Essential oils are the highly volatile (easily vaporized) fluid constituents found in plants. Within the plants themselves, their role is to act as regulators, aid in adaptation to stressful environments, provide protection against diseases, parasites and in some areas, the sun, to help attract insects for pollination, and as natural weed killers.
The amount of essential oil is highly variable from plant to plant, and even within a plant itself, as different parts of a plant will produce different essential oils. For example, from one plant you might extract one essential oil from the fruit, another from the blossom, and yet another from the twigs, leaves or roots. Each of these oils will have different chemical profiles, and thus different roles within the plant as a whole. Aligning with that, each of these oils from that same plant will also have different pharmacological applications when used for people.
Each oil is comprised of anywhere between 100-800 various chemical constituents, of which only about 200 have been identified. It is these chemical constituents that give the oils their therapeutic properties. While it is possible to attribute the clinical actions of each individual constituent, it is really the synergistic effects that they when combined in appropriate balance to one another that gives them their therapeutic qualities. This is what makes a true scientific understanding of the oils more challenging, as science likes to break things down into their individual parts.
Essential oils are extracted from the plants through a couple of different methods depending on the part of the plant where the oil is contained, the ease with which it can be extracted, as well as the delicacy of the particular plant part. By far, the most common method of essential oil extraction is steam distillation. This process works by using steam to force open pockets within the plant material where the essential oils are housed, allowing them to escape. The essential oils then travel with the steam through a cooling system that condenses them back down into a liquid form. At that point, the essential oil and water are separated. Because of the delicate nature of the oils, this process needs to be carefully controlled, as either too much heat or force can alter the chemical profile of the oil. Other, less commonly employed methods include: cold expression, solvent extraction and carbon dioxide extraction.
Essential oils have a rich history, with their medicinal uses dating back to over 5000 years in India, as a basis for Ayurvedic medicine. Recipes have been found recorded in hieroglyphics in Egyptian temples, in ancient Chinese manuscripts, and are found referenced 188 times in the Bible. There are accounts of Roman centurions using them during the course of battle, as well as ancient Greeks spreading them around their places of worship, in addition to using them as perfumes and medicines. In ancient Egypt, when people would raid tombs, they would leave the jewels and take the essential oils. It is told that Cleopatra seduced Mark Anthony with her extravagant use of perfumes. Around the turn of the eighteenth century Industrialization led to a decline in the use of essential oils, as less land was available for their cultivation and more importantly, chemical and pharmaceutical sciences began to develop. However, it must be noted that the very drugs that were replacing the essential oils originated from plant substances.
It is only within the past 30 years of so that we have once again begun to appreciate essential oils for their medicinal qualities. As we find that western medicine isn’t a cure-all, and indeed comes with a fair share of concerns, people are looking back to the earth and a way to take back control of their health naturally. Science is beginning to catch on and we are starting to see the clinical effects of essential oils studied. Unfortunately, because plant material cannot be patented and the vast majority of research money comes from pharmaceutical companies, we will likely never see a plethora of information available in terms of cold-hard science. However, when we combine history, anecdotal evidence and science, we have a solid ground on which to stand when working toward an understanding of the various applications of essential oils.
About Amy Paolinelli
Amy is a mom of 3 lively kiddos, a wife, and an advocate for natural living. Prior to having children, she worked as a Marriage and Family Therapist with high-risk youth. After having her first daughter, she found her passion in pregnancy, childbirth, babies, and natural living. She is now an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant in private practice, a student of Herbal Medicine for Women, and cofounder of 3Girls Holistic – a truly pure herbal skin care line. She loves getting her hands dirty in the garden and spending time near the water. You can find more of her writings at www.3girlsholistic.com