Why Can Essential Oils Do So Darn Much and How Do Essential Oils Promote Wellness?


Mint oil

Recently, I was interviewed for my upcoming talk on the Natural Cancer Prevention Summit, taking place May 16th – May 23rd.  It spurred me to write a two-part series to be published on the Natural Path. The articles provide supporting evidence on the role of lifestyle and diet in prevention of diseases and even modulating their outcomes. I discussed these concepts a bit in Part 2 of my BreakFree Medicine webinar series, but wanted to highlight more hopeful insights on how we don’t have to be victims of our health. (You can receive all three webinars by signing up for my newsletter, if you haven’t already.)

In this blog, I want to focus on using essential oils as a lifestyle measure to stay healthy and promote wellness.

Quick Essential Oil Review

Essential oils are secondary metabolites produced by the plant to support the plant’s immune defense system and to stimulate various helpful pathways. In humans, they have impact on our biochemistry, physiology, and psychology due to the fact that they are so compatible with our own biology.  Essential oils are absorbed easily into our system through skin application and excreted quickly. In fact, a well-respected and well-known physician who is mentor to many of the greats in functional medicine, Sidney Baker, explained in this video how essential oils act as food in our body. This makes them gentle yet powerful.

Essential oils have also been shown to have beneficial effects in digestion, which is a bonus as many conventional interventions have side effects that disturb the gut. Oral application any intervention which usually probably is the most studied with peppermint oil. Still, it appears that internal use has similar benefits, or more profound ones, with lavender regarding mood.1-3 This is evidenced by the European trials of a branded form of lavender oil used for anxiety and mood.1-2

Note: More studies are definitely needed for oral use with essential oils in clinical trials, and it can be controversial. Safety and quality of essential oil is paramount for all topical and oral use. Oral use may be best with a doctor. (See my database for four articles on essential oils and safety.)

Smell That Awakens!

I also think it’s important to note that essential oils aren’t all “calming.” Various oils can affect the nervous system response in different ways, as I discussed here. Some people can actually have “parasympathetic dominance”17 and therefore, stimulation may be helpful at times, such as those with orthostatic hypotension.

One study review on rosemary reports on its arousing effect:

Our results demonstrate significant changes in ANS parameters after exposure to sweet almond oil and rosemary oil. The data of various ANS parameters were compared during rest (control), sweet almond oil inhalation, and rosemary oil inhalation as shown in Table 1. The heart rate of subjects was significantly reduced during sweet almond oil inhalation as compared with the resting condition (p < 0.05). However, after being exposed to rosemary oil, heart rate, blood pressure, and respiratory rate had significantly increased (p < 0.01). In contrast, skin temperature had decreased significantly. The results have shown consistency with a previous rosemary oil massage study which found that rosemary oil increased blood pressure and respiratory rates [7]. The stimulatory effects on the autonomic nervous system may be explained through the abundance of oxides (1,8-cineole) and monoterpenes (?-pinene) that are present in rosemary oil. Both of these components have stimulating effects on the nervous system through sympathetic activity [12, 13]. Heuberger et al. found that the respiratory rate increased after the administration of 1,8-cineole [14], while Orhan et al. found that 1,8-cineole and ?-pinene moderately inhibited acetylcholinesterase [15], an acetylcholine degradation enzyme which results in prolonged muscle contraction, and might be responsible for the reductions in skin temperatures.18


Why Are Essential Oils So Powerful?

