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Essential oils are like nature bottled up. But are these tiny containers of plant extracts really the mood boosters, headache tamers and sleep saviors they’re hyped up to be? Let’s sniff out the truth together!

So, what exactly are these mysterious liquids? Picture this: Steam or press flowers, bark, leaves or fruits of plants and voilà! You’ve got yourself some concentrated goodness known as essential oils. It’s like capturing a plant’s essence in a jar.

Aromatherapy is not just about filling your space with delightful scents; it’s a whole mood-boosting, stress-relieving, nausea-ending experience. These oils can reach deep into your brain and tickle your emotions all with just a whiff. But they aren’t just for sniffing. You can rub them on your skin for a muscle-melting massage or sprinkle them into your bath for a relaxing soak. Now, do they really work? The jury’s still out. Some studies say yay, while others are more of a “meh.” But hey, if it smells good and feels good, who’s complaining?

But hold your horses, cowboy! Before you go dousing yourself in essential oils like there’s no tomorrow, remember: Safety first! Not all oils are created equal and quality and quantity matters. From lavender lulling you into dreamland to tea tree tackling pesky pimples, there’s an oil for every woe. Where do you find these, you ask? With so many options out there, it’s like navigating a forest full of fake foliage. But fear not. We’ve got some tips and tricks to help you separate the champs from the chumps.

Many patients, clients and consumers may inquire about essential oils and their potential benefits. Health and wellness professionals should be equipped with accurate information to educate clients on the safe and appropriate use of essential oils, potential interactions with dietary choices and their role in supporting overall health goals. Understanding essential oils also allows dietitians to engage in interdisciplinary collaborations and offer well-rounded care to clients. Overall, being knowledgeable about essential oils aligns with the broader scope of practice for dietitians, empowering you to support clients in achieving optimal health and well-being.

So, are you ready to dive headfirst into the world of essential oils? Buckle up, buttercup, because we’re about to embark on a fragrant journey like no other!

Nuts and bolts 

Essential oils, in essence, are extracts derived from plants, according to information from John Hopkins Medicine. They’re crafted through the meticulous process of steaming or pressing different plant components such as flowers, bark, leaves or fruit, to capture the aromatic compounds within. Crafting just a single bottle of essential oil can necessitate the use of multiple pounds of plant material. Besides imparting fragrance, essential oils serve various vital functions within plants.

Aromatherapy, an ancient practice steeped in tradition, harnesses the power of essential oils for therapeutic purposes. For centuries, it has been revered for its ability to uplift the spirit and soothe the soul. When inhaled, the aromatic molecules of essential oils embark on a fascinating journey, traveling from the olfactory nerves directly to the brain, where they exert a profound influence, particularly on the amygdala, the seat of our emotions.

Essential oils also possess the remarkable ability to penetrate the skin, opening up a world of possibilities for relaxation and rejuvenation. Picture this: A skilled massage therapist incorporating a drop or two of wintergreen into his or her massage oil, easing tense muscles with each soothing stroke. Or perhaps a skincare aficionado indulging in a luxurious bath infused with lavender-laced bath salts, transforming a mundane soak into a blissful oasis of tranquility.

Megan Voss, DNP, RN and adjunct clinical associate professor at the University of Minnesota’s School of Nursing, worked for a while advising children, adolescents, young adults and families on the safe and effective use of essential oils with treatment for cancer or other serious diseases at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital. She said the essential oil work didn’t come from a passion, but rather a need, with the rising public interest in aromatherapy. Aromatherapy is becoming increasingly common in healthcare settings, and it’s healthcare professionals’ responsibility to provide accurate information to patients, she said.

“I think aromatherapy can be a great therapeutic modality that can help people use less pharmaceuticals,” Voss said. “As long as they’re approached with a level of caution. Lavender oil to help with sleep instead of using a sleep aid can be a great addition to anyone’s wellbeing plan. I would not recommend it in lieu of conventional medical treatments, but as a complement to, I think they’re great.”

Benefits 

Essential oils are often touted as natural remedies for a variety of ailments, yet the extent of their effectiveness in human health remains a subject of ongoing investigation. While laboratory studies offer promising glimpses into their potential, such as outperforming antibiotics against a strain of Lyme bacteria, the outcomes of human clinical trials present a more complex picture.

