How do essential oils work?

So how do essential oils and aromatherapy work? We get asked this question a lot by customers and is one of our favourite questions to answers!

aromatherapy counter with essential oil bottles

Firstly, let’s look at what is an essential oil. An essential oil is the fragrance essence which is extracted from different parts of aromatic plants, such as flowers, leaves, bark, seeds, roots, needles, wood, rind and others. Pure essential oils are highly concentrated plant essences, and it takes a lot of plant material to produce essential oils. For example, it takes 3 to 5 tonnes of fresh rose petals to produce 1 litre of rose essential oil!

Why do plants produce essential oils?

Essential oils serve a number of purposes in plants. The scents of flowers attract pollinators aiding natural selection. Leaf oils, wood oils and root oils serve to protect against insects and animals and ward off disease. Resins which appear when the trunk of a tree is injured prevent the loss of sap and act as protective seal against parasites and harmful organisms. Some even make the soil around them toxic to other plants with which they would compete for sunlight, moisture, and nutrients.

How do we benefit from essential oils?

Humans have interacted with plants for millennia and have discovered beneficial properties of plants, such as medicinal plants. Essential oils are highly concentrated essences from plant material and a great way to harness mother nature’s gifts. Aromatherapy is the practice of using essential oils for their therapeutic benefits to humans. Each essential oil possesses unique properties and it is these properties that are most exciting when working with essential oils.

In what ways do essential oils work?

There are two main methods to reap the benefits form essential oils. Essential oils can be applied topically on the skin or inhaled.

How do essential oils work when applied on topically on the skin?

lady applying aromatherapy body massage oil to legs in bed

When topically applied essential oil molecules can be absorbed by the skin. They pass through the outer and deeper layers of the skin/fat and enter the blood stream from where they are taken to various parts of the body.

Why essential oils work lies at the level of our body cells. Receptors are made up of a series of complex, molecular chains whose last links are open-ended. They are open to connecting with other molecular formations that ‘happen’ to pass by. They will then bind with this structure.

Owing to their specific biochemical characteristics the oil molecules bind to cell receptors in the target organ. If an essential oil is to work it must fit into a precisely chosen receptor. All organs have receptor sites and the essential oil and its successors recognise these receptor sites and ‘gravitate’ towards them.

How do essential oils work when inhaled?

design illustration of sense of aromatherapy smell

When inhaled, the scent molecules in essential oils travel from the olfactory nerves directly to the brain and especially impact the amygdala, the emotional centre of the brain.

During inhalation essential oil particles are quickly picked up by the cilia in our nostrils and are absorbed via innumerable receptors into the mucous lining from where the ‘aroma’ reaches the ‘smell centre’ in the brain (olfactory bulb).

The olfactory centre converts the inhaled aroma into a neural code which is relayed across to the limbic system (the body’s emotional centre) and further to the ‘short-term memory centre’ (hippocampus) followed by the ‘long term memory centre’ (hypothalamus). The information is then passed on to the pituitary gland and other endocrine glands to restore hormonal balance.

Essential oils have therapeutic effects by stimulating the olfactory system, which is connected to the limbic system in the brain—the part of the brain which controls functions such as breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, memory, stress levels and hormone balance.

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