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Episode 56: What Are Essential Oils?


doTERRA: Did you know that a study has shown that 64% of adults have admitted to believing false information they found on the Internet? We live in a time where there is an incredible amount of information at our fingertips. But, of course, some information is more reliable than others. Today, we're going to clear up some misinformation about essential oils as well as give some guidance on how to find the most reliable information. 

Welcome back to Essential Oil Solutions with doTERRA, 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 sit down with Dr. Scott Johnson—author of multiple books and hundreds of articles about health, wellness, and essential oils—to talk to him about what essential oils are, where they come from, and how they work. 

Scott, thank you so much for taking the time to sit down with us today. The first thing we want to know is how did you get into learning and researching about essential oils? It's kind of a niche group, so what brought you into it?

Scott Johnson: Yeah, it is kind of an odd topic to gravitate towards, but mine is kind of an interesting story as well. I have been using essential oils for many, many years. The first one I was introduced to was Tea Tree essential oil. But the first couple that I got introduced to, I really didn't know what I was doing with them, like probably most people. 

doTERRA: Right.

Scott: And it wasn't until years later that I was in a class that was teaching about essential oils, and they talked about how potent they are and that they're the most concentrated and potent botanical extracts that are available for us to use. But then the next words that came out of their mouth was, “And these are just used for your emotions. That's about it.”

doTERRA: Huh.

Scott: And I thought, “Hmm, that doesn't make sense. You just told me these are the most potent botanical extracts. But then you say all I can do is affect my emotions with them.” And so that really was what led me on a journey to really start discovering what essential oils do. I started to look at research and find out that they—they do more than just affect our emotions.

And one of the frustrating things that I found in—in doing that was there is so much conflicting information out there on essential oils. I would read one “expert,” and they would say to do something, and then the next “expert” would say the exact opposite. 

doTERRA: Right.

Scott: And so, it just kept me confused and led me to want to continue to research them and find out more about essential oils.

doTERRA: Well that is so cool, and like you said, there is such conflicting information out there. All of these people take to the Internet, and like people do on the Internet, they claim they're an expert, they claim they have all this knowledge. So it is really hard to find out the actual truth and make sure you're getting reliable information. 

Scott: Yes, for sure. 

doTERRA: So one of the things that I want to help clarify is where essential oils come from and how they've been used. So can you tell us a little bit about the history of essential oils?

Scott: Yeah, the history of essential oils dates back for as far as recorded history, really. But they weren't really true essential oils that they were being—that were being used way back then. The existing records that we do have, and through archeological research and the digs that they've done, there is suggestive evidence of aromatic extracts being used among ancient Egyptian cultures, ancient Chinese, and even the Indus cultures. 

doTERRA: Wow.

Scott: And so, we really can't pinpoint exactly who was the first to use them, but we do know that all of those various ancient cultures did use them.

But what, like I said, they weren't true essential oils. They were really more crude extracts, and so they were putting these botanicals in fats from animals or from vegetables in order to extract the aromatic compounds that are in plants. You know, other things that we have that record use of essential oils or aromatics include The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, which was actually a book written by the Chinese many, many years ago.

doTERRA: Wow.

Scott: That one actually records the use of various aromatic plants within that book. We also have other historical accounts of Greek physicians that used aromatics. And so, there is a substantial amount of history showing those—the use of the aromatic compounds that are contained in plants. 

But we didn't really see truly distilled essential oils until clear into the late 10th and early 11th century, when a Persian physician kind of developed the modern distillation procedures. The one debate about that is he may have been actually doing that because he wanted the floral waters that came from that process rather than the essential oils themselves.

doTERRA: Oh, interesting!

Scott: But he did end up getting essential oils, and then further, we had Spanish physicians that were using aromatics in the 13th century. And from the 15th to about the 20th century, you had European scientists who were really getting into the nitty-gritty of essential oils, and they were studying them, they were distilling them, they were analyzing them, and they were cataloguing their properties that they were finding because of that. So then you fast forward to today, and now we have thousands of peer-reviewed, scientific studies that contribute to our knowledge of essential oils, how they work, what their composition is.

And so, we've kind of come full circle from the real crude, rudimentary aromatics to true essential oils that we have a very good, solid science backing behind.

doTERRA: And that is incredible that, you know, you could look back to ancient Egypt and find them using these plants and the same ones that maybe we're using today, and they were benefiting from them.

Scott: Right. 

doTERRA: So how did we get from those rudimentary extracts that they're using animal fats to pull out to these researched essential oils that we have today.

Scott: Yeah, it was a refinement of the distillation or the extraction process over years and decades of time, combined with that beginning scientific validation that started in Europe in the 15th century, with them studying essential oils and helping to discover—today—helping to discover those mechanisms of action, the pathways that they work on, what systems they might be supporting. And then when you combine that with centuries of trial and error and using these aromatic extracts and essential oils, then you get a better guide to how to use them and as a clinical perspective in human beings.

doTERRA: That is just incredible, and the science and research that I'm sure has taken to get us from point A to point B is astronomical when you really think about it.

So Scott, one thing that—so Scott, one thing that people might not know is that essential oils are not actually oils. So could you tell us a little bit about that, and tell us why they are called essential oils? 

Scott: Yeah, you know the—the name essential oil is a bit of a misnomer in itself because they aren't oils as far as—you know—we get a vegetable oil: you feel olive oil, you can feel it's really viscous and oily. Essential oils are—are not like that. 

