Essential Oils for All

Spring is finally herefor most of the country—and there are few greater blessings of the season than the scent of annual plants blooming. The whiff of a lilac flowering in the backyard can be counted on to chase away the last of the winter blues. But many of our favorite blooming plants do more than just provide us with nice smells—they boast serious therapeutic properties as well.


Aromatherapy starts with essential oils. Essential oils are extracted from the roots, stems, leaves, fruits, or flowers of any plant that produces them. (Roses, lavender, tea tree, and rosemary are a few good examples.) Where the oil comes from on the plant is a clue as to its function: An aroma located in a root, strip of bark, or leaf is usually intended to defend against predation, but flower and fruit aromas were intended to attract pollinators.

Essential oils have been extracted primarily by steam distillation ever since Avicenna invented the technique in the 11th century. The distillation process yields a super concentrated “essence” of the plant, hence the term “essential oil.” Mountain Rose Herbs says one drop of rose essential oil contains 60 whole roses!

This is why essential oils are so aromatic, even in small doses. Aroma­therapists have long maintained that the aroma on its own is good for treating things like migraines, poor sleep, anxiety, and stress, and their claims have been validated by recent clinical trials. In one recent trial, Imitrex—a prescription migraine medicine—relieved migraine symptoms in 59 percent of sufferers, whereas lavender oil relieved migraine pain in 72 percent.

Serious medicine

Some people prefer the term “essential oil therapy” because this therapy is not simply about pleasant scents. In fact, some essential oils—like German chamomile—have a smell that many people find repugnant.

The essential oils in each plant have health-enhancing active chemical compounds, typically 100 to 200 per oil, according to the University of Minnesota. Rose, for example, has over 300 constituent chemicals that make it up. It is so complex that is has thus far proven impossible to replicate the therapeutic properties with a synthetic substitute. It is this complex chemistry that gives the essential oils their thera­peutic qualities.

Kurt Schnaubelt, PhD, director of the Pacific Institute of Aromatherapy, says that essential oils have antibacterial and antiviral properties, the ability to suppress muscle spasms and function as a diuretic, and the ability to widen or constrict blood vessels. “Essential oils act on the adrenals, ovaries, and the thyroid and can energize or pacify, detoxify, and facilitate the digestive process.”

For this reason, essential oils can be rubbed on the skin (when diluted with a carrier oil like a wax or a butter), dissolved in bath water, or smelled. They should not be ingested. They can even be used in cleaning—quite diluted, of course.

Healing properties of 10 essential oils

Here are some common therapeutic uses for 10 popular essential oils.

BASIL // insect repellent and antiparasitic

BERGAMOT // mild antidepressant and tonic

EUCALYPTUS // respiratory infec­tions

GERMAN CHAMOMILE // inflam­matory skin problems

GINGER // nausea and inflammation

LAVENDER // minor burns, insomnia, pain relief, wound care

LEMONGRASS // fungal infections

MANDARIN // stomach upset and restlessness, particularly in small children

PEPPERMINT // headaches, fever, nausea, and fatigue

ROSEMARY // stimulant and anti-infective agent

Source: University of Minnesota