Due to their many constituents they have such a wide array of actions and responses, it can seem “too good to be true.”5-7 One article in the Proceedings of Nutritional Sciences explains the power of these plant secondary metabolites (PSM):

In many cases PSM, e.g. the terpenoid essential oils, can be more effective than chemically-synthesised pure compounds because they are a complex mixture of components. Their complexity enables the PSM to interact with multiple molecular targets and, thus, it is more difficult for target micro-organisms or herbivores to develop any effective response because resistance at different targets would be required.5

One review discussed essential oils properties that may modulate pathways in cancer cell progression, the ultimate immune dysregulation8 (or metabolic9 or mitochondrial10 according to the latest research), the abstract of the full study reads:

Exploring natural plant products as an option to find new chemical entities as anticancer agents is one of the fastest growing areas of research. Recently, in the last decade, essential oils (EOs) have been under study for their use in cancer therapy and the present review is an attempt to collect and document the available studies indicating EOs and their constituents as anticancer agents. This review enlists nearly 130 studies of EOs from various plant species and their constituents that have been studied so far for their anticancer potential and these studies have been classified as in vitro and in vivo studies for EOs and their constituents. This review also highlights in-depth various mechanisms of action of different EOs and their constituents reported in the treatment strategies for different types of cancer. The current review indicates that EOs and their constituents act by multiple pathways and mechanisms involving apoptosis, cell cycle arrest, antimetastatic and antiangiogenic, increased levels of reactive oxygen and nitrogen species (ROS/RNS), DNA repair modulation, and others to demonstrate their antiproliferative activity in the cancer cell. The effect of EOs and their constituents on tumour suppressor proteins (p53 and Akt), transcription factors (NF-?B and AP-1), MAPK-pathway, and detoxification enzymes like SOD, catalase, glutathione peroxidase, and glutathione reductase has also been discussed.8


The Mind-Smell-Body Connection

brainrays-516326_1280Unfortunately, many people aren’t aware that essential oils have much more applications beyond soothing effects and smelling pretty. Essential oils don’t just impact our sense of well-being, but can impact many pathways at once.5,8,11 This means a pleasant scent doesn’t just have effects on calming our brain, but can also affect our hormones, neurotransmitters, and stress response, making their impact profound and holistic.

In fact, I believe, after studying these oils for 14 years, that all the mechanisms involved in emotional health and the various modes of actions of essential oils makes the full understanding of their effect unknown, and perhaps, even impossible. A study abstract from Current Drug Targets reports:

Molecular medical research on aromatherapy has been steadily increasing for use as an adjuvant therapy in managing psychiatric disorders and to examine its therapeutic mechanisms. Most studies, as well as clinically applied experience, have indicated that various essential oils, such as lavender, lemon and bergamot can help to relieve stress, anxiety, depression and other mood disorders. Most notably, inhalation of essential oils can communicate signals to the olfactory system and stimulate the brain to exert neurotransmitters (e.g. serotonin and dopamine) thereby further regulating mood. However, little research has been done on the molecular mechanisms underlying these effects, thus their mechanism of action remains ambiguous.15

In a 2006 article review of in vitro, animal, and clinical studies entitled, “Aromatherapy in the Management of Psychiatric Disorders: Clinical and Neuropharmacological Perspectives,” this mood effect was termed “psychoaromatherapy.” The authors explained that essential oils have a “indirect” and “direct” effect. Specifically, the emotional aspect of the odor (direct) along with the effects of the biochemical constituents (indirect) both impact mood. (You can read the full study here and more about this subject here.)16

These synergistic effects are a potent consideration for practitioners and patients alike. Consider the role of stress in all disease processes, such as altering hormonal balance,12 immune function,13 and every other system of the body.14 When someone sniffs lavender is not just “calming”, but may act as an antioxidant and have neuroprotective effects, as seen in rodents.


Preventing the Most Feared Disease

Essential oils have been studied for their modulation of immune response and their molecular mechanisms related to tumor progression (see below).8 This is something that I review on the Summit. Our discussion is strictly about the research studies and is not connected to any particular brand, allowing for more freedom in the discussion. Nowhere on this site would I proclaim an oil or any natural therapy can treat or diagnosis any disease. These modalities support health and prevent dysfunction. The focus is on how these methods accomplish this, through their biochemical, psychological, and physiological effects. This means that essential oils positively impact most of our body systems and make them inhospitable for diseases to exist. When used with proper lifestyle practices, the combination is profound.

