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These 7 Essential Oils May Help Treat Your Health Conditions

Research shows that there may be more to this alternative health trend.

Herbal oil and lavender flowers
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Giving your health a boost may be as easy as taking a deep inhale.

Essential oils may be considered an alternative health trend, but a growing body of research suggests that they may help prevent or even treat several health conditions, from insomnia to IBS symptoms.

“Many essential oils have antimicrobial properties, and work to boost your immune system and destroy harmful bacteria and viruses,” says Josh Axe, a doctor of natural medicine and the author of Essential Oils: Ancient Medicine. “Many also serve as powerful antioxidants and help neutralize or stop free radicals in the body caused by environmental factors like pollution, chemical toxins, and radiation.” In turn, the body may be able to put up a better fight against oxidative stress that can lead to disease.

What are essential oils?

An essential oil is a super-concentrated liquid extracted from the leaves, herbs, barks, and rinds of certain plants. According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, each essential oil has a unique combination of chemicals that affects the way your body absorbs and reacts to it. It’s important to note that in order for essential oils to be considered “essential,” the essence—flavor and odor—of a plant needs to be extracted through mechanical pressing or distillation. For example, you need 220 pounds of lavender flowers to produce a pound of lavender oil.

How to use essential oils

Leland Stillman, MD, from Tampa, Florida, believes that some oils have healing properties, but like many medical experts, he recommends using them for aromatherapy purposes instead of consuming them.

Essential Oil Diffuser with Remote Controller
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“Smell is mediated by the olfactory nerve, which is wired directly into the limbic system—the brain's emotional processing center,” he explains. “This system talks to the rest of the brain, particularly the brainstem, which controls our vital functions,” he says. That's why when you’re upset, your heart rate, blood pressure, and other vital signs change.

You can reap the benefits of essential oils by dabbing a few drops on your skin. You can also add them to your lotion or bath or use a diffuser to spread their scent around your home.

“With any essential oil, put just a small amount on your skin first to make sure you won’t have an allergic reaction,” says Isha Gupta, MD, neurologist at IGEA Brain & Spine. “Always start off slow, whether you’re putting an essential oil on your skin or filling a room with it,” she adds.

The best essential oils for your collection

Now that you know what are essential oils, we spoke to some doctors about the essential oil benefits of seven common scents.

Tea Tree Oil

Best for: Acne, sinusitis

One of the less-appealing smelling oils, tea tree oil has a number of therapeutic uses. Anna Guanche, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and owner of the Bella Skin Institute in Calabasas, California, says, “For skin conditions such as acne, 'melaleuca'—also known as tea tree oil—could help dry out acne or could be used as a spot treatment—with caution.” In fact, a 2016 study from the Australasian Journal of Dermatology suggests that tea tree oil products can help improve mild to moderate acne.

Naturenics Tea Tree Essential Oil
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Tea tree oil may also help with clearing your airways. Joseph Feuerstein, MD, an associate professor of clinical medicine at Columbia University and director of integrative medicine at Stamford Hospital, completed a fellowship in integrative medicine and clinical aromatherapy has been using oils for over a decade.

He says, “I predominately use oils like eucalyptus, globulus, radiate, and tea tree oil for infections—such as steam inhalation of the oils for sinusitis. But he warns, “take care with tea tree as it can be irritating to the mucous membranes.”

Since essential oils aren’t FDA-regulated, depending on the brand you purchase, you could be buying a completely different product. “All essential oils are not created equally,” Dr. Guanche warns. “Some are stronger than others and some may be mixed with other solvents, which could damage the skin making conditions worse.”

Peppermint Oil

Best for: Nausea, IBS symptoms, tension headaches, muscle pain

Nuvia Organics USDA Certified Peppermint Oil
Nuvia Organics amazon.com

Peppermint isn’t just for the holidays, people! A University of California San Diego study of 726 patients found that peppermint oil capsules (compared to a placebo) significantly improved irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms and abdominal pain. The researchers concluded that peppermint oil is a safe, effective short-term treatment for IBS. However, they also noted that patients who took peppermint oil were more likely to experience adverse events like heartburn than those who didn’t take it, so it’s best to talk to your doctor about the risks and your medical history before taking a dive.

In addition to relieving IBS symptoms, peppermint oil is also great for reducing nausea, especially in cancer patients. Leah Sherman, a naturopathic physician, says, “Smelling peppermint or ginger can help relieve nausea and it’s good for motion sickness,” she says. “With chemo, you can become very sensitive to smell, so we recommend that patients inhale it under their nose. That scent might be enough to take the edge off,” she adds.

Lavender Oil

Best for: Insomnia, migraines, headaches

Perhaps one of the most studied essential oils, lavender has been shown to have a plethora of benefits, including reducing anxiety, improving mood, and increasing relaxation. But one of its most potent perks is its ability to help you sleep better.

