Essential Oils: More Than Just Symptom Relief
Consistent headaches, although likely not a serious signal of pathology, could be an early sign of greater physiological imbalances. In the long-run, if these are not addressed, they could increase your chance of health problems.
In my series on headaches, I provided an overview of their classifications, common types, causes, red flags, and functional medicine tests to consider when the underlying reason for them is hard to determine. I also highlighted naturopathic and functional medicine approaches that can help to soothe an achy head by addressing the underlying origins. Among them was aromatherapy.
In this article and video series, I will dive deeper into how essential oils can be supportive to the mind-body. I will also highlight how their aromatic and chemical properties can address deeper imbalances as they ease symptoms. This article will feature a spotlight on peppermint oil.
For my community members, I have additional resources, references, and a Q&A video/screenshare on this topic in your membership vault.
The Concept of Synergy and the Multi-Dimensional Power of Essential Oils
The powerful, multi-modal effects of essential oils are based on the concept of synergy. The New York Institute of Aromatic Studies provides a wonderful definition of this concept as referenced to herbals:
Many herbalists acknowledge that one of the main differences between whole herbs and traditional extracts on the one hand, versus individual vitamins, minerals, isolated phytochemicals, or conventional single – molecule drugs on the other hand, is the principle of synergy. Synergy can be defined in a number of ways, but the underlying idea is that complex interactions among the many constituents of an herb give rise to its unique characteristics, personality, and healing properties. To borrow a concept from physics, the very complexity of a living plant – which contains perhaps thousands of interacting chemicals – gives rise to emergent behavior: activities and effects which could not have been predicted from what is known about the individual components of the system. In other words, the whole herb is far more than the sum of its constituents.
– Lisa Ganora
In other words, the actions of essential oils are not just based solely on the mechanisms of a few of their isolated or active compounds. In fact, the majority of essential oils contain 100s to over 500 constituents. It is the influence of the combination of these vast number of molecules that provides essential oils with such diverse effects on the brain and body.
Now, let’s look at an example of this. We will learn how peppermint oil’s complex nature assists in optimizing underlying physiological and psychological dysregulations as it eases unwanted symptoms.
Peppermint oil belongs to the mint (Lamiaceae) family. It contains the constituents of carvacrol, menthol, carvone, methyl acetate, limonene, and menthone. Menthol and menthone are often what are attributed to peppermint’s main effects. However, due to the concept of synergy, many different biochemical interactions between the oil’s compounds and our cellular receptors can occur simultaneously.
For example, peppermint oil has been stated to have the following actions:
- analgesic (pain reducing)
- antimicrobial and antiseptic (antimicrobial applied to skin)
- antispasmodic (relieves spasms)
- astringent (constricts mucous membranes)
- digestive, stomachic, and carminative (relieves gas)
- fungicidal (kills fungus)
- nervine stimulant (nervous system stimulant)
- vasoconstrictor (narrows blood vessels)
As you can see, the various properties of this oil would not only address a symptom such as discomfort in the head, but also impact underlying issues that could be contributing to it. Let’s look at some examples of this.
Peppermint Oil and the Gut-Brain
Those with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and psychiatric disorders have bi-directional co-occurrences. In fact, one review demonstrated changes in the prefrontal cortex, ventro-lateral and posterior parietal cortex, and thalami in neuroimaging studies of the brain of those with IBS. These alterations of brain circuits are involved in attention, emotion, and pain modulation. This research helps to demonstrate why those with mood disorders tend to have digestive complaints and vice versa.
Peppermint oil has validation for use in gastrointestinal disorders. There are several meta-analyses on its efficacy for easing the symptoms of IBS. Due to the gut-brain link, relieving digestive distress can also favorably influence mood and brain health.
Peppermint Oil and the Brain
Peppermint oil has also been found to enhance memory and cognitive performance. These are often compromised in those with headaches and stress-related conditions.
One study assessed the human cognitive and mood effects of spearmint and peppermint essential oils in 24 healthy adults. The researchers determined which oils had the “most promising, brain-relevant in vitro properties according to pre-trial in vitro screening.”
They found that high quality oils with menthol/menthone content exhibited the most powerful changes in neurotransmitters that could impact brain function. These alterations included cholinergic inhibition, calcium regulation, and interactions with GABAA/nicotinic receptor binding properties.
In comparing the instances when the subjects received these oils vs. a placebo, the mint oils intervention resulted in greater performance on demanding cognitive tasks. Those who used oils also had an attenuation of mental fatigue associated with extended cognitive task performance.
Other studies have also reported that peppermint oil can positively impact memory, attention, exercise, and cognitive performance. (R, R, R) This article dives more into how essential oils can accomplish these improvements through influencing the stress response, neuroinflammation, and neurotransmitters. I discuss this study in my membership Q&A.
Peppermint Oil and Headaches
In one study, researchers found that peppermint oil topically applied in 10% solution was comparable to drugs in efficacy for tension-type headaches. Unfortunately, the article was in German, so I couldn’t translate the full paper for mechanisms of action. The abstract stated it was based on multiple effects. It also reported that peppermint oil was used as medicine in Europe for this condition at the time of publication:
Tension-type headache is the most frequent form of headache. The local topical treatment with peppermint oil (oleum menthae piperitae) has proven to be significantly more effective than placebo in controlled studies. Peppermint oil targets headache pathophysiology in multiple ways. The efficacy is comparable to that of acetylsalicylic acid or paracetamol. Solutions of 10 % peppermint oil in ethanol are licensed for the treatment of tension-type headache in adults and children above 6 years. It is included in treatment recommendations and guidelines by the respective professional societies and is regarded as a standard treatment for the acute therapy of tension-type headaches.
Another study also explored how peppermint oil could assist with head pain. In a 2019, double-blind, parallel, randomized controlled trial, 120 adult patients with a diagnosis of migraine were treated with intranasal lidocaine drop (4%), peppermint essential oil drop (1.5%), or placebo for two months. Symptom assessment was done five minutes, 15 minutes, and 30 minutes after the intervention. If headaches weren’t relieved after 15 minutes, a second dose was given. The results indicated a 40% decrease in intensity of headache in both treatment groups.
The authors concluded:
Concerning the findings of the present study, nasal application of peppermint oil caused considerable reduction in the intensity and frequency of headache and relieved majority of patients’ pain similar to lidocaine. On the basis of findings of this study, it can be concluded that nasal menthol, such as lidocaine, can be used to relieve migraine headaches.
Summary on Peppermint Oil for Digestive Health, Brain Support, Head Discomfort Relief, and Mind-Body Balance
One of my favorite aspects of essential oils is their ability to simultaneously address symptoms as they also support our psychology, biology, and biochemistry.
Peppermint oil not only has some clinical evidence for the relief of conditions directly, it also has additional support for impacting various triggers that can impact the underlying issues. This includes its actions as an antimicrobial, digestive aid, anti-inflammatory, nervous system stimulant, and modulator of brain and cognitive functioning.
Do you use peppermint oil?
I honestly never leave home without it.
In an upcoming post, I’ll highlight some additional properties of essential oils that can help with issues as they bring about balance to the body. The main focus will be on lavender oil.
Naturopathic Medicine and Holistic Resources for Hormonal, Mood, and Digestive Support
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Disclaimer: 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. (Affiliation link.)
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. The studies are not based solely on a specific brand of an essential oil, unless stated. Please read the full study for more information.
Thanks Pixabay and Canva.