A significant amount of laboratory research has indicated that aromatherapy using plant essential oils (EOs) might be useful in combating viral infections.
These studies have examined the effects of complete oils as well as individual components on the biochemical processes involved in replication of the virus, and also on the physico-chemical processes involved in the transmission and entry of virus particles into cells and tissues. This prior research involving laboratory animals and cell cultures has shown positive effects, but there have been no controlled clinical studies in humans to evaluate these possible effects for medical purposes.
Nonetheless, aromatherapy with EOs provides a safe alternative treatment that may have useful effects. In particular, the chemical structure and properties of EO components are such that they are very suitable for disrupting the structure of viruses and thus preventing them from entering our system.
The keys to understanding how this might work are the structure of the virus particles and the chemical properties of the EO components. The coronavirus COVID-19 is similar in structure to common cold and flu viruses.
The major components of EOs are molecules called terpenes. These molecules contain only carbon and hydrogen, and are non-polar (oily). Such non-polar molecules have the ability to disrupt membrane structures. They tend to seek out an oily environment. Laboratory research has in fact shown that EOs and/or their individual components, can affect the biological structure and function of membranes in bacteria.
So, in a virus particle, the molecules would likely insert themselves in the membrane (E) and cause a change in the structure of nearby embedded proteins (S), which then alters the function of the whole particle. This is the reason that washing your hands works. The oily soap molecules are disrupting the viral membrane.
Therefore, in this respect EOs should be useful in two ways to help prevent infection:
What plant essential oils are best for these applications? Research has shown that the following oils have positive effects:
Follow this link to Lyn's hints for using essential oils to help keep your home healthy.
Are Essential Oils Useful in Treating Alzheimer’s Disease?
The human brain is a complex network of nerve fibers in which individual nerve cells communicate with each other by way of chemical messenger molecules called neurotransmitters. This transmission of nerve impulses is involved in all of the brain’s cognitive functions, including learning, memory, speech, and emotions. In Alzheimer’s disease (AD), damage to the neurofibral network from formation and accumulation of protein fragments called amyloids leads to death of nerve cells, and deterioration of cognitive abilities. Once the nerve cells have died, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to regenerate them. Thus, at least for now, AD is considered incurable. In the meantime, there is considerable interest in treatments that may prevent the disease or help ease the symptoms of the disorder. There has been an increasing amount of research that indicates essential oils (EOs) may be of use in this regard.
So, what might EOs do to help?
There are three ways, all three believed to be involved in the processes leading to AD.
The research described above, as well as much work not mentioned, strongly suggest that EOs may provide an excellent alternative, natural, widely available, and inexpensive treatment for AD, particularly for easing the symptoms of the disease. As noted in previous posts, this doesn’t mean that a particular EO will work for everyone. The work to date does suggest that there needs to be long-term, large, controlled clinical studies to determine the efficacy of such treatments, and validate their usage for the larger health community.
In the meantime, there would seem to be no downside to their use in individual cases. Coriander can spice up most any dish very nicely, and might provide some neuroprotection. Lavender oil can freshen the air and reduce anxiety. And there are no side effects!
At the very least, the idea of improving cognitive function with natural essential oils is pretty exciting. Questions? Leave a comment! And for general guidelines about essential oils, see our FAQ page.
Today's Blog Post By Dr. Bill Kurtin
People new to the use of essential oils often wonder “Will aromatherapy work for me?” Realistically, although there is much scientific evidence that aromatherapy works for many conditions and for many individuals, it is not possible to predict a specific outcome for a specific person – for example, you may love the smell of essential oil of ylang ylang while another person may find it sickeningly sweet.
Why? Because there are many factors that determine the efficacy of treatment, including how the essential oil is administered. In aromatherapy the oil is usually applied by one of three methods – inhalation, topical massage, or oral ingestion. Direct inhalation is the fastest way to get the oil molecules into your system. The science involved is easy enough to understand, so we’ll focus on that method as we try to solve the puzzle.
When you inhale the vapors of an essential oil, individual molecules of the oil enter your nose and interact with special proteins called receptors. These proteins sit on the ends of very sensitive nerve fibers that protrude into the nasal cavity. The interaction of oil molecules with receptor proteins ultimately results in nerve impulses being sent to your brain and central nervous system. This is the key step in the mechanism that determines your sense of smell. These nerve signals are also what give rise to the therapeutic effect of the oil. Easy enough, right? But wait a moment – if everyone inhales the same way, shouldn’t we all smell the same thing?
