It seems like essentials oil and diffusers are getting in trend these days. What are essentials oil, exactly? What does it do? And how does it work?

Essential oils are often used in aromatherapy, which is a form of alternative medicine.  However, some of the health claims associated with them are controversial. This article explains what you need to know about essential oils and their health effects.

Essential oils are concentrated plant extracts that retain the natural smell and flavour, or “essence,” of their source. Unique aromatic compounds give each essential oil its characteristic essence. Essential oils are obtained through distillation (via steam and/or water) or mechanical methods, such as cold pressing. Once the aromatic chemicals have been extracted, they are combined with a carrier oil to create a product that’s ready for use. The way the oils are made is important, as essential oils obtained through chemical processes are not considered true essential oils.

Essential oils can be inhaled or applied to the skin. They may stimulate your sense of smell or have medicinal effects when absorbed. The chemicals in essential oils can interact with your body in a number of ways. When applied to your skin, some plant chemicals are absorbed. It’s thought that certain methods can improve absorption, such as applying with heat or to different areas of the body. However, research in this area is lacking. 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, behaviours, 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 some unconscious physiological functions, such as breathing, heart rate and blood pressure. Some people claim that essential oils can exert a physical effect on your body in this way.

There are over 90 commonly used essential oils, each associated with certain health claims. Popular oils include peppermint, lavender and sandalwood.

Some of the popular essential oils and the health claims associated with them:

  • Peppermint: Used to boost energy and help with digestion.
  • Lavender: Used for stress relief.
  • Sandalwood: Used to calm nerves and help with focus.
  • Bergamot: Used to reduce stress and improve skin conditions like eczema.
  • Rose: Used to improve mood and reduce anxiety.
  • Chamomile: Used for improving mood and relaxation.
  • Ylang-Ylang: Used to treat headaches, nausea and skin conditions.
  • Tea Tree: Used to fight infections and boost immunity.
  • Jasmine: Used to help with depression, childbirth and libido.
  • Lemon: Used to aid digestion, mood, headaches and more.

Despite their widespread use, little is known about the effectiveness of essential oils in treating health conditions. Essential oils are often used to relieve stress, anxiety, and depression, headache, migraines, and insomnia. Aromatherapy isn’t the only use for essential oils. They can be used in and around the home, as a natural mosquito repellent or industrially to make cosmetics.

High-quality oils only use pure plant compounds extracted by distillation or cold pressing. Avoid oils that have been diluted with synthetic fragrances, chemicals or oils.

Keep the following tips in mind in order to choose only high-quality oils:

  • Purity: Find an oil that contains only aromatic plant compounds, without additives or synthetic oils. Pure oils usually list the plant’s botanical name (such as Lavandula officinalis), rather than terms like “essential oil of lavender.”
  • Quality: True essential oils are the ones that have been changed the least by the extraction process. Choose a chemical-free essential oil that has been extracted through distillation or mechanical cold pressing.
  • Reputation: Purchase a brand with a reputation for producing high-quality products.

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