Furthermore, Dr. Z, an essential oil researcher, reports19 that essential oils don’t have to be used instead of or dismissed because of conventional medicine. They can be used to support conventional therapy:

It’s important to realize that natural therapies can and, in my opinion, SHOULD be used in conjunction with conventional medicine (unless obvious contraindications are present). It’s not an all-or-nothing thing. Meaning this – people oftentimes tell me they feel that they only have two options:

Either go the “all-natural” route,

Or, follow the allopathic model.

But this is NOT the case!  Many don’t realize that a balanced-approach works well too, and may even be more effective than one or the other.

In the words of a 2014 article in the journal BioMed Research International:

EOs have also been reported to improve the quality of life of the cancer patients by lowering the level of their agony [2]. EOs-mediated therapy cannot be a substitute to the standard chemotherapy and radiotherapy but can be used in combination with cancer therapy to decrease the side effects of the drugs. Hence, EOs can be used for improving the health of the cancer patients and as a source of novel anticancer compounds….Use of the EOs as dietary supplements and coadministration with drugs can enhance the response to the treatment.



In summary, essential oils have profound effect through the following actions:



  • They are secondary metabolites that support defense and wo
  • Balance hormones- neuroimmunology
  • They have psychological calming effects which modulate the SNS and impact the immune system
  • They have biological and physiological effects on enzymes and hormone pathways



Small Compilation of Studies on Essential Oils and Immune Modulation

Below I compiled a small listing of some studies by type which support how essential oils modulate our immune response. (Note: In vitro is in petri dish with cells, in vivo is animal/rodent studies, clinical trials/case studies are human studies)

Clary Sage

In vitro:

  • Dimas K, Kokkinopoulos D, Demetzos C, et al. The effect of sclareol on growth and cell cycle progression of human leukemic cell lines. Leuk Res. 1999 Mar;23(3):217-34.
  • Lin Wang, Hong-Sheng He, Hua-Long Yu, et al. Sclareol, a plant diterpene, exhibits potent antiproliferative effects via the induction of apoptosis and mitochondrial membrane potential loss in osteosarcoma cancer cells. Molecular Medicine Reports. 2015; 11(6):4273. PMID 25672419



In vitro:

  • Suhail MM, Wu W, Cao A, et al. Boswellia sacra essential oil induces tumor cell-specific apoptosis and suppresses tumor aggressiveness in cultured human breast cancer cells. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2011;11:129. doi:10.1186/1472-6882-11-129.
  • Chen, Y., Zhou, C., Ge, Z., Liu, Y., Liu, Y., Feng, W. … Wei, T. (2013). Composition and potential anticancer activities of essential oils obtained from myrrh and frankincense. Oncology Letters, 6, 1140-1146. http://dx.doi.org/10.3892/ol.2013.1520
  • Hanaa H Ahmed, et al. Phytochemical Analysis and Anti-cancer Investigation of Bswellia serrata Bioactive Constituents In Vitro. Asian Pac J Cancer Prev. 2015;16(16):7179-88.
  • With Myrrh: Zhou C, GE Z, et al. Composition and potential anticancer activities of essential oils obtained from myrrh and frankincense. Oncology Letters. 2013;6(4):1140-1146. doi:10.3892/ol.2013.1520.

In Vivo-Mice (AKBA)

Yuan Y, Cui SX, Wang Y, et al. Acetyl-11-keto-beta-boswellic acid (AKBA) prevents human colonic adenocarcinoma growth through modulation of multiple signaling pathways. Biochim Biophys Acta. 2013 Oct;1830(10):4907-16. doi: 10.1016/j.bbagen.2013.06.039. Epub 2013 Jul 10.

Park B, Prasad S, Yadav V, Sung B, Aggarwal BB. Boswellic Acid Suppresses Growth and Metastasis of Human Pancreatic Tumors in an Orthotopic Nude Mouse Model through Modulation of Multiple Targets. Goel A, ed. PLoS ONE. 2011;6(10):e26943. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0026943.

