Essential oils are basically plant extracts. They're made by steaming or pressing various parts of a plant (flowers, bark, leaves or fruit) to capture the compounds that produce fragrance. It can take several pounds of a plant to produce a single bottle of essential oil. In addition to creating scent, essential oils perform other functions in plants, too. (Aromatherapy: Do Essential Oils Really Work?, Hopkins Medicine)
Essential oils are most commonly used in the practice of aromatherapy, in which they are inhaled through various methods.The chemicals in essential oils can interact with your body in several ways. According to Michele Mack, LMT, CPMT, essential oils have psychological (affecting emotion), pharmacological (affecting chemistry) and physiological (affecting bodily function and process) benefits.
When applied to your skin, some plant chemicals are absorbed. Those who use essential oils topically tend to do so for cosmetic purposes or to treat pain. Oils are absorbed via the epidermis (top layer of skin), move from the soft tissue to the bloodstream, are carried to the treatment areas and then metabolized in the liver.
Most essential oil users inhale them to experience their psychological effects, such as stress relief. When inhaled, the molecules are distributed into the respiratory system, but a small amount has been shown to affect our brain. “When it is routed to our brain, we identify the smell and, in some cases, we have an emotional response to that smell,” Mack says. “In animal studies, it has been shown that inhalation has a quicker effect of distributing the sedative properties of certain oils in the body.” Inhaling the aromas from essential oils can stimulate areas of your limbic system, which is a part of your brain that plays a role in emotions, behaviors, sense of smell, and long-term memory. Interestingly, the limbic system is heavily involved in forming memories. This can partly explain why familiar smells can trigger memories or emotions.The limbic system also plays a role in controlling several unconscious physiological functions, such as breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure.
The most important thing to consider when shopping for essential oils is product quality, says Gujral. But figuring out which oils are the best is challenging, since there's no government agency in the U.S. that provides a grading system or certification for essential oils. A big problem? Many companies claim their essential oils are "therapeutic grade," but that's just a marketing term.
"Unfortunately, there are lots of products you might find online or in stores that aren't harvested correctly or may have something in them that isn't listed on the label," warns Gujral.
Here are some tips to help you shop for pure essential oils:
Essential oils can lift your mood and make you feel good with just a whiff of their fragrance. For some people they may even help alleviate the symptoms of various conditions. For more information on how to incorporate them into a healthy lifestyle, consult an integrative medicine expert. (Aromatherapy: Do Essential Oils Really Work?, Hopkins Medicine)