My past weekend endeavors could have been labeled by some as “stressful.” Anyone who has ever written a book knows the feeling of “crunch time,” when the deadline is approaching and the clock seems unforgiving. Added on top of my manuscript cutoff date, preparation for an interview on essential oils was forthcoming. This made my transformation into a temporary hermit inevitable. Besides poking my head out for a few family fun activities, I was in front of my computer for the long haul. However, I made sure to take my hourly breaks from EMFs and sitting, inhale my oils, and biohack my sleep to get through! (Good news. My review of the manuscript was completed and I will have details on how to listen to the interview in the spring.)
So, what does my solitary weekend have to do with my blog topic, essential oils and hormones? Stress has a major impact on hormonal balance, immune function, and every other system of the body. Thankfully, perception and various techniques can mitigate these “stress effects.”
Now, let’s take a deeper dive into how essential oils modulate our hormones, and overall health for that matter.
The Mode of Action of Essential Oils
One of the ways to understand an oil’s mode of action is by studying its individual constituents and resultant secondary metabolites. This has its limits.
For example, ginger has many components, including gingerol, gingerdione, and 1-8 cineole. Each component has varying effects on different cellular pathways. A 2014 article in the American Journal of Cancer summarizes these individual constituents’ differing mechanisms on tumor cell lines as follows (bold emphasis mine):
In ginger, gingerol down-regulates the antiapoptotic protein Bcl-2 and enhances the pro-apoptotic protein Bax, while gingerdione is an effective anti-tumor agent in human leukemia cells by inducing cell arrest (G1 arrest, through the down-regulation of cyclin D2, cyclin E and cdc25A and the up-regulation of CDK1 and p15. ) Gingerdione also decreases Bcl-2 accumulation and activates caspase-3 cleavage . The monoterpene 1,8-cineole/eucalyptol induces specific apoptosis, and not necrosis, on human colon cancer cell lines HCT116 and RKO.
Dr. Sarah, say what?
Let me explain that chemical soup summary. In this example with ginger, the authors have shown that each component within ginger might appear to have similar end results (inhibition of unwanted cellular growth), but different mechanisms of how this outcome is accomplished.
Still, the authors of the same article conclude that the individual constituents of an oil may not always have the same consequence as the pure essential oil (EO). For example, they report that bergamot compounds alone do “not replicate the effect of bergamot EO on all the pathways that cause cellular death with using the intact oil …”
In a broader sense, the mode of actions of essential oils can be divided into biochemical, physiological, and psychological effects.
According to The Therapeutic Benefits of Essential Oils, Nutrition, Well-Being, and Health, essential oils can act through the following means:
1. Biochemical (pharmacological). This relates to the interactions the essential oils and their constituents have with the receptors in our bodies for hormones and enzymes.
One study reported that citral, geraniol, nerol, and eugenol interacted with estrogen receptors at high concentrations, but not at low concentrations. This study suggests it is the concentration and interaction within the “hormonal environment” that determines effects of the constituents on the hormones.
Furthermore, the estrogenic effect of fennel has been studied for some time. A 2014 review article in BioMed Research International concluded that fennel acetone extract has estrogen-like activity in male and female rodents. Fennel was also reported to cause uterine contractions at high doses and therefore suggested not to be used at birth. However, at intermediate concentrations, the oil was shown to inhibit prostaglandin E2, thereby reducing uterine contractions. These conflicting results could be due to dosage of the oil and the specific constituents isolated. Unfortunately, the author does not provide a rationale.
Fennel has other biochemical effects besides hormonal. An in vitro study showed it to be an antioxidant and to demonstrate anti-tumoral effects on breast and liver cancer cell lines. Still, one of the constituents, estragole, makes the physiological effects of fennel oil complex and respect of its potency important.
2. Physiological. This is the action essential oils have on specific biological functions.
For example, constituents in fennel have been studied for balancing hormones and assisting with lactation. Fennel extracts and essences have also been shown to alleviate menstrual discomfort in several studies.
Several studies show that combinations of essential oils, including oils that contains phytoestrogens, can help alleviate menstrual discomfort (including this one, and this one). Also, clary sage and chamomile was used to assist with labor discomfort in midwife care, according to a 8-year study of over 8,000 moms.
