Therapeutic Properties of Essential Oils
Essential oils usually have a number of therapeutic properties stemming from the naturally occurring compounds within them. When you think about the number of drugs that originate from compounds found in plants this makes a lot of sense. Examples of these compounds are:
- Alcohols. Strongly bactericidal, antiseptic, antiviral, balancing (hormone), diuretic, uplifting, and stimulating. They are gentle but powerful. Examples are Basil, Coriander, Geranium, Lavender, Sweet Marjoram, Neroli (Orange Blossom), Palmarosa, Patchouli, Peppermint, Rose, Rosewood, Sandalwood, Tea Tree, and Vetiver.
- Aliphatic Aldehydes. Antiviral, antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, temperature reducing, lowers blood pressure, and calming. Examples are Eucalyptus Lemon Scented, Eucalyptus Staigeriana, Lemongrass, and Melissa Lemon Balm.
- Aromatic Aldehydes. Antifungal, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, antiviral, lowers blood pressure, temperature reducing, and calming. These are present in small amounts in several essential oils, such as Cinnamon Leaf, Fennel, Jasmine, Lavender, Sage.
- Esters. Anti-inflammatory, antifungal, calming, balancing (hormone), healing (e.g. skin), and uplifting. They are usually gentle and safe. Examples are Benzoin, Bergamot, Clary Sage, Petitgrain, Roman Chamomile, Jasmine, and Lavender.
- Ketones. Analgesic, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, decongestant, calming, and uplifting. Ketones should be used with care as they can build up in the body. Examples are Caraway Seed, Dill, Peppermint, Rosemary, Sage.
- Lactones and Coumarins. Balancing (generally), decongestant, reduces temperature, lowers blood pressure. These are present in small amounts in many essential oils, such as Bergamot, Grapefruit, Lavender, Lemon, Lime, Petitgrain, and Sweet Orange.
- Monoterpenes. Antiviral, antiseptic, bactericidal, slightly analgesic, decongestant, and stimulating. Examples are Black Pepper, Eucalyptus Staigeriana, Frankincense, Grapefruit, Juniper Berry, Lemon, Lime, Mandarin, Sweet Marjoram, Neroli (Orange Blossom), Sweet Orange, and Tea Tree.
- Oxides. Stimulating, decongestant, diuretic. Examples are German Chamomile, Eucalyptus Blue Gum, Peppermint, Niaouli, and Rosemary.
- Phenols and Phenolic Ethers. Analgesic, antispasmodic (releases muscle spasms and cramps), antiviral, antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, bactericidal, decongestant, diuretic, hormone-like, stimulating, and warming. To be used with care, especially during pregnancy. Examples are Basil, Cinnamon Leaf, Clove Bud, Fennel, Thyme, and Ylang Ylang.
- Sesquiterpenes. Slightly analgesic, antifungal, antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic (releases muscle spasms and cramps), bactericidal, balancing (generally), and calming. Examples are Cedarwood, German Chamomile, Ginger, Patchouli, and Ylang Ylang.
Of course the extent to which compounds occur in essential oils dictates the extent to which therapeutic properties apply, and the extent to which precautions should be taken. In some oils one or two compounds dominate whereas others contain many compounds and therefore have a more holistic effect. A good example of this is Lavender, which is known to both relax you when you're tense and stimulate you when you're low. It can heal burns, deal with headaches, sooth inflamed joints, and help you sleep. This is because it contains a good balance of relaxing, balancing, and stimulating compounds. Another good example of this effect occurs in Geranium. Eucalyptus Staigeriana is from the same family as Eucalyptus Blue Gum, and yet they have completely different chemical profiles. In Eucalyptus Blue Gum stimulating compounds dominate, whereas in Eucalyptus Staigeriana there is a balance of both stimulating and relaxing compounds, making it more gentle.
If you want to know more, Rosemary Caddy's excellent book Aromatherapy: Essential Oils in Colour is highly recommended.