What are essential oils?
Essential oils are highly concentrated aromatic plant extracts that contain the vital life force of the plant and, because of this, the potent therapeutic components each plant has to offer. They are distilled or extracted from specific parts and found in specialized cells, buds, cavities, vitae or glands. For instance lavender essential oil is taken from the flower, eucalyptus from the leaves, vetiver from the root, sandalwood from the trunk, cardamom from the seed, grapefruit from the fruit, frankincense from resin, and palmarosa from grass.
Even though they are called oils, essential oils are not greasy at all. They have a small molecular structure and evaporate quickly, which is one of the reasons their use is so hurried in treatment.
Essential oils are highly complex chemically, which makes them extremely versatile, since many of their chemical components act together and take over where the others leave off. This is why blending three to five oils is more effective than using a singular oil. The effect is known as synergy.
The medicinally beneficial components of essential oils enter the system in a few key ways: by being picked up by the olfactory nerve receptors in the nose, thereby bringing them almost immediately to the cerebral cortex and limbic system of the brain (which is in charge of our emotions, behaviors, memory, etc); through the thin mucus membrane of the respiratory system; and through the absorption of the skin, our largest organ.
Once essential oils are absorbed into the system how do they help us?
Kurt Schnaubelt, author of Medical Aromatherapy, refers to a “biosynthetic blueprint that existed long before there were humans. It is an archaic chemical pathway that has, like the other biochemical pathways of life, existed since the dawn of life on planet earth.” Schnaubelt goes on to explain that monoterpenes, the dominant group of chemical components found in the majority of essential oils, serve as a foundation for more advanced molecules. Squalen (found in plants), steroids, and heart glucosides (both found in humans and animals) are all triterpenes that are products of the same biosynthetic pathway that produces monoterpenes. Simply put, plants, insects, and mammals are connected chemically. We are all one. Using essential oils is the same as using substances which are already the building blocks of our make-up, to help balance, and therefore help heal, the body.
Because of their similarity to important building blocks of our own biological agents, it makes sense that essential oils can aid us the same way they aid the plants that produce them. For example, just as resin seeps out to heal the wound of a plant, essential oils like myrrh that are extracted from resin are wonderful for healing injured skin. Leaves help a plant to breathe, and the best essential oils to help with respiratory disorders—eucalyptus, for example—are in fact extracted from the leaves. The best part is that while the chemical componants of essential oils are helping to ease physical symptoms, their delightful aromas take care of mind and spirit. Treating the whole person, and not just the symptom, is the end result.