As with many traditional medicines the use of essential oils had fallen by the wayside, while medicine pursued the exciting new promise of pharmaceutical drugs. Despite the fact that many of these drugs are plant based essential oils were put in the “warm fuzzy but ineffectual” basket.

Now research is turning back to investigating the amazing properties of essential oils and scientific evidence is finding some quite remarkable potential to beneficially affect the human body at a cellular level. Essential oils hold the regenerating oxygenating and immune strengthening properties of plants and their other unique abilities make them accessible to us.Their molecules are so small that they are rapidly able to penetrate the skin and enter the blood stream – in fact lavender oil massaged on the skin can be detected in the blood only 3 minutes later! They are lipid soluble which means they can penetrate the cell membrane and be present in every cell of the body in 20 mins.

They contain oxygen which helps to transport nutrients into the cell. They are antioxidants, anti-bacterial, antifungal, antimicrobial, antiparasitic, antitumour, antiviral and antiseptic. They have the unique ability to pass through the blood/brain barrier (research is underway looking to see if they can be harnessed as a transport mechanism for drugs for brain tumours, Parkinson’s and other neurological disorders). Interestingly the chemical composition of plant and human DNA is remarkably similar. Both rely on a chelating chemical – heme in humans, chlorophyll in plants. The difference being that of a magnesium atom instead of an iron atom.

There have been many studies over the last few years and many ongoing research projects regarding many different oils and their properties.

Here are a few samples:

A sesquiterpene found in frankincense and black pepper essential oils is being currently studied for its promising potential to induce apoptosis and inhibit cancer cell proliferation in ovarian, liver, lung, bladder and brain both on its own and in combination with cisplatin. (Zou, Zhang, Ding, Li, Chen et al 2013)

Alpha- satalol (found in sandalwood) was found to induce apoptosis in human skin cancer cells. (Kaur et al 2005)

Cinnamaldehyde (found in cinnamon oil) was found to significantly reduce blood glucose levels in diabetic wistar rats. (Subash et al 2007)

Basil oil was found to strongly inhibit several multi drug resistant bacteria. (opalchnova et al 2003)

These are just a few of many studies covering a whole range of areas.

The other area where essential oils are quite unique is in their ability to affect our mental state -fragrance works on mood, emotion and physiology. The olfactory bulb, which transmits smell information from the nose to the brain, is directly linked with the limbic brain. The limbic brain is the area of the brain that deals with emotions. Within the limbic brain is the amygdala which plays a major role in the storage and release of emotional trauma. So far the only way we have found to stimulate this gland is through fragrance. So there is potential there for future treatment of PTSD and other mental health issues. So fragrance and our bio chemical response to it directly affect our immunity! Vanderbuilt University Medical Centre trialled the use of diffusing essential oils in a busy hospital emergency department. The resulting reduction in staff stress levels was impressive and no reactions were reported.

As a massage therapist in the day infusion suite at Flinders medical Centre I witness the positive reactions of many people to our lotion specially made for us with essential oils designed to help combat anxiety, nausea and other side effects of chemo. Some people even have a bit squirted on their hands and just breathe it in! The nurses have commented on how soothing the smell of the lotion is in the unit. Please be aware that as with all therapeutic products there are some contraindications. Also some people may have a reaction to certain oils so please use with caution and get appropriate advice. Also there are many products on the market which are not therapeutic grade essential oils – please do not use anything less than therapeutic grade oils for health reasons.

Sarah Trangmar is a therapist at Cancer Care Centre specialising in massage in the areas of aromatherapy, oncology and lymphatic drainage.