems to fight off diseases. Essential oils can help

  • relieve many skin conditions
  • clear our sinuses
  • relax tight muscles
  • relax us and improve sleep
  • relieve headaches
  • relieve muscle and joint pain

In Oxford, England, hospitals are using essential oils known for their sedative or antidepressant qualities to release endorphins and enkephalins (neurochemical analgesics and tranquilizers). Lavender, marjoram, geranium, mandarin, and cardamom have replaced chemical sedatives in these hospitals. These and other oils relax people, lower blood pressure, increase mental acuity, normalize body functions, reduce stress, and even act as aphrodisiacs.

Aromatherapy Scent and Psyche: Using Essential Oils for Physical and Emotional Well-Being - Peter and Kate Damian

How Essential Oils Affect the Body through the Skin

Essential oils are unique in that they can pass through the epidermal barrier and enter the bloodstream without causing injury or triggering inflammation or water loss. This is because of their small molecular structure and weight which allows them to penetrate the skin readily. Essential oils are not water soluble. They’re oil and lipid soluble further facilitating entry through the epidermis. Essential oils are safe and nontoxic; many of them being considered GRAS (Generally Regarded As Safe) by the FDA.

One study conducted by scientists at the Institute of Pharmaceutical Chemistry at the University of Vienna tested the ability of lavender to enter the blood stream when applied on the skin. Lavender was placed in a carrier oil (peanut oil) and massaged on the stomach for ten minutes. Blood samples were drawn at 0, 5, 10, 15, 20, 30, 45, 60, 75 and 90 minutes following application of the oil. Noticeable quantities of the chemical constituents of lavender appeared in the blood after only five minutes and reached a peak at 20 minutes. This experiment as reported in teaching materials produced by Young Living Essential Oils showed that topically applied essential oils dissolved into an appropriate vegetable carrier oil can effectively penetrate into the tissues and bloodstream.

Essential Oils for Physical Health & Well-Being, Linda L. Smith

Essential Oils Can Penetrate Cell Membranes

The Essential Oil Desk Reference, 4th Edition tells us that “ essential oils are lipid soluble and can penetrate cell membranes bringing an increase of 21% oxygen to the cells within 20 minutes of application. ” This allows cells to function normally and release chemical toxins in an oxygen rich environment. Sesquiterpene molecules especially increase oxygen availability in the limbic system of the brain around the pineal and pituitary glands. Some oils high in sesquiterpenes include:

  • Basil
  • Cedarwood
  • Melissa
  • Myrrh
  • Sandalwood
  • Ylang ylang
This oxygenated environment can “lead to an increase of antibodies, endorphins and neurotransmitters. Essential oils also carry into the cells, ozone and negative ions which inhibit bacterial growth, antioxidants and hormones – all necessary for proper cell functioning.”

Some Essential Oils Act as Antioxidants

Most of us today are familiar with the harmful effects of free-radicals in the body. What is less well-known is that some essential oil molecules have the ability to act as antioxidants. Free-radicals are produced by the body during cellular and tissue metabolism. They’re also formed when the body tries to remove petrochemicals and heavy metals from tissues. By controlling and eliminating free-radicals, they’re able to slow down the aging process and even renew the body; something readily noticed by those who make essential oil applications a daily practice.

Scientists at Tufts University developed a way of measuring the ability of foods and oils to destroy free-radicals - slowing the aging process and preventing certain diseases like cancers. The scale is called the ORAC = Oxygen Radical Absorption Capacity. The higher the ORAC score, the more capable a substance is in destroying free radicals.

Antioxidant (ORAC) Scores for Selected Essential Oils
This is a test developed by USDA researchers at Tuft University in Boston, MA. ORAC means oxygen radical absorbance capacity. This test is the first of its kind to measure both time and degree of free-radical inhibition. All antioxidant capacity measures are estimated by Ferric Reducing Power and expressed as micromole Trolox equivalent (TE) per 100 grams, accurate to plus or minus 5%.
Sandalwood 160
Juniper 250
Frankincense 630
Cistus (Rose of Sharon) 3,860
Cinnamon Bark 10,340
Cassia 15,170
Balsam Fir 20,500
Hyssop 20,900
Cypress 24,300
Myrtle 25,400
Galbanum 26,200
Spikenard 54,800
Rose 160,400
Cedarwood 169,00
Myrrh 379,800
Clove 1,078,700
Excerpted from the Essential Oils Desk Reference, 4th Edition

Essential Oils Can Improve Nutrition

Essential oils can improve absorption, assimilation and utilization of nutrients when they’re added to foods. Since the oils can more easily penetrate cell membranes, they help to carry the nutrients into the cells with them. This includes vitamins, minerals, enzymes, fats, proteins and carbohydrates.

Many Essential Oils Have Anti-bacterial, Anti-viral, Anti-fungal, Anti-parasitic, Anti-inflammatory and Antiseptic Properties

Some essential oils like cedarwood, myrrh, citronella and peppermint act like natural insect repellants. Others are natural antiseptics and fight against infection. Essential oils in general, make the environment particularly hostile for microbes like bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi, yet are safe for us.

Essential oils and incenses were used successfully in biblical times to counteract plagues. Today, scientific research is confirming that many individual oils are anti-bacterial, anti-viral, anti-fungal, anti-parasitic, anti-inflammatory and antiseptic. For instance, it has been proven through research that thymol, carvacol, eugenol, and cinnamic aldehyde show antiseptic activity that is stronger than phenol.

Dr. Kurt Schnaubelt, author of Medical Aromatherapy: Healing with Essential Oils, states that essential oils have a 95% success potential against infections.

A large part of the universal action of essential oils lies in their ability to weaken the constant pathogenic aggression to which human beings are subject, while – at the same time – leaving friendly bacteria untouched. Antibiotics, by contrast, are not selective, destroying bacteria indiscriminately. We frequently see fungal infections start to proliferate, particularly Candida albicans, after treatment with antibiotics. However, such manifestations never appear after treatment with essential oils. The entire human organism, physical and psychological, is strengthened and fortified, energized and revitalized, detoxified and purified from these amazing aromatic medicines.

Natural Home Health Care Using Essential Oils, Daniel Penoel, MD

This is a glimpse into the many and amazing ways essential oils affect the body. To learn about some specific scientific and clinical research studies done with essential oils, refer to Essential Oils Research. 

Essential Oils and Aromatherapy > How Do Essential Oils Affect the Body? > How do essential oils affect our minds and emotions?

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