Essential Oils for Health—An Introduction

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Aromatic oils, ethereal oils, volatile oils, also known as essential oils are highly concentrated liquids which contain fragrant components naturally found in various parts of plants, herbs, and fruits such as their leaves, barks, roots, petals, stems, flowering tops, or zests/rinds.

Essential oils are called “essential” because they contain what is called the essence of the plants’ aromatic constituents—which are characteristically different for each source. Each essential oil can and does contain over one hundred various chemical aromatic compounds, with every single one of them exhibiting a different and highly specific therapeutic property.

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History of Essential Oils

Essential oils have, in recent years, become more popular than ever, especially within the cosmetic industry where the oils are lauded for their versatility and extensive benefits. However, it is important to note that essential oils and their use is by no means a new concept or practice. Rather, the use of essential oils and various plant components dates back at least a thousand years.

Today, essential oils are frequently used as part of what is known as “aromatherapy”—a wellness practice of utilizing the various volatile liquids and fragrances for their physical as well as psychological health benefits. However, aromatherapy is a term that was not even coined and used until the beginning of the twentieth century, while the existence and use of the essential oils can be traced all the way back to the earliest Chinese civilizations who utilized aromatic and particularly fragrant plants and plant components to burn as incense. This was done as a means to create and promote societal and individual balance and harmony.

The most detailed records and evidence of the use of essential oils date as far back as 4500 B.C.E. to ancient Egypt. The various scented barks, spices, aromatic oil pastes and balsams all were used for cosmetic, medicinal, spiritual and fragrant purposes. Egyptians were recorded to have used aromatic oils from cinnamon, myrrh, clove and even cedarwood to embalm and preserve the deceased.

The Indian subcontinent has a 3000-year-old history of the use and incorporation of various volatile oils into Ayurveda, a traditionally Indian medicinal practice, as well. Literature dictates the use of hundreds of plant-based substances, their uses and advantages targeted at spiritual and physiological purposes.

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According to early recorded findings of Greek mythology, Greeks learned what they knew of aromatherapy—the make and use of essential oils—from the Egyptians and the Indians. Greeks are the masters of modern medicine as we know it. Hippocrates is recorded to have practiced aromatherapy by using various plants, herbs, and flowers for their medicinal benefit. He is known to have documented the use of over 300 different plants and their uses.

Taking the teachings of the Greeks and the Egyptians even further were Roman emperors who built their empire based on the previous knowledge and detailed recordings of medicine and aromatherapy. Discorides, the Roman, actually wrote a book that prescribed the various properties, advantages and uses of over 500 plant species. Furthermore, he is also known to have extracted floral waters from the various plants.

Taking the accumulated knowledge on the subject multiple steps further in advancement was Avicenna or Ali-Ibn Sana, a Persian child prodigy who mastered medicinal botany to become the youngest known physician at the tender age of twelve. Avicenna’s thirst for knowledge and his extensive research led to the discovery of the coiled pipe in the eleventh century, which is used primarily for the modern method of distillation—a process which is regularly used to extract the purest of aromatic components for the essential oils.

From then until the twentieth century there were multiple alchemists, medical doctors, and physicians who contributed extensively to the progression of the distillation of essential oils and the pharmaceutical industry as a whole. In the middle of the twentieth century, a French chemist called Rene-Maurice Gattefosse became intrigued by the use of essential oils for physical healing following an accident at a cosmetic laboratory. The use of lavender oil to cool his hand after an accidental burn led to the coining of the term “aromatherapy.”

The years that followed saw a massive resurgence of new and improved techniques for the extraction of essential oils and their uses for medicinal, aromatic, and therapeutic benefits.

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How Essential Oils Are Made

Initially, the aromatic components of the plants, herbs and fruits were extracted either by burning them, pressing them, mixing them into thin pastes or by infusing their aromas into other extracted fatty-oil constituents. It wasn’t until Avicenna’s discovery of the coiled pipe which allowed the development of the extraction process of steam distillation, which is still primarily used today for the extraction of the purest of aromatic oils.

Apart from steam distillation, there are a number of different processes also in use today. They include but are not limited to cold pressing, chemical extractions by use of solvents, enfleurage and extraction by use of carbon dioxide. An overview of these processes is given below.

Steam Distillation

One of the most popular extraction methods, steam distillation, is widely used today to extract essential oils. In this process, plants, stems and flowers are suspended over a significant amount of boiling water. The steam basically pulls the oils from the plant components, which rises and is then collected in a cooling vessel where it is rapidly cooled and condensed into water again. Because the oils and water are of different consistencies, they do not mix and can easily be separated to leave behind pure essential oils, ready for use.