Dr. Feuerstein says the plant’s scent works as a chill pill to reduce stress. “Lemon balm and lavender are good for anxiety; usually as a topical in a carrier oil or on cotton wool so it evaporates and fills the air with the aroma.”

A 2018 study from Complementary Therapies in Medicine found that treating colorectal surgery patients with lavender oil via an aromatherapy massage helped improve the quality of their sleep and reduced anxiety.

USDA Organic 100% Pure Lavender Essential Oil
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Moreover, lavender oil has been shown to help relieve migraines and headaches. In a 2016 study published in the Journal of Herbal Medicine, participants who underwent three months of lavender therapy saw a significant drop in the frequency and severity of migraine incidents compared to those in a control group.

“We don’t know why exactly lavender helps with migraines yet, and more research is needed, but it’s thought to play a similar role as benzodiazepine [a class of medications that may ward off migraines] when it’s put on the skin,” says Dr. Gupta. “It’s worth trying if you experience migraines.”

Diffuse lavender, add a few drops to warm bath water, or simply dab it on your wrists and smell it when you have a migraine or before bed to help you snooze soundly. However, Dr. Guanche warns that “studies with lavender oil and tea tree oils have been shown to induce estrogen in males leading to gynecomastia, a swelling of the breast tissue due to a hormonal imbalance.”

Eucalyptus Oil

Best for: Clearing airways and soothing sore muscles

Aweganics Pure Eucalyptus Oil
AWEGANICS amazon.com

The oil from eucalyptus contains compounds that make it a powerful disinfectant. You can use it as a natural insect repellant or mix it into a cream to soothe sore muscles.

It can even be used to help clear up respiratory issues if you add a few drops in a diffuser. A 2017 study from PLOS One suggests that eucalyptus oil can help suppress inflammation in the lungs.

“I had a patient with a significant chronic lung infection who couldn’t tolerate any more antibiotics and was referred to me by her infectious disease specialist,” Dr. Feuerstein says. “We used two types of eucalyptus as a steam inhalation and her subsequent sputum culture showed clearance of the infection.”

Rosemary Oil

Best for: Hair loss due to alopecia

Plant Therapy Rosemary Organic Essential Oil
Plant Therapy amazon.com

If you experience alopecia areata, a condition in which the immune system attacks hair follicles and causes hair loss, essential oils applied directly to the scalp may help.

Researchers have found that massaging the scalp with a combination of essential oils, including rosemary, lavender, thyme, and cedar wood, can boost hair growth, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC). Both the massage and the essential oils may help increase circulation that promotes hair growth.

When using essential oils, it’s important to remember that they can be toxic if used in large amounts. To dilute the oils, UMMC recommends mixing three to six drops with a tablespoon of grapeseed oil and massaging into the scalp once daily.

Citrus Oil

Best for: anxiety, depression

If you’re going through a stressful time, a whiff of citrus may help boost your mood. A 2005 study from the University of Vienna in Austria found that ambient scents of orange (or lavender) reduced anxiety and improved mood in patients waiting for dental treatment.

Zongle USDA Certified Organic Lemon Essential Oil
Zongle Therapeutics amazon.com

Meanwhile, other research has found that circulating citrus scents in a room may regulate hormone levels and help reduce the doses of antidepressants in patients with depression. But remember: It’s important not to replace any of your current medications with aromatherapy unless your doctor gives you the OK.

After your skin fully absorbs citrus oil, be sure to apply some sunscreen to the area. Sherman says citrus oils can make you more sensitive to the sun.

“If you go out in the sun after you’ve dabbed some lemon oil on your body, that area of the oil could actually burn,” she says. So, protect your skin by reducing exposure to the sun.

Clary Sage Oil

Best for: hormonal imbalance, relieving menopausal symptoms

High estrogen levels may raise a woman’s risk of certain cancers such as breast cancer. Clary sage essential oil may help to decrease the chance of these hormonal imbalances.

Clary SAGE Organic Essential Oil
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“Clary sage is one of the most effective essential oils for balancing hormones because it contains natural phytoestrogens that help to regulate estrogen levels,” Axe explains.

A 2017 study in Neuroendocrinology Letters suggests that clary sage oil can also help with alleviating perimenopause symptoms such as hot flashes, fatigue, and moodiness.

In addition, research shows clary sage may also help increase circulation, says Axe. When circulation is poor, your blood doesn't flow as vigorously, which can result in numbness, fluid retention, bloating, and a lack of energy.

Are essential oils safe?

The bottom line is to talk to your doctor—not a salesman—about how to safely incorporate essential oils into your lifestyle before you introduce anything new. “Essential oils are very popular right now especially due to multi-level marketing. Many of them promise to cure or treat disease. However, because these oils are highly concentrated, they could create more problems if used improperly,” Dr. Gaunche explains.

As Sherman, who has worked with cancer patients interested in alternative therapies, says, “Dabbing a little peppermint oil behind their ears and neck for hot flashes, because it’s cooling—fine. But it’s not going to cure you of anything—it’s just symptom relief.”

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