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Episode 151: The Science Behind Essential Oils


doTERRA: Essential oils have been utilized and prized for thousands of years, but you might be wondering when the scientific study of essential oils came about or even how it works. Thankfully, we've got all of the answers for you.

Welcome back to Essential Oil Solutions with doTERRAs, the podcast where you'll hear exciting, useful, and simple everyday uses for essential oils from experts in the field. If you like what you hear today, rate, review, and subscribe wherever you listen. We always appreciate hearing from you.

Today, we're excited to talk to Dr. Scott Johnson—author of multiple books and hundreds of articles about health, wellness, and essential oils—about the science behind essential oils. Scott, thank you so much for being here with us today.

Dr. Scott Johnson: I'm happy to be here! I always enjoy having time to share more with our doTERRA audience.

doTERRA: Wonderful! Our first big question is what is the science that is used to study essential oils?

Dr. Johnson: Yeah, essential oils have been used and anecdotally validated for hundreds of years, but the scientific research behind essential oils is just scratching the surface of their potential. There has been an explosion of research in the last decade that has led to the publishing of more essential oil research during that time period than in the last 500 years combined.

doTERRA: Wow!

Dr. Johson: I often talk about merging the art and science of essential oils. The art is the hundreds of years of experience and trial and error. While science uses modern technology and instrumentation to look at the chemistry, mechanisms, and pathways of essential oils. Understanding science and merging these two realms helps us know how to use essential oils more effectively in everyday life.

Much of the research that has been published is what we call pre-clinical or experimental research or research that evaluates essential oils in a nonliving organism or in cell models. It can be in vitro (meaning performed in a laboratory), simulated in a computer (called in silico), or in animals—which I want to emphasize doTERRA does not conduct or support. Although, other scientists do use this method and publish their research. Each of these tests simulates what may occur when a human is exposed to an essential oil. But since humans aren't agar solutions in a petri dish, the results aren't always as powerful or reliable as clinical research.

In Vitro Research

One of the limitations to in vitro research is that it normally is performed on a single cell type, rather than multiple different types of cells. And the human body contains multiple types of cells. To somewhat overcome this limitation, scientists will sometimes test essential oils in a multi-cell model with two or more cell types at once, which more closely simulates the human body.

Clinical Research

The other type of research, of course, is clinical research, which is scientific investigation that involves living humans. Clinical research ranges from case reports to large, blinded, controlled, and randomized trials. The primary goal of clinical research is to determine if a specific essential oil is a safe and effective means of supporting human health and to help determine the amounts and how much of an essential oil should be used for maximum effectiveness. Clinical trials are extremely complex, expensive, and time-intensive. And so that is why more preclinical research is performed on essential oils.

Essential Oil Science at doTERRA

When it comes to essential oils science, no one does it better than doTERRA, and our partner scientists and organizations. We have established a reputation as the leader in essential oil science as we explore not only the benefits of essential oils, but how they are metabolized and processed in the body, the best delivery methods, and the best amounts to use. We have an entire team of scientists dedicated to research, including clinical trials.

doTERRA: That is incredible, and that such a broad scope of different research types that are done with essential oils. Now, you mentioned this anecdotal history of essential oils, but when did the research actually start? When can we trace it back to?

Dr. Johnson: Yeah, health practitioners and physicians of hundreds of years ago could be credited for beginning research into essential oils, particularly Avicenna, who was a Middle Eastern physician who improved the distillation process during the late 10th and early 11th centuries.

However, modern scientific research really started during the 1800s, when Alchemist's began to research the individual constituents within essential oils and their potential beneficial properties. By the 19th century, essential oil properties were beginning to be reported in the literature.

And this research has continued in the modern-day. Today, more than 26,000 studies on essential oils are found in PubMed alone, including hundreds of clinical studies. The more studies that are published, the more we can merge the ancient arts with modern science to use essential oils more effectively and safely.

doTERRA: And how did the research of these essential oils evolve over the last few hundred years?

