Essential Oils

Essential Oils ...What are they?

According to Funk & Wagnalls dictionary, essential means – 1. Of, belonging to, or constituting the intrinsic nature of something. 2. Extremely important; vital; indispensable. 3. Derived from the extract of a plant, etc.: an essential oil.

And... essential oil – Any of a group of volatile oils that give to plants their characteristic odors, flavors, etc.

These oils contain hormones, vitamins, antibiotics, and antiseptics. They are the most concentrated form of herbal energy. These oils are the vital part of the plant – the “spirit” and “soul.” The fragrance of the plant comes from the essential oil.

These oils are used in perfumery, cosmetics, soaps, and over the counter (OTC) preparations. I once read that they are used in pharmacy. I really never encountered their use in any “prescription” pharmaceuticals accept menthol, which used to be commonly used by dermatologists in compounding of creams. These were actually menthol crystals rather than oil. Not much compounding is done anymore, unless the pharmacy is one specializing in compounding. Perhaps other countries, other than the states, use essential oils; I haven't come across that information. Rubs and cold preparations use oils such as camphor, eucalyptus, or wintergreen (methyl salicylate). My favorite OTC muscle rub contains methyl salicylate – it smells like wintergreen candy.

Bulk organic herbs, spices and essential oils. Sin

Aromatherapy is another area where these oils are used. They can be taken internally in their pure form (depending on the oil). They can also be diluted in alcohol, mixed with honey, or in medical preparations. They are used externally in massage, localized massage or friction, or by inhalation.

These oils are profoundly adaptable and are useful on many different planes. They can be used as fragrances or in medicines. They can be used physically or reaching into our souls.

Learn how aromatherapy can be combined with massage therapy.

So what is smell?

1. To perceive by means of the nose and its olfactory nerves. 2. To perceive the odor of; scent.

Aroma, fragrance, and perfume are pleasant. Stench or stink are sickening and unpleasant.

Olfactory Receptors in Sense of Smell
Olfactory Receptors in Sense of Smell

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Olfaction (ol-fak-shuh n; olfacio = to smell) is the sense of smell. Smell is also referred to as remote chemoreception because an object can be at a distance and we may still be able to sense its odor.

Compared to many other animals, olfaction in humans isn’t highly developed because we don’t require olfactory information to find food or communicate with others. Within the nasal cavity, paired olfactory organs are the organs of smell.

They are composed of several components. An olfactory epithelium lines the superior part of the nasal septum (an aggregate area of about 5 square centimeters). This specialized epithelium is composed of three distinct cell types: (1) olfactory receptor cells (also called olfactory neurons), which detect odors; (2) supporting cells, which sandwich the olfactory neurons and sustain and maintain the receptors; and (3) basal cells, which function as stem cells to replace olfactory epithelium components.

Internal to the olfactory epithelium is an oreolar connective tissue layer called the lamina propria. Included with the collagen fibers and ground substance of this layer are mucin-secreting structures called olfactory glands (or Bowman glands) and many blood vessels and nerves.

Olfactory Receptor Cells

Olfactory receptor cells are bipolar neurons that have undergone extensive differentiation and modification. At the apical surface of each neuron, the neck and apical head together form a thin, knobby projection that extends into the mucus covering the olfactory epithelium.

Projecting from each knob into the overlying mucus are numerous thin, unmyelinated, cilia-like extensions called olfactory hairs, which house receptors for airborne molecules. These olfactory hairs are immobile and usually appear as a tangled mass within the mucous layer.

Deep breathing causes the inhaled air to mix and swirl, so both fat- and water-soluble odor molecules diffuse into the mucous layer covering the olfactory receptor cells. Receptor proteins on the olfactory hairs detect specific molecules. Airborne molecules dissolved in the mucous lining bind to those receptors.

Depending on which receptors are stimulated, different smells will be detected. Once the receptors are stimulated, adaptation occurs rapidly. Thus, an initial strong smell (such as rotting food in a trash can that hasn’t been emptied for a week) may seem to dissipate as your olfactory receptors adapt to the foul odor.

Olfactory Discrimination

In contrast to the five basic taste sensations, the olfactory system can recognize as many as eight different primary odors as well as many thousands of other chemical stimuli. Primary odors are those that are detectable by a large number of people, such as camphorous, fishy, malty, minty, musky, and sweaty.

Secondary odors are those produced by a combination of chemicals and not detected or recognized by everyone. For example, some flower blossoms exhibit almost 100 odoriferous compounds, and individuals in the general population vary widely in their ability to recognize some or all of these. However, there are no obvious structural differences between olfactory receptor cells.

