What is an Essential Oil?

Essential oils are leading natural solutions for a variety of ailments because of their potency and proven properties and benefits. With their increasing popularity among the general public and health professionals, more people are seeking factual information that can help them use them safely and effectively. So, what are essential oils? It turns out defining what an essential oil is is much harder than you think.

Traditionally, the aromatherapy industry has held to the following definition:

The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA) defines essential oils as highly aromatic substances made in plants extracted by distillation. [1] They further explain that essential oils can be extracted by steam distillation, hydrodistillation (also called water distillation), or expression. [2] The NAHA prefers to call substances extracted by enfleurage, solvents, and carbon dioxide (CO2) as extracts rather than essential oils.

Another industry organization, the Alliance of International Aromatherapists (AIA) does not have an official definition that I could find on their website. [3]

However, some scientists and scientific organizations allow for a broader definition:

“An essential oil is a product made by distillation with either water or steam or by mechanical processing of citrus rinds or by dry distillation of natural materials. Following the distillation, the essential oil is physically separated from the water phase.” is a definition that closely matches that given by the NAHA for an essential oil by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). [4]

A 2012 review article published in The Journal of Essential Oil Research states that essential oils can be obtained from plants by “hydrodistillation, solvent extraction, cold pressing, and supercritical fluid extraction (CO2).” [5] The article also notes that essential oils are most commonly extracted by steam distillation.

Similarly, a 2018 review article from the Asian Journal of Green Chemistry includes a variety of extraction methods for essential oils, including steam distillation, hydrodistillation, solvent extraction, supercritical fluid extraction, instantaneous controlled pressure drop process, microwave-assisted extraction, and ultrasound assisted extraction. [6] The article further states that the traditional methods of extraction (steam distillation and hydrodistillation) have several drawbacks, which led to the emergence of newer processes to “optimize the performance of the essential oil in both quantitative and qualitative terms.”

Another review article from 2015, uses a simple definition that essential oils are “a mixture of saturated and unsaturated hydrocarbons, alcohol, aldehydes, esters, ethers, ketones, oxides phenols and terpenes, which may produce characteristic odors” and “extracted from the flowers, barks, stem, leaves, roots, fruits and other parts of the plant by various methods.” [7]

A study even specifically calls a CO2 extract a “supercritical essential oil.” [8]

While another study considers CO2 extraction as an innovative technique to extract essential oils allowing for the extraction of additional essential oils that cannot be obtained with traditional methods. [9]

A recent symposium (Essential Oil Symposium for Medical Professionals) I attended that included some of the foremost and respected researchers and clinicians on essential oils defined essential oils as “distilled or extracted from a single botanical variety [where] nothing is added or taken away.” This means no addition of natural isolates, synthetic petrochemicals, or cheaper essential oils. Supercritical CO2 extracts can certainly meet this definition because they do not add any residual solvent.

I could cite dozens, maybe hundreds, of additional studies that accept aromatics extracted by CO2 as essential oils. [10],[11],[12],[13]

Why must we hold to such a limited definition of essential oils—oils obtained only by distillation or expression—when CO2 “select” extraction can produce an end-product very similar to—sometimes even superior to—traditionally distilled essential oils without leaving residual solvent? For example, CO2 bergamot can produce an oil similar to expressed bergamot, distilled caraway closely resembles CO2 caraway, CO2 lemon and expressed oils composition are comparable, CO2 tea tree produces an oil similar to distilled oil but with less loss of bioactive constituents due to thermal degradation, and many more essential oils could be cited.

Indeed, I recently asked a group of trained aromatherapists to review the complete composition of 10 essential oils and tell me whether it was a distilled or expressed essential oil or one extracted by CO2. Trained aromatherapists were only able to correctly identify the extraction method about 50% of the time, which is not statistically different than guessing really. This emphasizes that many CO2 oils look just like traditionally extracted essential oils when you compare compositions.

In addition, some essential oils extracted by CO2 may be more therapeutic due to the preservation of bioactives. For example, supercritical German chamomile select CT bisabolol oxide essential oil contains similar levels of bisabolol oxide A (50.4% to 56.8%), bisabolol oxide B (0.2$ to 21.5%), alpha-bisabolol (1.5% to 8.9%), and sometimes minor amounts of chamazulene (0.0% to 1.8%)—some of the key active constituents in the oil identified by research—while preserving some matricine (up to 3.5%). This is highly desirable because matricine is significantly more anti-inflammatory than chamazulene.

