Once upon a time I associated essential oils with spas, relaxation, and generally making things smell nice. I assumed they were just another trendy product that gained popularity out of nowhere to make money. I had never heard about their long history and their healing abilities - and when I finally did I was skeptical.
How? How can tiny drops of plant oils work like medicine? I grew up knowing that herbs are healing - after all, herbs were our first medicines, and arguably some of the best. Most of the pharmaceutical drugs we have now came from studying natural medicines, such as herbs and other plants. I knew that plants could heal, but I didn't know why. I wanted to learn, so I did.
As a Clinical Aromatherapist, I often get questions like this from skeptics, just like I use to be. "How do they work?" "How can an essential oil help with this?" "How can an oil actually heal?"
Those questions are valid, and should be asked. But I also find them ironic because we live in an age where most people have zero hesitation about taking a pill for a headache. We buy cough syrups, cold and flu medicines, pain medicines, and more by the bucketsful. Our medicine cabinets are well stocked with the latest thing to take our pain away and make our lives better. And one rarely seems to ask "why or how do these work?". They are labeled as "medicine", so we as a society have accepted all of those things as medicine. Even in cases where they don't work....or seem to cause more health issues than we started with.
So Let's Start With How Drugs Work
This is a very simplified explanation and there is much more to it, but for the sake of time (and my typing fingers), I'll keep it simple. When you pop a pill for a headache, your drug of choice travels to the small intestine and eventually to the liver, which breaks it down and what remains ends up in the bloodstream. All of our tissues are supplied with blood, and the remnants of the drug go everywhere your blood goes.
So, the drug goes everywhere inside your body, but each drug is designed to look for special protein molecules, or receptors. Drugs will latch on to or "fit in" any receptors that they can. Like a lock and key. That's what makes them effective - and it's also what causes side effects when they fit into a receptor that wasn't desired.
My asthma inhaler is a great example. It finds the inflammation receptors in my lungs and eases the tightness and inflammation. But it also has an ingredient, or constituent, in it that fits perfectly in any receptor that iodine also fits into. We need iodine to make thyroid hormone, but if those receptors are no longer open, the iodine can't go where it's supposed to, which causes thyroid issues and iodine deficiency. We label those issues as "side effects" of the asthma inhaler.
How Essential Oils are Different
Essential oils are made by distilling or expressing plant matter in order to get the volatile oils out of it. Volatile means that it evaporates readily, which is what makes it an essential oil - different from, for example, olive oil, which doesn't evaporate. The "essential" name came from the fact that these oils are usually made from the fragrant or "essence" of the plant. After the distillation process you end up with an extremely concentrated substance that can contain hundreds of individual biochemical components, or constituents.
These constituents have been divided up scientifically into smaller groups that describe their chemical structure and function in the body. These are groups like Esters, Terpenes, Alcohols, Ketones, and Phenols. Some are anti-inflammatory, some are antibacterial, some are analgesic, etc. As you learn more about essential oils, you can learn about what each group does in the body, and which oils have what active constituents. (I love that part!) Essential oil constituents can be absorbed through the skin, through the respiratory and olfactory systems and mucous membranes via inhalation, and through the digestive system, depending on the method of use.
I gave that mini Chemistry lesson to explain that each constituent of an essential oil fits into your body's receptors. Just like drugs...except different. Like drugs, essential oil constituents will find what they fit into and become the key to the lock. The big difference is that our bodies are smart cookies, and they typically recognize chemicals from plant matter as "normal", whereas oftentimes our bodies recognize pharmaceutical drugs as foreign, and may not know how to process those chemicals correctly, or at all. Our systems have to work harder to decode most pharmaceuticals. Obviously, not all plant matter is good for our bodies either. Some can be outright deadly. But our body systems were created with the ability to process the constituents found in plants, and our receptors welcome them. How well our body accepts the keys to those locks has a huge role in how effective a substance works, and our body's positive or negative reaction to it.
In general, essential oils are much easier on our liver health than standard pharmaceuticals, because our liver recognizes so many chemicals in pharmaceuticals as toxins to be filtered out. Our livers end up overworked, clogged with toxins, and unhealthy. Liver damage is a huge issue for many people who have been on months or years of standard medicines, even over the counter ones. Contrast that with essential oils, which oftentimes have constituents that are hepatic (tone and strengthen the liver), and you can see how making a different choice to help that headache can make a huge difference in overall health.
So given that, pause and consider this: You take OTC medicine when you get a headache. That OTC medicine clogs up your liver. One of the side effects of a clogged up liver is... a headache. See the problem?
Essential Oil Safety IS Important
Essential oils, like pharmaceuticals, will fit into receptors that you may not have intended. More often than not, an essential oil finding multiple receptor sites to hang out in is a great thing. Good side effects, rather than bad, are normally experienced. For example, when you use Lavender essential oil to treat a burn, it heals the burn, eases the pain of the burn, and also eases any anxiety during the process. It's a total win win win.
Occasionally an oil finding certain receptor sites, or causing certain outcomes, can be a problem, which is why some oils are not recommended in some cases, such as pregnancy, kidney damage, or epilepsy. Essential oil safety and knowledge is important, because they do work. Overall though, the chances of an unwanted side effect from an essential oil are vastly less than from pharmaceuticals.
It is important to learn the best way to use your essential oils. Some can cause skin or mucous membrane irritations if not properly diluted with a carrier oil before use, and some are not recommended for individuals with certain medical conditions. When in doubt, always ask someone who has experience and training.
Taking Full Advantage of What We Have
I have studied and used and taught on essential oils long enough to say without question that they do heal, and they heal a wide-range of issues and ailments. In college I chose to study Complementary Alternative Medicine (CAM), which means that my outlook is geared toward working with "standard" medicine and blending that with what we now consider to be alternative or natural medicine. They can work together. There is a place for both of them. I also believe strongly that if it can be healed with a natural cure, then it should be. Essential oils are only one tool in our shed, but they are an important and incredibly useful one. God created us to recognize them, and the herbs that they came from, as medicine. Who are we to argue?