Why Are We Talking About Essential Oils?
Why Are We Talking About Essential Oils?
Dr. Fitzgerald recently asked me to write a case study with essential oils. Many practitioners are aware of essential oils’ potent antimicrobial power and are comfortable using them in treating dysbiosis or acute infections. This is for good reason.
Essential oils well studied for their ability to kill off various microbes. Many in vitro and vivo studies, as well as some small clinical trials, indicate that essential oils are effective against resistant microorganisms.1-13 Furthermore, specific chemotypes (variations in predominant constituents) of oregano and its active constituent, carvacrol, have been found not only to have activity against various pathogens, 14-15 but also to inhibit new biofilm formations in-vivo. (However, carvacrol was not effective in breaking down pre-formed biofilms.)15
Although the mechanisms behind the action of how essential oils inhibit bacteria is still not fully understood, several studies have attributed their actions to their generating irreversible damage to the membrane of the critters’ cells. This leads the bacteria to “leak out its contents” and die. Other proposed mechanisms, among many, include inhibition of toxin-producing enzymes, protein degeneration, and interference with cellular respiration and electron flow. Furthermore, they have been shown to have antifungal and antiviral properties. 1,2 Perhaps, their strong action is in part related to their many constituents and the synergism among them.
A 2014 study of essential oils in The Open Microbiology Journal explained:
It has also been postulated that the function of the main components is regulated by other minor molecules which help in potentiating synergistic effect . It is likely that several components in essential oils play a role in characterizing the fragrance, the density, the texture, the color, ability in cell penetration, lipophilicity, fixation on cell walls, and most importantly the bioavailability. Considering that a vast range of different groups of chemical compounds are present in one essential oil, it is most likely that antibacterial activities cannot be attributed to one specific mechanism or component; and hence, there may be several targets in a cell which result in the potentiating influence. Thus, it is more meaningful and rational to study the whole essential oil rather than some of its components as to whether the concept of synergism truly exists between the components in essential oils .10
Due to the fact that essentials oils are secondary metabolites with immune modulating effects, I believe that they do not have the same negative impact on the beneficial microflora as synthetic antibiotics. In fact, a 2012 review article provided support that essential oils can work in synergism with probiotics to have “complementary antimicrobial effects with practically no side effects.” 15
Furthermore, essential oils can do so much more than kill off infections.
Essential Oils Actions
As mentioned above, essential oils are plant secondary metabolites that are essential for the plant’s survival. They are the aromatic and volatile compounds found within shrubs, flowers, trees, roots, bushes, resins, and seeds.
There are two different ways to look at an essential oils’ mechanisms of actions. The narrow view describes its effects based on the oil’s individual constituents; the broader view encompasses the impact of the oils on our biochemistry, physiology, and psychology.
I go into greater detail about this here; in summary:
1. Biochemical (pharmacological): the interactions essential oils and their constituents have with receptors for hormones and enzymes in our bodies.
2. Physiological: the action essential oils have on specific biological functions.
3. Psychological: According to The Therapeutic Benefits of Essential Oils, Nutrition, Well-Being, and Health, the “olfactory area of the brain (limbic system) undergoes an action triggered by the essential oil molecules and then, chemical and neurotransmitter messengers provide changes in the mental and emotional behavior of the person (Buchbauer, 1993; Johnson, 2011; Shibamoto et al, 2010).”
Usually, a psychological action also has a physiological or biochemical impact on the body. For example, hormonal support could be provided by a calming emotion from inhalation, affecting stress hormones or enzymes, a direct result of phytoestrogens modulating estrogen levels.
One small study with 22 menopausal women in their 50s examined changes in neurotransmitter concentrations, cortisol, and thyroid stimulating hormone in relationship to inhalation of clary sage oil. The researchers found that inhalation of this oil decreased cortisol, increased 5-hydroxytryptamine (the monoamine, serotonin), and had a calming effect.
In another randomized study of sixty-three healthy postmenopausal women, researchers found that inhalation of oil of neroli had positive effects on menopausal symptoms, stress, and estrogen levels.
Now that you have a little background on essential oils, let’s review a functional medicine case using essential oils.
Summary & The Hidden Effects of Emotional Healing for Ella
We know that essential oils are powerful microbe inhibitors. We also know that aroma itself is connected to our emotions. Olfaction has direct neural pathways to emotional processing centers in the brain. These include the amygdala, hippocampus, and orbitofrontal cortex (OFO). The context and our past history impact the reaction we have to odors.17-22 Still, inhaling an essential oil does more than have a functional neurological response which is to activate the olfactory receptors to stimulate the parahippocampus..23 They are also more than an alternative to synthetic antibiotics.
I believe that Ella’s results were so powerful because of the synergism of the essential oils use within the functional medicine model. Essential oils have psychological, biochemical, and physiological effects. They can modulate stress, emotions, inflammation, cortisol, neurotransmitter pathways, and infections. The potential of one bottle of oil goes well beyond manipulating or even supporting a biochemical pathway with a single nutrient or herb. It is true synergy and encompasses everything functional medicine stands for.
(Please make sure you visit my essential oils database for safe use and the discussion on quality essential oils.)
References: Thank You -Dr. Fitzgerald for much needed education in the healing herbs and essential oils.
Kara Fitzgerald, ND