The most important piece of this puzzle is that there is more than one type of protein receptor. In fact, humans have up to as many as 400 different types of odor receptors. Each type preferentially interacts with a different component of an essential oil.
A simple analogy is to think of each type of protein receptor as a lock, and essential oil molecules as keys. It takes a different key to fit into each of the 400 different locks. When you inhale essential oil vapor, the resulting odor might be due to 100 different keys fitting into 100 different locks, generating lots of complex nerve impulses.
But the final, and most relevant, piece of the puzzle is that scientists have recently shown that as much as 30 percent of that set of receptors (locks) differs between any two individuals. That means that 100 or more of your set of receptors differs from those of the person next to you! This is all determined by your DNA, the same way it determines that you have blue eyes or brown hair, etc.
This newly-discovered variability in sets of odor receptors then easily accounts for the variability in an individual’s sense of smell, and thus also for the variability in the therapeutic effects of essential oils. Fortunately some oils, such as lavender, with its calming properties, seem to work on the vast majority of people, suggesting that that particular set of receptors is widespread in the population.
So will it work for you? Bottom line – your nose knows, but you can only find out by giving it a try. Better yet, try it with a friend, and compare nose notes!
EO Profile: Geranium (Pelargonium graveolens)
As part of our current work on the “Aromatherapy Triage” for caregivers that Bill and I are researching, I’m choosing essential oils that are easy to obtain, not terribly costly and very effective, both in simple blends and as single aromatherapeutic tools.
I chose Geranium because it mimics many of the lovely effects of Rose oil without the cost, but it definitely has its own personality. It has an almost citrus-y undertone that is uplifting. It's traditionally used for healthy skin (repair or rejuvenation), as well as widely known for its emotional support. It commonly promotes peace and a decrease in stress, especially in regards to releasing negativity, and is great for tension and overall well-being. In other words, it’s perfect for Aromatherapy Triage.
Here’s an excerpt from our article, Chemaroma’s Essential Oil Triage for Caregivers, suggesting how to use essential oil of Geranium for alleviating frustration and stress:
Hands-on exercise (Lyn Belisle)
Time: Two minutes
Sit comfortably at a table or desk. Put a drop of Geranium (Pelargonium graveolens) EO into your palm and rub your palms together briskly to distribute and warm the oil. Rest your elbows on the desk and place your palms over your ears, cupping them lightly to shut out sound. Wait a few moments until you can hear your heartbeats. Count thirty beats. Then slowly take your hands down and let them fall loosely at your sides while dropping your shoulders. Repeat as needed.
Dr. Bill Kurtin – Why it works
Geranium EO has long been known to induce hypotension, or lowered blood pressure. The primary component in geranium EO is citronellol, a monoterpene alcohol. Very recently published controlled studies using citronellol and laboratory rats have confirmed that this hypotensive effect is due to the interaction of the terpene with critical protein targets (receptors) that control the relaxation of muscle cells in the walls of blood vessels. The interaction causes the vessels to relax and widen, and thus blood pressure decreases.
A post from Lyn:
I received my certification in Aromatherapy waaa-aaay back in 1990 and recently went back to do some intensive study with Andrea Butje at Aromahead Institute. Boy, have things changed! The Essential Oils that have been around for centuries haven't changed one molecule, of course, but tons more great resources exist - there are apps and databases and forums that are amazing in content and depth.
There are also aromatherapy classes and videos available almost everywhere, but the one I really love is Andrea Butje's free online class, Introduction to Essential Oils. There are no catches, just good info.
Not exactly free, but very reasonable, is her book, Essential Living. I especially like the alternatives to toxic households cleaners.
One of the easiest ways to use essential oils around the house is to keep a bottle of Peppermint or Lemon EO by your sink and add a drop when you're washing dishes. Not only does that add antibacterial properties to the water, but it changes your whole attitude about washing up.
Another thing that's easy is to put a drop of Eucalyptus EO in your shower before you turn on the hot water. It's really invigorating. Dr. Bill Kurtin could probably tell you why it works on a molecular level, but, hey, I just like the quick wake-up.
Here in San Antonio, you can buy these EOs at Whole Foods and Sprouts.
