Aromatherapy has become a trendy way to treat a wide range of conditions, including insomnia, anxiety and pain.
Some essential oils, derived from plants and used in aromatherapy, also have antibacterial and antifungal properties, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center.
While scientific evidence that essential oils help treat certain health conditions is lacking, aromatherapy has been used for nearly 6,000 years and is commonly used in spas and hospitals today, according to the hospital’s website.
What are essential oils?
Essential oils are complex mixtures of anywhere from 20 to 100 different compounds, extracted from the roots, leaves, seeds or blossoms of plants, according to Mary O’Connell, distinguished achievement and regents professor in plant and environmental sciences at New Mexico State University.
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Essential oils and their uses
• Basil. Used topically, it may help treat acne.
“Applying a gel containing basil and sweet orange essential oils to the skin for eight weeks might help clear breakouts in people with acne,” according to the WebMD website.
The scent of basil also can help lift the spirits, according to owner Deborah Brandt of From The Ground Up in Las Cruces, N.M. She’s also a clinical herbalist at the herb shop and apothecary of herbal formulas.
• Clove. Used topically, it has a numbing, anesthetic effect, O’Connell said. It also has antibacterial qualities.
“Clove essential oil has been used for decades for toothaches,” Brandt said.
• Eucalyptus. Used as an antibacterial agent, it also can help clear respiratory congestion when inhaled.
“You can put eucalyptus oil in steaming water, and put a towel over your head and breath in those scents,” Brandt said.
• Fennel, aniseed, sage and clary sage oils. These essential oils all contain estrogen compounds, which may help relieve symptoms of premenstrual syndrome and menopause, according to the medical center.
• Floral oils. Lavender, as well as rose, orange, bergamot, lemon, sandalwood and others have been shown to relieve anxiety, stress, and depression, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center.
“Lavender is very common for relaxing,” said Brandt, who suggests putting a few drops your pillow before bed.
• Lemon balm. Used topically, it may help treat skin conditions such as herpes, shingles and cold sores.
Mix lemon balm with St. John’s wart oil to help reduce symptoms of the herpes virus, Brandt said.
• Peppermint. Used topically, it is an antibacterial agent. When taken with tea, it can soothe an upset stomach, O’Connell said.
Peppermint also can be used to ease a headache by mixing a drop of peppermint oil with another oil such as almond oil or olive oil and rubbing it into the temples, Brandt said.
• Rosemary. Rosemary aromatherapy may improve memory quality, according to WebMD and Brandt.
The herb “has some of the same compounds as the drugs for Alzheimer’s disease, and it’s interesting that rosemary, historically, has been called the herb of remembrance,” Brandt said.
• Thuja. Apply directly to the skin for joint pain, osteoarthritis, and muscle pain. It can also be used as an insect repellent.
“I mix it with other oils for bacterial infections,” Brandt said.
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How to choose
Today, consumers have many brands to choose from.
O’Connell recommends picking a provider that is careful about growing plants, processing the oil from them and storing the oil.
“If you use essential oils for your condition and you’re not better in three days, then go to the doctor.”
Deborah Brandt, clinical herbalist
The chemical composition of essential oils varies depending on the environment, where the plants were grown and the specific genetics of the plant variety, she said. Whether the oils are distilled through use of steam or extracted with a solvent also can cause the composition of the oil to vary.
And oils degrade over time — remember how olive oil in your pantry can get rancid?
Based on how the oil is stored, its quality an be impaired, O’Connell said. Store oils darker bottles to maintain their quality longer.
Brandt recommends looking for essential oil brands that are organic to ensure the oil is in its purest form.
Dos and don’ts
• Never take essential oils by mouth unless under the supervision of a trained professional.
Some are toxic, and ingesting them can be fatal, according to University of Maryland Medical Center officials.
• Look for side effects. In rare cases aromatherapy can cause rashes, asthma, headaches, liver damage and nerve damage, as well as harm to a fetus.
• Add water or a base massage oil to an essential oil before applying to your skin. Oils high in phenols, like cinnamon, can irritate the skin.
If using an essential oil externally, Brandt recommends mixing one-part essential oil with about five parts carrier, such as coconut oil or olive oil to dilute it and avoid any skin reactions. Avoid using essential oils near the eyes.
• Don’t use near an open flame. Essential oils are highly volatile and flammable.
• Go to a doctor if necessary. Essential oils are not a cure-all.
“If you use essential oils for your condition and you’re not better in three days, then go to the doctor,” Brandt said.
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