3. Psychological mechanisms. According to The Therapeutic Benefits of Essential Oils, Nutrition, Well-Being, and Health, the “olfactory area of the brain (limbic system) undergoes an action triggered by the essential oil molecules and then, chemical and neurotransmitter messengers provide changes in the mental and emotional behavior of the person (Buchbauer, 1993; Johnson, 2011; Shibamoto et al, 2010).”
Usually, a psychological action also has a physiological or biochemical impact on the body. For example, hormonal support could be provided by calming emotion from inhalation, effecting stress hormones or enzymes, and providing direct physiological effects as a result of phytoesterogens modulating estrogen levels.
One small study with 22 menopausal women in their 50’s examined changes in neurotransmitter concentrations, cortisol, and thyroid stimulating hormone in relationship to inhalation of clary sage oil. The researchers found that inhalation of this oil decreased cortisol and increased 5-hydroxytrptamine (the monoamine, serotonin) as well as alleviated mood.
In another randomized study of sixty-three healthy postmenopausal women, researchers found effects of inhalation of the essential oil of neroli to have positive effects on menopausal symptoms, stress, and estrogen levels.
A psychological and psychological effect was seen with jasmine oil reported in the Journal of Health Research. Inhalation of jasmine caused an increase in beta wave power (indicating increased alertness) in the anterior and left posterior region of the brain when they tested 20 subjects with inhalation and measured the response with an EEG. Subjects also reported a greater feeling of well-being and were less drowsy when inhaling jasmine as compared to the resting and control condition (almond oil).
Another psychological and physiological effect can be demonstrated in the practice of forest bathing. The essential oils from trees, phytoncides, not only have been shown to decrease concentrations of adrenaline in urine, but also stimulate natural killer cells and immune promoting substances.
Let’s Talk About Phytoestrogens Baby!
Now, let’s talk about the phytoestrogens a bit, because people see that word and get worried about elevating estrogen levels… not necessarily. As mentioned above, it may more be related to the concentration of the secondary metabolites and the hormonal environment.
I’ve written about phytoestrogens in the past. Basically, they are components found in various plants. They share structural or functional similarities to mammalian estrogens and their active metabolites. Lignans (such as those found in flaxseeds) and phenolics are some examples.
As I wrote previously, phytoestrogens are more of selective estrogen receptor modulators (SERMs), with a higher preference for estrogen receptor beta (ER-B) than estrogen receptor alpha (ER-a). Phytoestrogens can also modulate aromatase, increase sex hormone-binding globulin, and effect other enzymatic pathways. Polymorphisms in estrogen detoxification and microbiome health can play a role regarding metabolism of these compounds and resulting hormonal impact. This is probably why studies are very conflicting in regard to breast cancer; however, many human trials point to beneficial effects in modulating breast cancer risk.
Here is a list, compiled by Dr. Z, on specific essential oils, which includes some compounds in oils that are deemed “estrogenic,” but show tumor inhibition in breast cell cancer lines:
- Black Pepper, Cinnamon, Clove, Oregano
- Clary Sage (Study 1)
- Clary Sage (Study 2)
- Oregano (Study 1)
- Oregano (Study 2)
So, Do Essential Oils Balance Hormones?
Essential oils can balance hormones. That being said, some people who are already on hormones, pregnant, or on chemotherapy may need to be more cautious due to the fact that their hormonal levels are being manipulated to be UN-balanced for medical reasons. If phytoestrogens are used, they could interfere with the hormone receptors and change levels of hormone availability in the body.
Therefore, on the basis of its structure, sclareol is unlikely to have any estrogenic action. Even if sclareol was estrogenic, at about 4% of clary sage oil, it would have to have a very high binding affinity for estrogen receptor sites for the essential oil to have any effect, and this is extremely unlikely.
Remember, with a combination of the direct effects of the constituents along with their broader range of actions and proper dosage, essential oils will create a synergy in the body to bring about balance. Still, they must be used wisely and with common sense.
Read more about essential oil safety here.
But Lavender Can Give Me Man Boobs!?
You heard that dirty rumor going around, right? It was regarding the three cases of boys that grew “man boobs” from using lavender oil. Nope. Not substantiated regarding quality essential oils. Check it out here.
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.