Last year, Shelby Johnson talked with her doctor about the anxiety attacks. Medications were an option, but with the likelihood of side effects she felt that, for her, meds might do more harm than good. So instead she tried essential oils, starting with the "Stress Away" blend from Young Living Essential Oils.
"They're truly amazing," she says. "And I was skeptical, to be honest."
Johnson says there's still plenty to learn, but essential oils have replaced a large portion of her medicine cabinet. Essential oils won over her family, too — her two teenagers use them for skin care, her husband for sleeping and relaxation — and replaced the need for over-the-counter pills for headaches, stomachaches and colds.
"My family will look at me and say, 'Is there an oil for that?'" she says.
Essential oils like lavender, peppermint and lemon are often more widely recognized for their scent than their healing powers, but these properties have always been intertwined. In 1910, a French chemist named René Gattefossé was working for his father's perfume company when he found that lavender oil helped heal a severe burn he suffered in the laboratory. He is credited with coining the term "aromatherapy," which found its way into the American mainstream decades later in the 1980s.
Essential oils work on three levels, says certified aromatherapist Linda Kingsbury: physiological, pharmacological and psychological.
"It's that full range that affects someone's well-being," she says.
She points to frankincense, derived from tree bark, which has been used in religious practices that long predate the research showing how it can slow and deepen breathing to encourage a meditative state.
When Kingsbury, who owns Spirit Herbs in Moscow, leads introductory sessions on essential oils for stress reduction, she begins by asking people to sniff six plant materials: cedar atlas leaves, cinnamon leaves, frankincense resin, lavender flowers, peppermint leaves and tangerine rind. The essential oil from each of the six can be used to alleviate stress, so personal preference determines which oil will be most effective for someone.
"I always say go for what your nose likes first, and then you can read the information about it," she says.
An essential oil is not actually a fatty oil at all, but the most concentrated liquid form of a plant — root, seed, bark, flower, rind — extracted through steam distilling or cold-pressing. If you've ever squeezed an orange peel until liquid appears, then you've seen what's often symbolically called the "lifeblood" of a plant.
Certain essential oils have well-established antimicrobial properties — a recent study at Washington State University, for example, showed that cassia cinnamon essential oil kills e. Coli in a way that may help the food industry avoid chemicals. Research about health benefits is more limited, and existing studies have mostly focused on people with cancer or terminal illnesses rather than fairly healthy people.
Because essential oils are most often inhaled with a diffuser or applied topically with a carrier oil, using them is relatively safe even for children and the elderly. But their use should still be considered in the context of a person's entire health, says Kristina Bauer, an aromatherapist who owns Untamed Alchemy in Sandpoint. Essential oil solutions for a breastfeeding mother and a woman in a household without children might be very different, for example.
"Every individual seeking to employ essential oils in their lives — even those just hoping for a lovely smell in their bathroom — should thoughtfully consider the essential oils they choose, who will be exposed to them, and how they are employed," she says.
Someone seeking to address a specific concern will benefit from seeking the advice of a certified clinical aromatherapist, who will often partner with a patient's other health care providers to craft a personalized approach that takes health conditions and contraindications into account.
Lindsey Carr, an acupuncturist at Point of Origin in Spokane, who is also certified in essential oil therapy, enjoys looking deep into the chemistry to see how different oils work.
"The chemistry behind them is really incredible," she says, adding, "It's really fascinating why they soothe the skin or stimulate the circulatory system."
She instructs patients on how to apply oils like lavender, geranium and eucalyptus with carrier oil as a type of "homework" to continue healing. For example, a patient with shoulder pain may use a few drops of melaleuca oil with a carrier oil to rub on the shoulder once or twice a day to help cell and tissue regeneration.
It can take time for acupuncture treatments to work, so that process pairs well with the distinct effects of essential oils.
"People see the subtle results of acupuncture and the immediate results of essential oils together," Carr says, "and they just love it." ♦
Most essential oils are not regulated by the federal government, and many mass-produced products that use the term "aromatherapy" don't use therapeutic-grade essential oils. For example, scented shampoos or soaps often use fragrance oils that are lower quality or made synthetically. Fragrance oils may smell nice, but they do not have the therapeutic properties of true essential oils.
So how can you tell the difference? It's important to read labels carefully and look for "100% pure." Also look for the Latin name of the specific plant, and seek products that are certified organic or "wild-grown" when possible. Research the typical price for the type of essential oil you want to buy, and be wary of products that are cheaper than you expect. Many companies provide information online about their supply chain and full process, and high-quality suppliers will happily answer additional questions.