From the Science Side
Dr. Bill Kurtin
'The interactions realized from the use of a natural plant oil cannot be mimicked in the laboratory by mixing together individual components of the oil. Plant oils are too diverse and complex.'
Recently Dr. Kurt Schnaubelt, a person well-known in essential oil professional circles, proposed an interesting idea regarding the biological action of essential oils. The idea is based on the modern concept from systems biology known as emergence. One way of stating this principle is that once the complexity of a system increases enough, the individual parts of the system communicate in a way that leads to the emergence of a new and fundamentally unpredictable phenomenon.
The great biologist E. O. Wilson has provided one of the best examples of emergence. We are all familiar with the powerful things that an ant colony can accomplish. Wilson and others have shown that the individual ants communicate with each other almost totally by giving off scent molecules, called pheromones. No one ant “knows” specifically what its job is. It just senses the pheromones around it and that sensation determines its behavior (go get some dirt, look for food, etc.). Taken together, the collection of behaviors enables the colony to do great things, which are not predictable from observing what single ants do!
Schnaubelt has proposed that the therapeutic effects of essential oils cannot be predicted from the properties of its single components, but requires the synergistic interactions of the sometimes large number of individual components of the oil with multiple molecular targets in cells and tissues. The therapeutic effect emerges from these multiple interactions. The interactions realized from the use of a natural plant oil cannot be mimicked in the laboratory by mixing together individual components of the oil. Plant oils are too diverse and complex.
This is an interesting idea, and, biochemically, it is certainly probable that each component of an essential oil, once inside a biological cell, would interact with a number of different molecular targets. One can also imagine however that the complexity of this collection of interactions would pose enormous challenges to the study of the theory in the laboratory. It’s a provocative idea nonetheless.
Aromatherapy for Travelers: What to Use, Why It Works
Lyn Belisle and William E. Kurtin, Ph. D.
Lyn shares her tips for travelers about how Essential Oils can make your trip more enjoyable, and Dr. Bill explains why these tips work from a scientific standpoint.
Here are some tips on keeping your body relaxed, your mind sharp and your spirits uplifted during your travels using pure essential oils from plants. Lyn Belisle, educator, artist and certified aromatherapist since 1989, and Dr. Bill Kurtin, Professor Emeritus in Biochemistry and lecturer on Essential Oils explain the art and the science of effective aromatherapy for travelers. We’ll assume that you’re going by air, but these techniques apply to any mode of transportation -- or even if you’re just taking a quiet “staycation” weekend at home.
Lyn suggests travel-friendly aromatherapy formulas and Bill explains the science that makes them so effective.
LB: Many of us get tense while packing because we’re not sure we’ll remember everything. Make a new or updated “to take” list several days before you pack. As you add items to your list, keep a tissue next to you on which you’ve placed two drops of Rosemary Essential Oil (EO). This will help sharpen your thought process and you’ll be able to think of things you wish you had included on your last trip but didn’t. As you do your actual packing, keep a fresh Rosemary-infused tissue close by to sniff. It will activate your memory of the list items, plus, when you are finished packing, you can tuck the tissue in your suitcase to gently scent your clothes with the clean scent of fresh Rosemary. Don’t forget to pack your two-ounce spray travel bottle of natural aromatherapy linen spray (formula below). Put it in a plastic baggie between layers of clothes.
BK: Why it works*: All essential oils are complex mixtures of plant molecules known as terpenes. Inhalation of the vapor of any essential oil results in the chemical interaction of the various components of the oil with an array of protein molecules in the nasal cavity known as olfactory receptors. These receptors are embedded in nerve cells that extend to structures in the brain that form the limbic system, which is associated with emotion, memory, and mental acuity. In controlled clinical studies Essential Oil of Rosemary has been shown to enhance alertness and the overall quality of memory. The principal chemical component of Oil of Rosemary is camphor.
LB: The night before you leave, indulge in a steam treatment over a bowl of very hot water. Get a large bowl, a bath towel, and some Bergamot and Chamomile essential oil. Add three drops of Bergamot EO and three drops of Chamomile EO to the surface of the steaming water. Sit comfortably at a table with your face above the bowl and drape your head with the towel to “tent” the steam. Breathe deeply for ten breaths; take off the towel and breathe for a minute or so, then repeat the steam treatment. You’ll sleep well (chamomile) without feeling groggy (bergamot) when you wake up.