Indeed, the findings from these trials are varied, with some suggesting the therapeutic benefits of essential oils in addressing conditions like anxiety, insomnia, low appetite and dry mouth, while others fail to demonstrate significant improvements in symptoms. According to WebMD, aromatherapy is not a substitute for conventional medical treatments, but it has the potential to:

  1. Alleviate stress, anxiety and depression.
  2. Enhance feelings of calmness and relaxation.
  3. Promote better sleep quality.
  4. Enhance the quality of life for consumers managing chronic health issues such as dementia.  
  5. Relieve specific types of pain, including discomfort associated with kidney stones and knee osteoarthritis.
  6. Exhibit antibacterial properties when applied topically.
  7. Mitigate some of the adverse effects of cancer therapy, such as nausea and pain.

“Essential oils are probably the strongest of all herbal medicines because they are the most concentrated,” said Michael Scholes, owner of the Laboratory of Flowers, a company offering more than 600 essential oils and more. “Essential oils are nature’s medicine.”

Having worked in his field for the last 36 years, the biggest issues he’s come across are when people don’t know what essential oils are or what the proper dosage is.

“A little bit of education goes a long way,” he said. “And even a Google education goes a long way. They are safe, they are the only medicines that smell good, they are highly therapeutic, and if you use them continuously, it will change the way you see your own health. It is the most fascinating subject because it has benefits on you physically, emotionally, psychologically, mentally, spiritually if you’re inclined perhaps, energetically especially, and hormonally.”

Cautions

While essential oils may hold promise as complementary treatments, further research is warranted to fully elucidate their efficacy and mechanisms of action in human health.

Ensuring the safe usage of essential oils is paramount, due to the vast variability in quality found on the market. From pure extracts to those diluted with less costly additives, the spectrum is wide, and unfortunately, the lack of regulation means labels may not always disclose every ingredient present in the bottle consumers may be purchasing. Therefore, it’s imperative to exercise caution, particularly when considering ingestion, which is generally not recommended.

Furthermore, experts caution against the indiscriminate use of essential oil diffusers, those nifty gadgets that fill the air with delightful scents. While diffusion can create a pleasant ambiance, its impact can vary widely, particularly in public spaces or households with multiple occupants. For instance, peppermint oil is often championed for its headache-relieving properties. However, if diffused around young children under 30 months (about 2 and a half years) old, it may provoke agitation rather than relief. Similarly, consumers with rapid heart rates may experience adverse reactions to peppermint oil, underscoring the importance of informed and cautious usage.

“The biggest misconception is this idea that if something is natural, it’s safe,” Voss said. “Just because something is natural doesn’t guarantee safety. If something can elicit a therapeutic benefit, it can also cause an unintended consequence.”

Essential oils that are 2% diluted or less are the best for topical use; 1% diluted or less are best for pediatric blends, Voss said. Exercise extreme caution when using essential oils with children under 6 and do not use essential oils with children under 2. It’s recommended for inhaling and topical use, but not ingesting them orally.

Voss cautioned of essential oils not interacting well with medications a patient may be taking. Additionally, aromatherapy can be more powerful if it’s used intermittently, she said. The same oils being used 24-7 can result in a diluted therapeutic effect. Voss doesn’t recommend the usage of a humidifier especially for immunocompromised patients, who can be susceptible to environmental molds.

Safe methods

Here are the safest methods for utilizing essential oils:

Accessories: Embrace stylish accessories like necklaces, bracelets or keychains designed with absorbent materials. Apply a few drops of essential oils onto these accessories and enjoy a gentle sniff throughout the day, ensuring a delightful aromatic experience.

Aroma sticks: Discover the convenience of essential oil inhalers, also known as aroma sticks. These portable plastic sticks feature an absorbent wick that readily soaks up essential oils. With a cover to seal in the fragrance until ready for use, aroma sticks provide a discreet and on-the-go aromatherapy solution.

Body oil: Blend essential oils with carrier oils such as olive, jojoba or coconut oil to create sumptuous body oils. When massaged into the skin, these concoctions offer a luxurious and therapeutic experience. Remember, due to their potent nature, it’s advisable to avoid using undiluted essential oils directly on the skin to prevent irritation.

Regarding allergic reactions to essential oils, it’s essential to exercise caution, especially if the patient, client or consumer has a history of skin sensitivities. While rare, some consumers may experience irritation or allergic responses to specific essential oils, such as oregano, cinnamon bark, jasmine, lemongrass, ylang-ylang, chamomile or bergamot oils. To mitigate the risk, dilute pure essential oils with carrier oils before applying them to the skin. If patients, clients or consumers notice any adverse reactions, such as a red, itchy rash or hives, they should seek medical attention promptly to address potential allergic reactions.

Favorite essential oils

Determining the top-notch essential oils amidst the plethora of options can be quite the aromatic adventure! With a vast array of fragrances and chemical compositions, the ideal selection hinges on the specific symptoms consumers aim to alleviate or the scents that resonate with their preferences. Citrus oils and other organic compounds are pretty safe, Voss said, since they are most similar to what’s found in nature. Something like sandalwood has been much more processed.

