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Healthy Living

Beginner’s Guide to Essential Oils

With the weather changing and flu season around the corner, it is more important than ever to keep ourselves healthy and our immunity high. And while cough syrups and over-the-counter drugs are readily available, they often bring along a host of unattractive side effects. To avoid these, many people are turning to natural remedies, particularly essential oils.

Essential oils have been used for thousands of years. Ancient Egyptians were known to use these oils for their cosmetic and medicinal properties. Essential oils were also common in the Far East (China) and are mentioned in both the Old and New Testaments. Clearly, they have withstood the test of time. This is wonderful information to have, but you might be asking yourself, ‘What exactly are essential oils?

In short, they are highly concentrated plant extracts. These extracts are hydrophobic, meaning that they do not mix with water (similar to cooking oils). Although they are called oils, it is important to keep in mind that an oil is simply a liquid that does not mix with water, not a fatty acid. Most essential oils are not composed of lipids at all. Essential oils contain the essence of the plant’s aroma, and are generally extracted through distillation. They are extremely potent—it takes a great deal of plant matter to produce even a few drops of oil. To put this into perspective, it takes approximately 150 pounds of lavender plant to produce 1 pound of essential oil (very concentrated indeed!).

There are multiple ways to use essential oils. The three most common are:

      1. Topically- The skin is a permeable barrier, absorbing much of what is applied onto it. For optimal absorption, warm/massage the area prior to application. Increased blood flow makes for more effective absorption.
      2. Through inhalation- This is the fastest and most efficient way to use essential oils. They can be inhaled directly or with a diffuser.
      3. Through ingestion- This is not generally recommended, as essential oils are quite potent. Make sure you are under the supervision of a knowledgeable aromatherapist before ingesting.

Various application methods are suited to various ailments. Every plant oil has its own unique set of properties. Some help with emotional troubles, others with skin ailments, and others with various aches or pains. Most skincare issues are best treated topically, whereas many mood related concerns are best addressed through inhalation of the essential oils. Research your condition and consult an expert prior to use.

There are dozens of various essential oils on the market today. Many are used individually,  however some are blended together to create a more effective oil. These blends, known as synergies, combine properties of various plants to better address particular conditions and concerns. It can be overwhelming to search through exhaustive lists of oils when starting out. To help you acquaint yourself, here is a list of some popular oils and their benefits:

  • Lavender- Helps to relieve nervous tension and promote a sense of calm. Can be used in carrier oils to treat the appearance of scars, wrinkles, and minor burns.
  • Peppermint- Aids in alertness and increasing energy levels as well as easing nasal and sinus congestion. Good for memory and brain function. Peppermint’s cooling effect on the skin can be used for pain relief as well.
  • Orange- Used to improve immunity and uplift mood.
  • Tea Tree- Beneficial in treatment of certain skin conditions (acne, psoriasis, dandruff, dryness)
  • Eucalyptus- Aids in respiratory problems and aching muscles and joints. Can also help with improving blood circulation.
  • Lemon- Boosts immunity, has an energizing effect on the moods, and is often used for cleansing.
  • Rose-Soothes fever-related inflammation, fights viral infection, helps with depression and sexual disorders.
  • Basil- Boosts memory, focus, and concentration.
  • Align (synergy of frankincense, rosewood, spruce, and blue tansy)- Helps with stress and balancing life.
  • Calming (synergy of lemongrass, sweet orange, and ylang ylang)- Eases anxiety.
  • Brain Power (synergy of sandalwood, cedarwood, melissa, frankincense, blue cypress, and helichrysum)- Increases focus and clarity of thought.

The benefits of essential oils cover a broad range of symptoms and concerns. Although essential oils have been in existence for thousands of years, not much scientific research has been conducted on their therapeutic qualities (this is changing in recent years). Since they are not standardized (the properties of the plants and oils change in response to geography, weather conditions, processing, etc), labs are reluctant to work with them. Scientists need to know that their results can be replicated, and if the oils they are testing are highly variable, this proves to be quite a challenge. Another issue hindering clinical research on essential oils is the fact that it is difficult to tell what factor caused improvement. If, for example, a person receiving a massage with lavender oil once a week for four weeks feels less anxiety at the end of the trial, it is difficult to assess if the improvement is due to the massage itself, the oil, a placebo effect, or something else.

However, even without much scientific data backing up essential oils, they have been used for a long time and many people have benefited from them greatly. If you are looking for a natural remedy to ease symptoms, they are more than worth a try. The key is to do some research beforehand, make sure the oils you use are of high quality, make sure you are using them correctly (not too high of a concentration), and use oils which address your unique set of symptoms and concerns. A simple way to start would be with massage or by adding a few drops to your bath. There are even some yoga classes which incorporate aromatherapy into their practice!

Be safe and enjoy the journey of discovering your favorite essential oils. For more on wellness and balanced living see our posts mindfulness and benefits of yoga.

Feel free to share your experiences with us on Twitter @yogatailor or in the comments section below.

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