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Are you curious about essential oils? Do you know somebody who uses them medicinally and you are interested in what they are and what they do? Well, this is your lucky day. Essential oils are some of my favorite modalities to use in practice. I have seen them work wonders when used correctly, and they can help treat certain medical conditions that are hard to tackle such as severe skin burns.

Essential oils are specific chemical constituents that many plants produce. Essential oils are considered volatile oils, which means that they rapidly evaporate and do not stain. They are found in different parts of the plant such as: fruit peels, gums, resins, flowers, leaves, barks, roots, grasses and seeds. These are created by the plant as part of a means of survival — to attract insects for pollination and reproduction, for protection from predators or harsh environments, and to act as antibacterial agents.

Essential oils are extracted through a variety of methods. The most commonly used extraction method is distillation. Distillation consists of using steam, heat and condensation. The heated steam triggers the plant to release its oils; it is then cooled and collected. Depending on the plant, it may take a large amount of the fresh plant to produce only a small amount of the essential oil. For example, rosemary needs 500 pounds of fresh plant to produce about 30 ounces of essential oil. The price of the essential oil is dependent on the amount of yield needed to produce the oil.

Methods of delivery

There are a variety of ways these oils can be utilized: through inhalation, topical application and carefully and sparingly through oral ingestion. Each method of delivery has its advantages and disadvantages.

Topical application is a great and easy way to use essential oils. Due to the biochemical nature of the essential oils, they are rapidly absorbed through the skin, are excreted slowly, and do not have to be digested. Some essential oils can cause local sensitivity in certain individuals. Application with a topical carrier oil, such as coconut oil, may prevent this.

Inhalation is helpful for ailments of the respiratory tract. With inhalation, you can directly deliver the oil to the area that it is most needed, as with head colds or lung afflictions. You are also accessing olfactory (sense of smell) function through inhalation. Through inhalation, the essential oil scents are directly delivered to the brain through the nose, and this results in immediate feelings of relaxation or invigoration, depending on which brain cells are stimulated. Each oil should be used in the correct dilution and time period to prevent irritation to the sensitive mucous membranes of the respiratory tract.

Oral use of essential oils may be indicated for gastrointestinal problems such as bloating, gas and stomachaches. It is crucial to note that most medical conditions can be treated using other methods of delivery. In general, a maximum dose of essential oils used internally is three drops three times per day for three weeks. Long-term internal use of essential oils has not been proven to be safe.

Due to the biochemical components of the oils, they can cause liver and kidney irritation and possibly damage, if used for extended periods of time. I may recommend the use of certain essential oils internally. These are therapeutic-grade oils that have been specially formulated for such use for short durations of time, and only after the necessary lab workup has been performed.

Essential oils are safe to use topically and aromatically when used correctly. It is also important to note that many essential oils are still grown with the use of pesticides. Therefore, it is best to use ones that are certified organic.

Popular essential oils

Lavender is the most commonly utilized essential oil worldwide. Inhalation of lavender has uplifting and anti-anxiety properties. Topically, it is excellent for burns, infections, scrapes, scratches, acne, scars, stretch marks and insect bites. A couple of drops on the neck and bottom of the feet can solve insomnia.

Peppermint can be used for digestive tract problems such as: nausea, spasms and irritable bowel syndrome. Topically, it can treat muscle pain, headaches and nerve inflammation. A drop of peppermint massaged on a sore muscle can melt away pain. Inhaling peppermint helps with focus and can instantly boost your mood. In skin-sensitive individuals, use a carrier oil for topical application.

Melaleuca, also known as tea tree, has a special affinity for skin ailments and infections. Tea tree has antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal properties. It works great for herpes, shingles, chicken pox, and the flu. It helps heal fungal infections, acne, minor skin wounds and insect bites.

As you can see, essential oils can be a great addition to your home first-aid kit. The versatility and medicinal uses of essential oils are vast and can be extremely beneficial when they are used accurately and safely.

Dr. Jennifer Krieger received her doctorate in naturopathic medicine at the National College of Natural Medicine in Portland, Ore., and is board certified by the North American Board of Naturopathic Examiners. As a resident, Krieger sees patients at both Yellowstone Naturopathic Clinic and Frontier Cancer Center.

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