What Are Essential Oils?
What are essential oils?
You will often hear that essential oils are called the “life force” or “life blood” of a plant. Which is true, they are. But what IS that? The way our blood helps our body to regulate itself, oxygenate, and heal our bodies – that’s what an essential oil does inside of the plant. Essential oils are used by the plants in somewhat the same way – they fight infection, contain hormone-like compounds, initiate cellular regeneration, and work as chemical defense against fungal, viral, and animal foes. Despite their foliar origins however, essential oils have a similar structure to some compounds found in blood and tissues, allowing them to be compatible with our own physiology.
Within the plant, there are liquids or juices, called oleo-resin-gum. The oleo is the fat-soluble part that mostly makes up essential oils. Oleo is Latin for “oil” and where we get essential oil from, because the oleo is the volatile part of those plant juices. Volatility is basically a molecules ability to leap into the air and bounce around. The volatility of an oil is apparent when you open a bottle and you can smell it across the room. That’s the molecules leaping into the air and bouncing all over, you breathing them in, through your olfactory system, into your limbic system.
To produce essential oils of therapeutic quality- those that retain as much of the original plant essence in its original state as possible -the most gentle extraction method that will draw the oil from a particular plant is most desirable. Extraction methods range from Carbon Dioxide (CO2) extraction – being the most gentle (and most expensive), to pressing (as for extracting the oil from citrus rinds) and steam distillation, to solvent extraction. Steam distillation is most common, and as a result of only requiring heating to just above the boiling point of water, is considered gentle enough for most essential oils.
These volatile molecules are extraordinarily small, less than 500-300 amu (Atomic Mass Units, or Daltons) – so small that they can cross the blood brain barrier! It was thought for years that the interstitial tissues of the brain served as a barrier to keep damaging substances from reaching the neurons of the brain and the cerebrospinal fluid. Instead of a barrier, it would be more accurate to consider it as a sieve or filter through which only molecules of a certain size or smaller can pass.
Doctors don’t know for sure, but it seems that in order to cross the blood-brain barrier, only molecules less than 800-1000 atomic mass units (amu) in molecular weight can get through. Lipid solubility seems to be another factor, which facilitates passing through the blood-brain barrier. Water-soluble molecules don’t usually penetrate into brain tissue, even when very small. The molecules of essential oils are all not only small, but lipid soluble as well. It’s no wonder why these things are SO amazing for our bodies!
A single drop of essential oil contains 40 million trillion molecules. What does that look like written out? 40,000,000,000,000,000,000 – that’s a LOT of zeros (the #4, with 19 zeros after it, to be exact) The human body is composed of around 100 trillion cells. Basically, when you use 1 drop of essential oil, every cell in your body will have 400,000 molecules of that essential oil loving all over it. That’s AMAZING. So, considering that it only takes one molecule of the right kind to open a receptor site and communicate with the DNA to alter cellular function, you can see why even inhaling a small amount of oil vapor can have profound effects on the body, brain, and emotions. Sometimes too many oil molecules overload the receptor sites, and they freeze up without responding at all, when a smaller amount would have been just right. This is why we say that when using oils, “sometimes less is better.” Sometimes more is better, too. Knowing the difference is the art of aromatherapy.
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