Many wonder how essential oils are effective at soothing the body and renewing our senses, and it all comes down to chemistry. The chemical constituents of essentials oils interact with the body to produce specific results, whether that’s relaxation, stimulation, or healing.
All essential oils contain a variety of molecules that create their distinct aromatic properties and define how they interact with the body. There are tens of millions of molecules in each drop of essential oil, and this in turn interacts with the body’s cells at a molecular level when applied topically, inhaled, or ingested. Interaction at the cellular level allows the compounds in essential oils to target specific areas and promote healing and increased health. Understanding the chemistry behind common essential oils can help you use them safely and effectively so you can obtain their maximum benefits.
The essential oil lavender comes from the genus Lavandula. Lavender’s molecular components are very complex, which is part of why it’s used for so many things from cooking to home fragrance and natural wellness. Lavender’s essential oil is most commonly used to provide anxiety relief and help with sleep issues. Some have also successfully used lavender to help treat neurological disorders. The two primary compounds in lavender essential oil that are responsible for its effectiveness are linalool and linlyl acetate.
Linalool is what contributes to lavender’s anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) properties. When linalool comes into contact with the body via inhalation — people often smell lavender to receive its medicinal benefits — it causes elevated levels of neutrophils caused by stress to dramatically increase. The result is a greater feeling of calm and soothed stress.
The linalyl acetate in lavender is largely responsible for the pleasant scent of its essential oil. In addition to making the oil smell nice, linalyl acetate acts as a vascular muscle relaxer when applied topically. As this particular component interacts with the body it activates several pathways that result in muscles being less tense.
Peppermint is another versatile essential oil that’s used in a wide array of applications, and it belongs to the genus Mentha. In addition to being a common culinary and personal care product ingredient, peppermint essential oil is used as a natural pesticide, to stimulate the memory and promote alertness, and as an antispasmodic. There are many active molecules and compounds in peppermint essential oil, the most prominent being menthol, menthyl acetate, menthone, and cineol. The compounds pinene, limonene, and pulegone are also contained in peppermint oil.
When menthol interacts with the body’s receptors, it creates a cooling sensation in the mucosal tissues and skin. This is why peppermint essential oil is a common ingredient in salves used to provide pain relief and prevent inflammation. Menthol comprises the highest percentage of peppermint oil’s chemical composition, followed by menthone.
Menthone is what gives peppermint its minty smell and taste, and combined with menthol is works as a local anesthetic, counter-irritant, and painkiller in essential oil form. When taken internally, these compounds in peppermint essential oil act as an antispasmodic by relaxing the muscles. Due to these effects, it’s becoming more common for people to use peppermint essential oil to relieve bowel and intestinal issues.
Eucalyptus, part of the genus Eucalyptus, has been cultivated for thousands of years. Its essential oil is effective as a decongestant, deodorizer, insect repellent, and antiseptic. Eucalyptus also has food applications when used in moderate amounts. One of the most distinctive properties of eucalyptus essential oil is its smell, which is a result of its mix of over 100 compounds. The primary molecular compound in eucalyptus is cineole, also called eucalyptol, and it also contains pinene, limonene, and camphor.
Eucalyptus essential oil is typically taken internally in small amounts because it can be toxic to humans, but when used properly it interacts with the body to create positive effects. When inhaled or applied near the nose eucalyptol inhibits the body’s production of cytokine, which in turn reduces the amount of excess mucous secreted in the body’s airways. This is the primary reason why eucalyptus oil is so often used to provide congestion relief and alleviate flu and cold symptoms. The eucalyptol in this essential oil also reduces inflammation and muscle pain when applied to the skin.
Using essential oils to promote wellness is an effective way to maintain health and stave off illness. When you know just how the molecules and compounds in essential oils affect the molecules in your body, incorporating plant oils into your health regimen will become a much easier task.