Dr. Johnson: Initially, scientists were highly focused on the chemical composition of essential oils and discovering so-called active molecules in each essential oil. A large amount of the research has shown that whole plant chemistry is very important, though, and that even the minor constituents in essential oils play a role in the benefits that they provide. This is the concept of synergy at the single plant level, where multiple constituents in the essential oil work together to provide a beneficial effect.

Eventually, preclinical models were performed and many of the benefits reported anecdotally by ancient practitioners were confirmed by the research. This preclinical research has helped us understand the mechanisms and pathways by which essential oils influence health. More and more now, clinical research is being performed showing that essential oils can be used in clinical settings, healthcare, and at home to aid wellbeing.

doTERRA: Now, I want to go into a little bit more of the technical side of the science for a second. What are the key chemical families that researchers are looking for in essential oils?

Dr. Johnson: There are a number of chemical families or essential oils that contain functional groups found in essential oils, including alcohols, aldehydes, alkanes and alkenes, esters, ethers, ketones, oxides, phenols, and phenylpropenes.

It is important to point out that while essential oils within a specific chemical family may share certain characteristics, qualities, and even properties, chemical families don't always share the same benefits or safety properties. Each individual essential oil needs to be evaluated for its own unique chemistry and properties.

doTERRA: Well, that leads really well into the next question I have for you, which I know is a really big one in the essential oil community. And that is how does science help us determine the purity of essential oils?

Dr. Johnson: Scientific testing is a key to determining purity, which is the most important characteristic of an essential oil. Testing validates the purity and authenticity of essential oils. doTERRA essential oils are the most tested and trusted brand of essential oils. We have a unique sourcing model that gives us visibility in the entire process, from plant cultivation to harvesting and distillation, and then test every batch of oil with multiple layered tests called the CPTG® or Certified Pure Tested Grade process.

This proprietary process ensures the purity, potency, and consistency of doTERRA essential oils from batch to batch. Some suppliers are using more sophisticated adulteration methods that are hard to detect with a single test. So it is critical that each oil go through a battery of tests, and then the test results are reviewed by a qualified chemist.

doTERRA: Well, that sounds like you have to be quite thorough to make sure that you're getting the purest essential oils that you can. Can you tell us a little bit—going back to the different types of tests that they do with cells and essential oils—can you tell us a little bit about the science behind how essential oils are interacting with our bodies?

Dr. Johnson: Our bodies are amazingly equipped to handle challenges. The body's natural and desired state is health. We have multiple systems and mechanisms that work tirelessly to maintain a state of homeostasis. Sometimes these systems need additional support, and this is where essential oils come in. When ingested, they support healthy bodily functions by interacting with cellular receptors and organelles within cells, aiding healthy expression of genes, and generally supporting healthy mechanisms in the body designed to keep us feeling our best.

doTERRA: Scott, it has been so incredible to learn from you today and figure out a little bit more about the science behind essential oils. For people that are wanting to dig deeper, what resources do you recommend for looking into this science?

Dr. Johnson: The doTERRA Essential Oils Specialist Certification program that's online, I would definitely recommend that. And of course, Convention. Those would be my first two recommendations. The certification program discusses testing and purity in great depth, as well as best practices for the use of essential oils. Convention presentations often share the science behind our oils, so you should definitely be participating in Convention each and every year.

After this, the doTERRA Science Blog, the doTERRA Science Instagram and Facebook pages, the doTERRA chemistry wheel, and of course, the Essential Oil Chemistry Handbook are all good resources to learn more.

Lastly, my books are loaded with essential oil science and research, but at a very understandable level. Some of my larger books are cited with thousands of references.

doTERRA: Well, that all sounds amazing and so, so helpful. Scott, thank you so much for being here with us today. We always enjoy talking to you and learning so much from you.

Dr. Johnson: Thanks for inviting me!

doTERRA: Thanks for joining us and congratulations on living a healthier lifestyle with essential oils. If you liked what you heard today, rate, review, and subscribe wherever you listen. Also, if you want to try any of the products you learned about, go to or find a Wellness Advocate near you to place an order today.

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