Cold-Pressing

Cold-pressing or expression is the mechanical means of extracting pure essential oils directly from within the skins of the plants or fruits. The fruit skin is cut up into minutely small segments, mixed with water, and then pressed using a significant mechanical force. Once the oils leave the skins, they are separated out by the water.

Chemical Extraction

Chemical extraction involves the plants being dissolved in various solvents such as benzene. This helps pull the essential oil out from the plant component. The solvents are then either evaporated or mechanically separated by using a centrifuge. The essential oils which are obtained in this manner are not commonly used by true aroma therapists due to fear of solvent remnants. Often times the resultant oils are known as absolutes.

Enfleurage

Enfleurage, perhaps the oldest known extraction method for essential oils, is quite a time consuming and expensive process. It is, however, still used today to extract the purest of essential oils from various flowering stems and petals. Enfleurage involves flower petals or complete blossoms being carefully set on a sheet of warm, layered fatty acids. Originally, lard or animal fat was used, but it has now been replaced by vegetable fats.

The blooms are left untouched for a number of hours or even days. This allows their aromatic essence to seep and settle into the fats. After some time, the flowers are replaced with fresh ones until a substantial amount of fat is infused with the fragrant floral aroma. The process is repeated a number of different times after which the fat components are chemically separated to leave behind the purest form of essential oil.

Extraction Using Carbon Dioxide

One of the newer methods of extracting essential oils is to use carbon dioxide. A very complex and extensive process, the extraction of essential oils via carbon dioxide is also quite expensive. The process involves applying high pressures of the gas to convert it into a liquid. The liquid is then used to extract the oils from the plants themselves in a process that is quite similar to the extraction of essential oils via the use of chemical solvents. The only difference is that when evaporated, there is no residue of carbon dioxide left in the extracted essential oil. This process is preferred over steam distillation because it expresses a more intense essential oil by breaking down the plant cells far better than regular water.

The Marketing of Essential Oils

Though generally essential oils have a very long shelf life and can last for a number of years without going bad or expiring like most cosmetic or medicinal products do, they do have a few limitations that can affect their quality.

Oxygen and light both have a very strong effect on the quality of an essential oil. As such, it is often marketed in small dark colored bottle with dropper holders that are designed to minimize both the exposure to daylight and air.

Essential oils can actually be aged to make their essence stronger. In case an expressed essential oil has weak properties, or has a sharpness to it that dispels its natural beneficial properties, it can be aged artificially by exposing the oil to a controlled environment of light and air.

The best essential oils though are those that are naturally aged and kept for three to four years before being sold.

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Essential Oils and the Various Health Benefits

Essential oils are primarily extracted from various plants, fruits, and herbs which have known medicinal or therapeutic properties. Often made of a completely natural mix of various plant components, the essential oils can be used for the improvement of a number of different ailments.

As concentrated extracts of plants and herbs, the aromatic oils have the unique benefit of promoting not just physical or physiological health, but also emotional and mental balance. Used for massages, as bath oils, as compresses, in steam inhalations, and through vaporizers, essential oils can be employed to treat a number of ailments.

Depending on their quality and beneficial properties, essential oils have been incorporated within cosmetics, lotions, creams, shampoos and other skin and hair care products.

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Different essential oils are used for different purposes. Some of the most commonly used essential oils include the following:
• Rose petal oil – Rose petals have anti-inflammatory properties and are used for soothing and smoothing out the skin.
• Oil of lemon – The acidic essence of lemon is particularly beneficial for purging the body of various toxins from the inside out. It is also an important component of homemade cleaning products.
• Oil of myrrh – Myrrh is known to have strong antibacterial and antiseptic properties and thus is used in the preparation of concoctions used in Ayurveda to reduce or eliminate infections. It is also known to promote hormonal imbalance.
• Frankincense oil – A particular favorite of the current cosmetic industry, this oil is often used in anti-aging products due to its ability to heal age spots on the skin. It is also known to promote individual immunity and fight toxins.
• Grapefruit oil – Grapefruit is known to eat away at unwanted fatty acids in the body. It also promotes metabolic activity. Food-grade grapefruit oil is often safe for consumption and is recommended to be taken by adding a couple of drops to a small glass of water.
• Peppermint oil – The strong essence of peppermint is known to have a very soothing and relaxing effect overall. This oil is often used in massages to soothe aching muscles.
• Sandalwood oil – The oil extracted from the bark of sandalwood is a well-known aphrodisiac. It is commonly burned as incense to improve libido.
• Rosemary oil – Derived from the natural herbs, rosemary oil is quite beneficial for hair and is often used in shampoos and conditioners to aid hair growth.
• Oregano oil – In case you have a cold, try burning some oregano oil-infused incense, or using it for steam inhalation. You may find that you recover from your bout of the sneezes quite quickly.