Instead, they're concentrated liquid extracts that contain volatile aromatic compounds and some nonvolatile compounds. An example of a nonvolatile compound would be the furanocoumarins that are found in some citrus essential oils. Those are what helped make—what make the essential oils that contain them to be more photosensitizing. But the term essential oil—really—is believed to originate clear back from the Middle Ages.

And it's—it's because back then, alchemists were actually searching for what they thought was the fifth element to go along with fire, water, earth, and air. So in the search for this fifth element, during that time, the advent of distillation produced a liquid that they saw sat on top of the water, and it didn't mix with the water. And so back then, anything that was lighter than water and couldn't mix with it was called an oil.

doTERRA: Oh, interesting.

Scott: And so, because they called that or classified that as an oil, they called this liquid the quintessence of—of the plants.

And so, then it became known as the essence of the plant. And eventually we got to the term essential oils because the alchemists believed that this liquid that they were finding, what they coined an oil, was essential for all little living things. So that's kind of how essential oil terminology got started. 

doTERRA: That is so interesting that it dates all the way back to those alchemists, and kind of, this happy accident that ended up terming it an oil. 

So there's kind of been a resurgence in the popularity of essential oils, in probably the past—you know—ten or fifteen years, with people really starting to latch on to these more natural methods. Why do you think that is?

Scott: Yeah, you know, essential oils have been growing in popularity—exponentially, really—over the last several years. And I think it's a combination of several factors or several reasons. I think today people are more educated, they have more information available to them, and so because of that, they want to look for more natural ways that they can maintain their health. And naturally, that gravitates them towards modalities that emphasize the whole person or a holistic perspective and something that balances overall health, rather than just trying to take care of what's happening to the person at the time.

I think there's an increasing concern about some of the chemicals that are used in—for well-being right now. And people see natural solutions as working with the body or supporting natural and normal functions within the body to help us maintain our—our well-being.

doTERRA: Right.

I think another factor is going to be that the essential oils are viewed as safer with fewer undesirable effects to them. And ultimately, it just comes down to that people want to have a better quality of life, and so they're looking for any solution that's going to help them to experience that better quality of life.

doTERRA: Absolutely. So Scott, shifting a little bit more into the nitty-gritty science of essential oils, why are they able to work? How are they able to interact with our bodies in the way that they do?

Scott: Yeah, that's the great thing about the science, that we've started to compile in those thousands of studies, is we are learning how that they interact with our body. Essential oils work because they're very small and lightweight molecules that are able to enter the cells throughout the body. They preferentially distribute to fatty tissues or fat sources within our body because they're fat-loving molecules, and they want to—they're attracted to them. 

And while we know that every one of our cells is surrounded with a lipid membrane—a lipid is a type of fat. And so that we know essential oils can gravitate towards our cells, and as such, they almost act as facilitative molecules that are able to guide the cells, guide their function, their behavior, their activities. And they do so through interacting with the—the cellular receptors on the outside of the cell, they do so by going inside the cell and interacting with the organelles that are found within there, and what that results in is that the essential oil helps to support normal processes and healthy function within those cells, which leads to healthy tissues, which leads to a healthy organism.

And so, they help us maintain our overall well-being by doing that all the way down, really—we say the cellular level, but I would say it's even at the sub-cellular level, at the individual organelles.

doTERRA: Wow, that is incredible, and it's such a beautiful concept that—you know—humans and plants, we all come from nature, and that these plants are able to provide us with these essential oils that help support the natural processes of our body, and just work in such a synergistic way to really help us find better health and more natural solutions. 

Scott: Yeah, I love the word you just said, synergistic, because that's how I think essential oils work. They're working in tandem with our body to support these processes that we need to work best to really maintain that state of good health all of us want.

doTERRA: So Scott, you have done years of research in the field of essential oils, and like you said, there's a lot of misinformation out there. So what advice do you have for people who are trying to find reliable information on essential oils?

Scott: Well yeah, I think that I alluded a little bit earlier that the internet is full of information, but the problem is there's a lot of conflicting information. And combined with the conflicting information, there's myths and and things that are not true about essential oils. Both good and bad things are said that are not true essential oils.

doTERRA: Right.

Scott: So my approach is to look for supportive evidence. When I hear that an essential oil does something, my approach is to try and merge that traditional use with evidence in peer-reviewed scientific studies, any kind of science that's available. 

Another thing is to avoid the extremes. Whenever you're going to hear extremes of essential oils—that they tend to be less true the farther to the extremes, on either side that they go. 

And then I think it's important that you find a few different experts and—or books that you can trust. And the reason I say a few different ones is because each of our use or the way that we use essential oils is shaped by not only our knowledge but our experience. And so, we definitely will have different approaches, and we can learn from various different individuals. And so, if you have more than one, if you have two or three people, that you're relying upon for expertise and the information on essential oils, then you're going to get more information because each one is going to present that information, or present you new ideas, in a different way.

doTERRA: Well thank you so much for that advice, and I hope that helps everyone who's listening feel a little bit more confident as they're out there searching for information about the essential oils that they are using in their homes.

Scott, thank you for sitting down with us. We truly, truly appreciate your expertise and your wealth of knowledge that you're able to bring. 

Scott: My pleasure. Thanks for having 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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