Olfactory receptor cells are one of the few types of neurons that undergo mitosis to replace aged cells. As with gustatory receptors, the number of olfactory receptor cells declines with age, thus diminishing the sense of olfaction. In addition, the remaining olfactory neurons lose their sensitivity to odors. Thus, an elderly individual has a decreased ability to recognize odor molecules.

Olfactory Pathways

Olfactory nerve axons are discrete bundles of olfactory neuron axons that project through foramina in the cribriform plate and enter a pair of olfactory bulbs inferior to the frontal lobes of the brain. Neurons within the olfactory bulbs project axon bundles, called olfactory tracts, to the primary olfactory cortex in the temporal lobe of the cerebrum.

The olfactory pathway is so sensitive that only a few stimulating molecules are needed to bind to receptors and initiate olfactory sensation. Olfactory stimuli don’t immediately project to the thalamus; instead, they travel to the olfactory cortex in the temporal lobe.

Later, olfactory sensations can project from the temporal lobes to the thalamus and then to the frontal lobes for more specific discrimination. However, there are widespread olfactory associations with the hypothalamus and limbic system. Thus “smells” often initiate behavioral and emotional reactions.

Scents and Feelings

Fragrances create deep yet evading feelings. We “feel” scents rather than rationally think about them. We associate smells with places and situations. We associate the smell of a place, such as a hospital, with what we experienced there. Smells bring good or bad emotions, depending on our association. We may feel happy or depressed.

Odors that have memories attached to them are learned-odor responses. An example of this is an old boyfriend’s cologne.

However, our encounter with pure essential oils is different than these learned-odor responses. When we inhale an essential oil there are numerous neurochemicals that are released in the brain. A physiological change in body, mind, and spirit takes place. For example, when we smell lavender serotonin is released from the raphe nucleus of the brain. This produces a calming influence on our bodies. A direct negative experience with lavender will alter this effect.

The biochemical effects of essential oils can be altered or interfered with by learned-odor responses. If a certain odor causes an intense emotional response this can interfere with chemicals released in the brain. Since emotions have their own chemical make-up they could be strong enough to obstruct or increase a neurochemical release or absorption.

If a good smell such as lavender, which is usually calming, is associated with a bad experience from the past then it is hard to feel calm because of the learned-odor response. In contrast, the smell of car exhaust and factory smoke stacks may be a pleasant smell to someone who had a happy childhood in the city.

Chemical reproductions of pure essential oils aren’t effective in aromatherapy. They depend on the learned-odor response rather than neurochemical release. Chemical reproductions don’t have the same neurochemical response as natural pure essential oils. These reproductions are actually harmful to our bodies because they are chemicals rather than naturally occurring substances.

Essential Oils in Plants

The characteristic fragrance of a plant comes from its essential oils, which is its chemical components. Essential oils are considered the life force in the spiritual aspect of aromatherapy. Alchemists consider them the soul or spirit of the plant.

Plants adapt to their environment with the help of these oils by being a type of herbal hormone. They can be considered part of the plant’s immune system from a biochemical viewpoint. They are also used for plant protection. For example, Frankincense and myrrh bushes are surrounded by a very thin cloud of essential oils. This filters the sun’s rays and freshens the air around the plants.

Plants also use these oils in their reproductive process. They release fragrances which mimic insect pheromones. This attracts specific insects that aid in pollination.

Furthermore, these oils have the power to repel insects that could be harmful to the plant. For example, citronella and geranium are mosquito repellent. Citronella is often put in soaps to be used while camping. In addition, mites and fleas are repelled by lavender.

Physical Properties

Chemically essential oils are very different from vegetable oils. Fragrant or aromatic molecules are a lot smaller than fatty acid molecules. They are carbonic chains that normally have ten carbons. A few have fifteen and rarely twenty.

What distinguishes these oils from others is that they are volatile, or evaporate rapidly. If you place a drop of safflower oil beside a drop of lavender oil, the safflower oil will remain while the lavender oil will eventually evaporate completely. This is the property that allows us to smell these oils so readily.

Essential oils are lypophilic or fat loving. They are readily absorbed by vegetable oils, fats, and waxes; this property makes it easy to prepare massage oils or facial oils. This also makes them absorb rapidly into the skin and underlying tissues.

These oils are hydrophobic or water hating. In other words they don’t mix with water. They are difficult to put in water based products and will float on the top of water.

They are partially soluble in alcohol. This depends on the oil and the proof of the alcohol.

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American Perfumer and Essential Oil Review, December 1911
American Perfumer and Essential Oil Review, December 1911

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