Contributed by Kevin J Jenson, MS, BS
Let’s look at some numbers: the human body has an estimated 37 trillion cells1, each of which has a DNA genetic code that is more than 3 billion nucleotide pairs long. This DNA code contains an estimated 20,000 genes2 and these genes contain the code for an estimated 90,000 unique proteins2. These proteins perform an innumerable amount of different functions in and around cells. These huge numbers of cells, genes, and proteins are matched by myriad other molecules that regulate and perform functions in the cells, such as RNAs, peptides, and sugars. If anyone ever questions the preciousness of life, they should take a hard look at the incredible molecular processes that even one of their cells undertakes every second.
To understand how a cell works, first you must understand how proteins are made. The template for proteins is found in deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA. DNA is the code for all life. The DNA code is passed from parents to offspring. Contained within the DNA sequence are genes, which encode for messenger ribonucleic acid, or mRNA. mRNA relays to the protein-making machinery the amino acid sequence needed to assemble a protein. These long chains of amino acids form proteins—the workhorses of the cell.
There are a whole host of activities happening within each cell. Food must be broken down. Energy must be produced. Amino acids, carbohydrates, hormones, lipids, steroids, nucleotides, vitamins, and minerals must be produced, altered, or otherwise metabolized. Cells utilize biochemical pathways to make this happen. A biochemical pathway is simply a set of chemical reactions that must occur in a step-wise fashion to generate a particular product. Biochemical pathways can be thought of as a Rube Goldberg machine. One protein stimulates another protein to act on a different set of proteins and so on, creating a chain of events resulting in the desired outcome.
So where do essential oils fit into this?
Essential oils are active at the cellular level of our bodies. Better said, essential oils affect the biochemistry of our cells. Two of my favorite essential oils are Cinnamon Bark and Oregano. Their main chemical constituents are cinnamaldehyde and carvacrol, respectively. When taken internally, these oils have a variety of interesting beneficial effects on cellular biochemistry.* I will illustrate just two examples.
1) Cinnamon Bark. The colon is a prime target for toxic insult. In a recently published preclinical study (May 2015), dietary cinnamaldehyde was found to activate the Nrf2-regulated antioxidant response in colon cells, which protect the colon cells against oxidative and toxic insult3.* Nrf2 is a DNA regulatory protein, and its activation is being studied quite extensively for its ability to unleash the antioxidant activity latent in each cell. Without an activator, this powerful endogenous (internal) antioxidant activity lays dormant within the cell.
2) Oregano. Well-regulated levels of inflammation are key to good health. Inflammation is actually mediated by the immune system. In a recent preclinical study (June 2015), ingested carvacrol decreased levels of the key immune system inflammatory particles called cytokines4.*Cytokines are small proteins that act as messengers for the immune system. An immune system under stress can sometimes overproduce cytokines and other inflammatory molecules, which can lead to adverse effects throughout the body. For example, when we undergo acute bouts of intense exercise, we trigger a natural inflammatory response. Carvacrol may help assist the body’s normal immune system response to such stressors.*
These are just two examples of the many means by which essential oils affect cellular biochemistry.* Given the vast numbers of molecules that orchestrate cellular life, it is compelling that essential oils can have such potent effects on our cells.*