Case Report: Fung KM, Suhail MM, McClendon B, Woolley CL, Young DG, Lin HK. Management of basal cell carcinoma of the skin using frankincense (Boswellia sacra) essential oil: A case report. OA Alternative Medicine 2013 Jun 01;1(2):14.

Cerebral Edema after Tumor: Kirste, S., Treier, M., Wehrle, S. J., Becker, G., Abdel-Tawab, M., Gerbeth, K., Hug, M. J., Lubrich, B., Grosu, A.-L. and Momm, F. (2011), Boswellia serrata acts on cerebral edema in patients irradiated for brain tumors. Cancer, 117: 3788–3795. doi: 10.1002/cncr.25945



In vitro:

  • Sharma PR, Mondhe DM, Muthiah S, et al. Anticancer activity of an essential oil from Cymbopogon flexuosus. Chem Biol Interact. 2009 May 15;179(2-3):160-8. doi: 10.1016/j.cbi.2008.12.004. Epub 2008 Dec 11.
  • Kpoviessi S, Bero J, Agbani P, et al. Chemical composition, cytotoxicity and in vitro antitrypanosomal and antiplasmodial activity of the essential oils of four Cymbopogon species from Benin. J Ethnopharmacol. 2014;151(1):652-9. doi: 10.1016/j.jep.2013.11.027. Epub 2013 Nov 21.

Mice: Bidinotto LT1, Costa CA, Costa M, Rodrigues MA, Barbisan LF. Modifying effects of lemongrass essential oil on specific tissue response to the carcinogen N-methyl-N-nitrosurea in female BALB/c mice. J Med Food. 2012 Feb;15(2):161-8. doi: 10.1089/jmf.2010.0278. Epub 2011 Nov 14.



In vitro:  Zu, Y.; Yu, H.; Liang, L.; Fu, Y.; Efferth, T.; Liu, X.; Wu, N. Activities of Ten Essential Oils towards Propionibacterium acnes and PC-3, A-549 and MCF-7 Cancer Cells. Molecules 2010, 15, 3200-3210.



In vitro:  Queiroz RM, Takiya CM, Guimarães LP, Rocha Gda G, Alviano DS, Blank AF, Alviano CS, Gattass CR. Apoptosis-inducing effects of Melissa officinalis L. essential oil in glioblastoma multiforme cells. Cancer Invest. 2014 Jul;32(6):226-35. doi: 10.3109/07357907.2014.905587. Epub 2014 Apr 18.


Chamomile and Quality of Life with Cancer Patients:

Srivastava JK, Shankar E, Gupta S. Chamomile: A herbal medicine of the past with bright future. Mol Med Report. 2010;3(6):895-901


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  3. Kasper S, Gastpar M, Müller WE, Volz HP, Möller HJ, Dienel A, Schläfke S.Silexan, an orally administered Lavandula oil preparation, is effective in the treatment of ‘subsyndromal’ anxiety disorder: a randomized, double-blind, placebo controlled trial. Int Clin Psychopharmacol. 2010 Sep;25(5):277-87. doi: 10.1097/YIC.0b013e32833b3242.
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  8. Gautam N, Mantha AK, Mittal S. Essential Oils and Their Constituents as Anticancer Agents: A Mechanistic View. BioMed Research International. 2014, Article ID 154106, 23 pages. doi:10.1155/2014/154106
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  19. Dr. Z. DIY Essential Oil Protocol for Cancer Patients.



Disclaimer: This information is applicable ONLY for therapeutic, Grade A essential oils. This information DOES NOT apply to essential oils that have not been tested for purity and quality and standardized. There is no quality control in the United States and oils labeled as “100% pure” need only 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. Please consult the original study for sources. This article is not specific for any essential oil company or brand.

This information 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.