Last week I was discussing with an esteemed colleague how I implement the safe use of essential oils with my patients. A question that emerged in our conversation was if there was a direct comparison of essential oils potency to supplements or herbs that contain them. I couldn’t answer that question simply, as there are many variables that relate to essential oil strength. In this article, I will dive into the literature to explain these factors and other essential oil complexities. First, let’s start from the beginning.
What Are Essential Oils?
Essential oils should not be confused with essential fatty acids, alpha-linolenic acid (an omega-3 fatty acid) and linoleic acid (an omega-6 fatty acid) which are found in foods. Rather, essential oils are the aromatic and volatile compounds found within shrubs, flowers, trees, roots, bushes, resins, and seeds. They are considered secondary metabolites of the plant, meaning they are not essential for life, but vital for survival of the plant. This is because they play an important role in the plant’s defense and overall immune health.1-9
Secondary metabolites can be classified on the basis of chemical structure composition (i.e. containing nitrogen or not), their solubility in various solvents, or the pathway by which they are synthesized (e.g., phenylpropanoid, which produces tannins).8 Essential oil constituents have various means of classifications. One way is to classify them is as either terpenoids or phenylpropanoids, or alternatively, into hydrocarbons and oxygenated compounds.5
According to a 2015 study,6 another way to categorize active compounds in essential oils is to divide them into four groups based on their chemical structures. These groups include terpenes, terpenoids, phenylpropenes (a subfamily of phenylpropanoids), and “different degradation products originating from unsaturated fatty acids, lactones, terpenes, glycosides, and compounds that contain either sulfur or nitrogen” contained in various essential oils6
The Complexity Factor
As you can see, there is complexity to essential oils. Essential oils contain a wide array of constituents, regardless of how they are classified. These all have synergistic or differing therapeutic actions and mechanisms, which can support and balance out one’s biochemistry. Furthermore, one constituent can have multiple actions. For example, alcohols can be antimicrobial, antiseptic, tonifying, balancing, spasmolytic, anesthetic, and anti-inflammatory.5
Their chemical composition can also vary depending on the season of harvest and methods of extraction (distillation, hydrodistillation, super critical carbon dioxide extraction, and solvent extraction- the latter two are not technically essential oils). A final intricacy of an essential oil’s action to consider is its chemotype or distinct plant population within the same species. These various populations produce differing plant secondary metabolites that have differing effects.5,6,8,10
With all the potential healing properties of so many components, it’s no wonder essential oils are coming into vogue.7 It was estimated in 2004 that there were 3000 kinds of essential oils identified and 300 were commercially used in the flavor and fragrance market.6
NOW THE BIG QUESTION…
Essential Oils Straight, In Herbs, or Pills?
Don’t miss the microbiome shocker of the year, okay of the decade (since it’s only February), read it here.
Disclaimer: This information is applicable ONLY for therapeutic quality essential oils. This information DOES NOT apply to essential oils that have not been tested for purity and standardized constituents. There is no quality control in the United States, and oils labeled as “100% pure” need only to contain 5% of the actual oil. The rest of the bottle can be filled with fillers and sometimes toxic ingredients that can irritate the skin.
This material is for information purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, treat, or prescribe for any illness. You should check with your doctor regarding implementing any new strategies into your wellness regime. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA.