Essential Oils 101

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The most powerful plant allies and how to use them

Essential oils are everywhere these days! You may have heard about them and the myriad health benefits and healing properties they possess, but what exactly are essential oils? Far more significant than another trend or health fad, essential oils date back thousands of years, their uses and benefits referenced on Egyptian papyrus, in Chinese manuscripts noting their medicinal and healing properties, by Greeks and Romans for their beauty properties, and in the Bible, where aromas of Frankincense and Myrrh were sacred in the practices of prayer and ritual. In ancient Vedic texts and rituals, incense and fumigation were some very ancient forms of aromatherapy, offered modernly by essential oils, and still practiced in Ayurveda today.

Where do essential oils come from?

So where do they come from?, you might be wondering. Essential oils are not what you might envision when you bring to mind the word ‘oil’. You might like to think of an essential oil as the pure essence of a plant that is derived from the seeds, bark, leaves, stems, roots, flowers, or fruit of a plant. This is extracted from the plant, by a variety of methods based on what is appropriate for the type of plant in question, either cold-pressing or steam distillation.

What do they do?

Essential oils are a very potent and concentrated expression of the plant’s immune system. As such, they carry the same properties of the plant from which they are extracted -regenerating, protective, and immune-supporting properties. More specifically, the benefits of action of essential oils include:

  • Protection from microbial attack
  • Immune support during times of low nutrient availability
  • Regeneration after attack from pollinators
  • Protection against sun damage
  • Protection during periods of extreme temperatures
  • Protection from / repelling of insects
  • Regeneration after herbivore damage from feeding

These properties are expressed in the same or similar way on the human physical body; and beyond that, essential oils also act on the energetic body, or prana body. Touching back on the use of incense in Ayurvedic remedies, where the primary purposes were purifying and protecting the physical body as well as easing mental and emotional tension, we can see the expression of their uses on both body and body-mind-spirit as a whole. 

How do they do it? Essential oils in the cells and the brain

From an Ayurvedic perspective, essential oils act on Prana (life force), Ojas (nutritional immunological essence), and Soma (regenerative fluids) – regeneration, protection, and immune support. Essential oils, being very small substances, enter the system via the phospholipid bilayer of the cells. Our cell membranes are lipophilic, meaning they are fat (lipo-) loving (-philic), encouraging uptake of the oils, as in Ayurveda, like attracts like. Once in the cells of the body, they can work their magic! 

Oils can reduce oxidative stress by mitigating free-radicals, and free radical production. They do so through their action as a cellular antioxidant, capturing the free electrons that free radicals produce, and preventing the production of more. There are a variety of oils that can act on specific parts of the physical body – oils for detoxification, oils for regeneration, and oils for digestion and assimilation. 

In the brain, some oils are able to cross the blood-brain barrier, an extremely small and tight junction that serves to protect the brain and cerebrospinal fluid. This occurs only in the case of oils containing the chemical constituent sesquiterpenes, which is found in Frankincense. It’s no coincidence this aroma was prized for meditation and spiritual connection in antiquity!

On an emotional level, essential oils can offer profound healing through their action in the brain. 

When the aroma of an essential oil is inhaled, it travels directly to the limbic system through the  olfactory bulb, which bypasses higher brain processing (pre-frontal cortex, which is responsible for higher thought processing, cognition, etc.). The limbic system is responsible for subconscious thought, emotion, and motivation, and is the part of the brain that stores and processes trauma. Aromas from essential oils travel directly here, where they effect the emotional and energetic bodies. This is why, for instance, one can immediately feel soothed and calmed when smelling lavender. Each oil has a unique combination of chemical constituents. In the case of Lavender, linalool, has properties of relaxation and soothing. This is just one example of the myriad applications of essential oils. 

How do I use them?

There are 3 primary ways in which essential oils can be used:

  • Aromatically – diffusing in a diffuser, inhalation, a drop in the shower or bath, for meditation
  • Topically – for reflexology, massage, or on a targeted area for support
  • Internally – for internal cleansing, detoxification, in a glass of water, tea, or used in cooking

When using oils topically, the bottoms of the feet are a wonderful application method, as there are large pores there that quickly and readily absorb and uptake an oil. Many oils can be applied neat, or without dilution, but a greater benefit is achieved by diluting an oil with a carrier oil that can carry the oil deeper into the system. Fractionated coconut oil is best, as it is large enough to carry the essential oil, and small enough to penetrate the skin, or dermal layer. Some oils require dilution, as they are hot oils – too strong for the skin or internally without dilution. Applying an oil to the feet still benefits the entire system, as the oils is taken up into the bloodstream and carried throughout the body. Oils can also be applied in a more directed fashion – for instance, peppermint oil directly on the belly to relive gas and bloating. When using oils for emotional support, the wrists, heart, and sides of the neck are also useful application spots. In terms of internal usage, be sure to check for instructions, as not all oils are meant to be ingested, and not all oils are of a quality and purity to be safe for internal usage. 

When using essential oils in any of the above methods, purity and quality are of the utmost importance. Oils are not regulated, so it is up to the company producing them to share the chemical tests, and for you, the consumer, to be proactive in asking for this information.  Make sure your oils are tested – through Gas Chromatography and Mass Spectrometry. Originally, all incense and oils were prepared from natural substances. Presently, the majority of commercial incenses and oils contain synthetic fragrances and are potential toxic as a result. 

The benefits and uses of essential oils are quite astounding in their variety and applicability, especially when it comes to dealing with everyday stressors, common conditions such as bloating, headaches, stress, and energy. Used with a spirit of Ayurveda, and its principles, oils may just become your new self health care staple!

Shop the Story: YouVeda’s Essential Oil Rollers


Author – Alexandra Kazimir (YouVeda Wellness Contributor)


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