While there is no “best” essential oil, here’s a peek into some of the crowd-favorite essential oils:

Lavender oil: Renowned for its calming properties, lavender oil is a beloved choice for stress relief, anxiety reduction and promoting restful sleep. Voss recommended using lavender during meditation to relax, and then again using it before taking a stressful test, for example, eliciting the same relaxation response.

Tea tree oil: Originating from the Australian Aboriginal tradition of healing, tea tree oil, also known as melaleuca, has found its way into modern skincare routines, effectively combating acne, athlete’s foot and insect bites.

Peppermint oil: With its invigorating aroma and versatile benefits, peppermint oil holds promise in easing tension headaches when applied topically.

Lemon oil: Bursting with a citrusy zest, lemon oil is celebrated for its mood-lifting properties and finds its way into homemade cleaning solutions for a refreshing, uplifting scent.

Scholes recommended the four oils above as well as rosemary because it’s good for vitality and the lungs. Eucalyptus is good for decongesting, and conifers like spruce can be good for kidneys and adrenal glands, he said. Geranium, which has nice, floral uplifting notes, he said, is good for hormone concerns, especially feminine hormone concerns, and good for the skin. Something exotic like jasmine, rose or neroli would also be beneficial to keep on hand.

“You don’t need a lot,” Scholes said. “People think you have to buy vast quantities and use many drops, but if you would buy a very small size and take a sliver of that, less than a drop of eucalyptus, put it between your hands and inhale, that would last a long time.”

Consumers overall should be mindful of quantity and frequency, Voss said. Sometimes blends can be more effective than single note therapy; reasons being patients can associate a single smell with something not favorable such as being at the clinic, or can develop a sensitivity or aversion over time.

“Scents are so tied to our memories and how we’re feeling,” Voss said. She noted she developed some lightheadedness and headaches working with essential oils at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital.

Quality

Navigating the realm of essential oils requires a keen eye for quality. Despite the absence of a standardized grading system or official certification by a government agency in the U.S., discerning consumers prioritize product quality above all else. Beware of misleading claims such as “therapeutic grade,” which often serve as mere marketing ploys. Unfortunately, the market is rife with products that may not undergo proper harvesting or contain undisclosed ingredients, highlighting the importance of thorough research and vigilant label scrutiny to ensure consumers are investing in genuine, high-quality essential oils.

Below are some expert guidelines from John Hopkins to assist consumers in selecting authentic essential oils:

Scrutinize the label: Take a close look at the label, which should provide comprehensive information including the Latin name of the plant, details on purity, any additional ingredients and the country of origin where the plant was cultivated.

Research the company: Opt for products from well-established and reputable aromatherapy companies with a proven track record spanning several years. This ensures a higher likelihood of sourcing quality oils.

Opt for dark-colored glass containers: Given the potency of pure essential oils, it’s crucial to select products packaged in dark-colored glass bottles. Plastic containers are susceptible to degradation over time, potentially compromising the oil’s integrity. Most reputable companies opt for small brown or blue glass jars to safeguard the oil’s quality.

Steer clear of “fragrance oils:” Beware of fragrance or perfume oils, which often contain synthetic chemicals or additives. These are unsuitable for aromatherapy purposes. Instead, prioritize bottles containing 100% pure essential oil, devoid of any fillers or contaminants.

Compare price: Essential oils come with varying price tags, reflective of factors such as harvesting methods and production complexity. Expect higher prices for premium oils like rose absolute or sandalwood, while more common varieties like sweet orange oil are comparatively affordable. Beware of unusually low prices for expensive oils, as they may indicate impurity or dilution.

Harnessing the power of authentic essential oils can uplift consumers’ spirits and contribute to overall well-being with their enchanting fragrances. For comprehensive guidance on integrating these oils into a healthy lifestyle, consumers should consider consulting with an integrative medicine expert. Health and wellness professionals may collaborate with other healthcare professionals, including aromatherapists, herbalists, and integrative medicine practitioners, to provide integrative care.

In conclusion, essential oils offer a tantalizing glimpse into nature’s bounty, promising a myriad of benefits for well-being. But it’s crucial to tread carefully and arm ourselves with knowledge. As health and wellness professionals, you play a pivotal role in guiding clients on the safe and effective use of essential oils, navigating the vast landscape of options with confidence. By staying informed on research, understanding quality standards and prioritizing safety, you can empower clients to harness the therapeutic potential of essential oils while avoiding potential pitfalls.

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