What Are Essential Oils? The Well-Oiled Athlete
Just What ARE Essential Oils?
Essential Oils are actually quite simple. They are plant compounds that have been distilled and obtained from plants. Much like ground spices and herbs in herbal teas, these compounds are available and used by the body. Plants produce compounds to protect themselves, heal themselves, repel insects that might hurt them, and attract ones that help. These compounds produced are helpful to our bodies as well, and can support health, wellness, recovery from injury and training, and more.
Some of the compounds support connective tissue health and healing; others soothe the digestive tract (think peppermint or chamomile tea), others provide pain relief and a cooling sensation to the skin and muscles, some provide calming aromas (and this isn’t just smell, it’s actually chemicals that get into our bloodstream and affect our hormones and brains – more on this in a moment); still other provide digestive tract soothing, and most are anti-bacterial, antiviral, and/or antifungal – the plants have to live with all sorts of diseases, fungi, and pests that can hurt them, too. Some of the specific plans provide many of these benefit, and some are certainly stronger than others. But overall, it’s a simple concept, and simple way of supporting your own health, wellness, and athletic performance.
But, of course, even simple, good things can become complicated and tricky.
Blame the Internet (although old-wives’ tales starting long before our modern communication systems), blame marketing and profits, blame greed, or blame plain old ignorance, there are many false claims, exaggerations, and pure marketing out there muddying the waters.
I’ll try to clear the waters for athletes.
First off, essential oils are powerful. Like supplements, they are a concentrated portion of a food. It’s important that they are high quality, from reputable brands with reputable methods and testing, and handled with care.
Second, they might not for everyone. If you’re not a do it yourselfer when it comes to wellness or personal health, these may not be for you. And, that’s okay.
But, if you’re willing to learn a little bit and take the precautions I’ve included here, I believe you’ll be on your way to supporting your own health, taking care of minor health issues, reducing colds, flus, viruses and illness-causing bacteria in your body and home, fueling & recovering from training faster and better, cleaning your home without potentially harmful chemical (specifically harmful to the respiratory tract; which is quite important to an athlete), and feeling like a clean, green, athletic machine.
So, that’s what essential oils are.
Here’s how they get into your body.
- They can enter in through mucus membranes in the respiratory tract. They are very small compounds and molecules, and they readily enter the blood stream from the lungs. They are also exhaled out via the lungs. Typically, they are either smelled straight out of the bottle, diffused into the air via a diffuser, or put into a hot liquid for a facial steam (although heat can alter the compound).
- They can be absorbed through the skin. Small lipid (fat) molecules can cross through the lipophilic layers of the skin into the bloodstream. Many chemicals are too large or too water-based to do this, but essential oils are small lipid compounds. I recommend diluting essential oils as described below before applying to the skin. There are risks of skin sensitivity, skin “sensitization” (an allergic reaction that predisposes the body to reacting to the compounds in the future), and phototoxic reactions (citrus oils can react to UV rays).
- They can be ingested, but ONLY if they are indicated for digestion and ONLY if they are high-quality documented and controlled oils. Some oils can be added to drinks, foods, capsules or carrier oils, and ingested.