A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic

Essential oils and health: 5 things to know

Essential oils and aromatherapy have been around for more than 5,000 years, starting in ancient Egyptian times. With the growing popularity of essential oils today, it can be hard to “make sense of scents” and know what is best to use and the health benefits?

What are essential oils?

Photo of an essential oil with leaves around it

Find a distributor you can trust when purchasing essential oils.

Essential oils are highly concentrated plant oils that are extracted from fruits, leaves and roots. Nurse Practitioner Cathleen Brazile, from Marshfield Clinic Health System, said the oils are carefully extracted through steam distillation, resin tapping and cold pressing.

“The oils can be used as oil-infused lotions that are rubbed on the skin, and the compounds are absorbed into the bloodstream,” Brazile said. “Or, they can be diluted in water and diffused into the air. Once inhaled, the oils bind to smell receptors and stimulate the central nervous system.”

Essential oil benefits

For centuries in other countries, essential oils have been used to relieve pain, help ease headaches, promote relaxation and sleep, improve mood, alleviate congestion and help heal wounds.

“They also were used as part of beauty products,” Brazile said. “Some of the essential oils have antibacterial properties and are used to help reduce infection by using them in cleaning or beauty products.”

Although she personally has benefitted from essential oils, Brazile would never recommend essential oils as an alternative to prescription medicine.

“As a licensed professional, I am always cautious to only recommend or prescribe things that are covered by my official medical education,” she said. “However, I believe there are some essential oils that are a good adjunct to prescription medicine. I think essential oils that are for mood, sleep and anxiety are a good ‘tool in your toolbox’ for treating those disorders.”

In a medical setting, aromatherapy is offered at Marshfield Medical Center in Marshfield as part of a birth plan option for expecting mothers. The Birth Center offers lavender, tangerine, tea tree, geranium and jasmine to provide comfort for the family.

Common oils to use

Some of the most common essential oils are citrus extracts like lemon, grapefruit and lime, Brazile said. These are often used in water to enhance the taste and provide electrolytes that you normally get from those citrus fruits.

Lavender is one of the most used oils to help with sleep, but people also use it in cooking to add a fruity taste to certain dishes. Peppermint can be used to help with headaches, or add to water for a refreshing summer drink. Brazile also said to add peppermint in water for a cooling spray during exercise or outdoor activities.

“I personally use essential oils to diffuse in my home and in my office,” she said. “I have some combinations of oils that have properties of being antibacterial and antiviral. I diffuse those during cold and flu season to help boost my immune system.”

In addition, she uses roll-on oils and other diffused oils to help decrease stress at night when it is time to sleep, and she has a peppermint roll diluted in coconut oil to put on her head when she has a headache.

Other popular oils include frankincense to help improve mood and decrease anxiety; and patchouli to cool down after exercise and before bed to increase peacefulness and calm. In addition, tea tree oil has been widely used for topical use on fungal nails.

“There are many blended oils available that are specifically used for mood,” Brazile said. “There are other blends that are used for respiratory aid like using a combination of lavender, lemon and peppermint, in a capsule or diffused, to help with allergies.”

Are essential oils safe?

Like supplements, essential oils are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). However, the FDA still works to enforce guidelines and restrictions concerning how essential oil products are marketed – specifically the health claims made in connection to the product.

“Essential oils have a reputation for being safe overall,” Brazile said. “However it is important for anyone that uses them to become educated in their use.”

In order to assure safe use of any product, read the directions and do some initial research before using any product for the first time.

Find a distributor you trust

If anyone is interested in using essential oils, Brazile recommends contacting a reputable distributor.

“Most of the major brands of essential oils have catalogs that list their products and benefits from them,” she said.  “There are some naturopaths and holistic doctors who also have extensive knowledge of what to use for different purposes. I recommend those who are unsure about using essential oils talk to someone who is an expert in the field.”

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