BK: Why it works*: The primary components of Essential Oil of Bergamot are similar to those found in lavender EO. In aromatherapy, such odorants are known to be calmative and balancing. These molecules have been reported to calm the central nervous system in mice by inhibiting neurotransmitter release. The main component of chamomile EO has been reported to show analgesic, sedative, and anti-inflammatory effects in laboratory animals.
LB: You won’t need to worry about carrying on liquids when you use this trick. Fill a clean empty prescription bottle with Epsom salts 2/3 full. Add ten drops of Lavender EO to balance your anxieties and relax you when you uncap it and take a small sniff. Lavender is the “magic” essential oil that calms you if you’re jittery and refreshes you if you’re tired.
BK: Why it works*: The primary component of Lavender EO, linalool, has been shown to relieve stress in laboratory animals, as demonstrated by the suppression of stress markers in the blood when the odorant is inhaled.
LB: In your carryon, pack a plastic baggie with damp folded paper towels. Add 1 drop of EO of peppermint to each one. Before landing, use one of these to moisten and freshen the back of your neck, your wrists and hands (and the soles of your feet if you can get away with that). Don’t get it near your eyes, however. You’ll feel like a new person! An extra benefit of peppermint EO is its digestive properties. It can calm an upset stomach.
BK: Why it works*: In this case the components of the essential oil enter the system by the process known as transdermal absorption. Some components enter the bloodstream, while others interact with protein receptors in the skin and surrounding tissues. The principal chemical component of peppermint is menthol. In aromatherapy it is known to have natural tonic and analgesic effects. Peppermint oil has been shown to reduce daytime sleepiness in humans. It is also widely recognized as an alternative medical therapy for irritable bowel syndrome.
Once You Arrive:
LB: Once you arrive at your hotel, unpack the aromatherapy linen spray with Lemon and Geranium EOs that you made at home just for this trip:
In a two ounce spray bottle filled 2/3 full with distilled or spring water, add:
10 drops of lemon EO (fresh and antiseptic)
10 drops of lavender EO (calming and balancing)
Spray it on your pillow to ensure a pleasant environment far from home as well as a good night’s sleep.
BK: Why it works*: Inhalation of lemon oil vapor produced anti-stress effects in laboratory mice. In controlled clinical studies lemon EO was shown to reliably enhance positive mood. The major components of lemon and geranium EOs are among the most volatile of the plant terpenes. Thus solutions containing these EOs should be as fresh as possible.
LB: Here is a formula for general jet-lag symptoms that can be used as a bath or shower oil, a body oil, or just to inhale. The combination of Essential Oils (the “synergy”) will bring you balance and help center you after a long trip, going or returning.
Carefully pour one ounce of grape seed or jojoba oil in a small dropper bottle, then add the following:
5 drops of sandalwood EO (grounding)
5 drops of bergamot or sweet orange EO (cheering)
5 drops of Clary Sage EO (enhances intuition and perception)
Put a few drops on your wrists, in your bath, or even on the air-conditioner grate.
LB: Aromatherapy works! Think Cleopatra wafting trails of lovely plant-based infusions as she sailed along the Nile, and don’t leave home without *your* essential oils – they are the lifeblood of the healing plants and your scientifically-proven natural solution to ease the stresses of modern-day globe-trotting. Ginger, Lavender, Peppermint, Chamomile and Rosemary are among the essential oils that can be with you in small bottles inside a little mint tin when you travel. In our next article we’ll give directions for making one of these travel kits.
BK: *The aromatherapeutic use of essential oils is similar to other molecular-based therapies, in that responses should be expected to vary from person to person. The reasons for this are that essential oils are complex chemical mixtures, and that the array of protein receptors in our olfactory system is determined by our individual genetic make-up. As with any plant material, some people may have a sensitivity to certain Essential Oils. Always dilute an EO that you put on your skin (20:1 is a suggested ratio, EO to carrier medium) and make sure to do a patch test before you travel if you have concerns.
For more information on the art and science of aromatherapy and essential oil, visit our educational website: www.chemaroma.com
Website update debuts!
Our ChemAroma website, online since 2006, has been updated with a new design and more comprehensive information.
Bill will post on research and the fascinating chemistry of Essential Oils.
Lyn will post on hands-on ideas for using EOs in everyday life for health well-being, and even artistic inspiration!
Welcome to the new Chemaroma!
Bill & Lyn
Dr. Bill Kurtin is a biochemist, with a distinguished record of teaching and research at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX.