Contributed by Nicole Stevens, MSc
Imagine you had a magnifying glass strong enough to see down to the molecular level. Take that magnifying glass and peek into a drop of essential oil. What you’d find is an astonishing array of natural plant chemicals carefully honed by millennia of evolution, meticulously sourced and harvested to preserve the unique bouquet, and painstakingly extracted to capture the true ratios of physiologically active components. What you’d see in that drop of essential oil is one of Nature’s finest creations.
What are essential oils?
Like humans, plants need to communicate with their neighbors. They need to fight off invaders and attract the right helpers. Many of the chemicals they use in these processes are what we know as essential oils.
The variety of essential oil compounds is staggering: monoterpenes, diterpenes, sesquiterpenes, esters, alcohols, and terpenoids, to name a few. It’s likely that some essential oils will contain compounds we’ve never seen before—only a fraction of plant species have been evaluated for their beneficial value. Essential oils are useful in many ways, but their true distinctiveness lies in several characteristics: volatility, synergy, and adaptiveness.
Essential oils are unique and elegantly functional because they contain a mixture of highly volatile components. This is one of the stationary plant’s best tools. How could a peppermint plant communicate with its neighbors? Can’t pull up roots, so let’s send over a volatile molecule. How could the peppermint plant tell a hungry bug to stay away from leaves or roots? Secrete volatile molecules and allow them to surround the plant like an invisible shield.
Historically, humans have harnessed this chemical volatility for beneficial purposes. Modern science allows us to gain a better understanding of how essential oils work and is now beginning to confirm their traditional uses.
Take Lavender, for example. Multiple studies show that Lavender essential oil
offers far more than just a pleasant smell. When taken internally, Lavender oil
was shown to directly affect the brain’s serotonin system*.(1) Experimental research suggests that lavender essential oil
may also possess antioxidant properties* (2) and also help to support the immune function of certain cells*.(3) All those volatile chemicals have potential to quickly and effectively interact with our physiology. It’s one of the ways essential oils are so powerful.
Another key to essential oil chemistry lies in the delicate balance of components. A drop of essential oil is like a snapshot of the plant’s unique makeup and environment. All of the chemicals in the essential oil (hundreds of chemicals, in some cases) play some role in the plant’s physiology. And all of those components make a complete oil that’s unique like a fingerprint…and that’s far more than the sum of its parts.
We don’t fully understand the synergy of essential oils. We know that in many cases, an oil contains a handful of main active components—players like pinene, eugenol, limonene, linalool, and carvacrol—and a whole host of “trace” components. Sometimes these are precursors or reaction products of the main players. Sometimes these are just individual chemicals thrown into the mix. A little of this, a dash of that, all contributing to an amazing final product.
The interesting thing is that multiple studies have illustrated the synergy of essential oil components. One recent study,(4) for example, took seven essential oils and tested their antioxidant properties,* comparing those results against the same tests run with the single most abundant component in each oil. The study found that an oil’s antioxidant capability can’t always be traced to one main component. Often it’s the supporting “trace” chemicals that modulate and interact with each other in ways we don’t yet realize.
Humans evolved with plants. Our physical makeup is based on the same organic molecules. We’re subject to similar environmental stressors. It’s therefore no surprise that the chemicals developed by plants for protection and environmental adaptation are powerful agents within the human body, too.
Essential oils change. They adapt. They morph into whatever chemical cocktail will best support the plant’s survival. It is this adaptiveness that has caught the interest of scientists and medical professionals. A plant fights hard for survival; we benefit from that evolutionary fight.
A single drop. That’s the unit by which we measure essential oils, and talk about their chemical components. It’s also the current extent of our scientific knowledge—a single drop in a vast ocean of possibilities waiting to be explored. We’ll glean that information about just how unique and powerful essential oils are, one research study after another. One drop at a time.