Another example is supercritical ginger select essential oil. Gingerols and shogaols are pungent compounds found in ginger roots with proven anticancer, antiobesity, antiallergic, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory properties. These compounds are not present in distilled ginger essential oil but the selectivity and better extraction properties of CO2 allow these health-promoting constituents to appear in high levels in CO2 ginger essential oil while still maintaining other key bioactives (e.g. alpha-zingiberene, beta-sesquiphellandrene).

Instead, I propose that we accept as essential oils any plant extract that produces an end-product similar to traditionally distilled essential oils without introducing a foreign substance (such as animal fat or solvents) during the extraction process. This would allow select CO2 oils, distilled oils, and expressed oils to each be called essential oils being delineated as such: supercritical lemon essential oil (select), distilled lemon essential oil, and expressed lemon essential oil. Absolutes would not be included as an essential oil because they leave trace to small amounts of solvent in the end-product.

One argument against using CO2 essential oils in clinical practice has been the lack of safety information because of the presence of these additional constituents. However, I performed a literature review on the safety of these constituents and list additional cautions in my book “SuperCritical Essential Oils” based on these new constituents. For the clinician, the name and definition are not as important as reliable efficacy and safety. Supercritical essential oils may produce more therapeutic end compositions making them a great addition to the clinician’s natural toolbox.

Essential oils could therefore be defined as “mixtures of volatile aromatic compounds and select nonvolatile compounds (e.g. coumarins and fatty acids) extracted from plants by various methods that do not introduce foreign substances (e.g. solvent residue) during the extraction process.” Doing so, allows us to use plant extracts for therapeutic purposes to improve overall well-being and removes self-imposed limitations.

A consensus definition among scientists, health professionals, and the aromatherapy community will likely never be obtained. More importantly than a consensus definition, scientists and sellers of essential oils should clearly delineate what extraction method was used for the product they are evaluating or selling. So the bottom line is, the definition of essential oils depends on whether you abide by traditionally held views, definitions from published research, or a hybrid.

The Berlin Wall of Aromatherapy Must Fall for Advancement and Healing

Constructed beginning in 1961, The Berlin Wall was built to divide East and West Germany physically and ideologically following the conclusion of World War II. This wall was erected to protect against the principles of freedom and democracy seen as the enemy by Soviet-controlled Germany. It was a physical and mental way to maintain control. Similarly, proverbial walls are erected in the aromatherapy community to protect against what some see as the enemy to the status quo.

There is an entrenched group among traditional aromatherapists who see it as their mission to protect aromatherapy from “outsiders” no matter the consequences. They seek shelter from health professionals and researchers that have a passion for essential oils, from individuals and companies that market essential oils in a network marketing model, and most of all ideology that comes from an unfamiliar perspective and falls outside established paradigms.

Until recently, I felt like people on both sides of the Berlin Wall did in the 1970s—that the demise of the walls of aromatherapy would never occur. That all changed when I met a 40 plus year veteran and traditional aromatherapists, Sylla Sheppard-Hanger. Rather than reject me outright, we had multiple communications to seek a better understanding of one another. She epitomized the old adage “seek first to understand and then to be understood.” Our conversations gave me hope and for the first time in my professional career, I felt respected by a long-time leader of the traditional aromatherapy community.

Unfortunately, this hope was immediately diminished by the sharp criticism I have come to know well and expect from the traditional aromatherapy community. Sensing the walls of aromatherapy were weakening, a group of traditional aromatherapists vehemently rejected the efforts of Sylla to unify aromatherapy and dug in their heels to maintain the existing state of affairs.

One proclaimed on Facebook “Really? Not a fan of Scott Johnson. These type of books [referring to my essential oil reference books] should be written by aromatherapists and other professionals who work in this field.” This statement is akin to the segregation practiced in the 18th and 19th centuries in America and is wholly inaccurate—I have a certificate in aromatherapy from an aromatherapy school. It is a judge the book by its cover mentality without even evaluating the information it contains. It is willful ignorance at its best. Indeed, no other person has added more evidence-based pages to aromatherapy and essential oils than I have in the last decade. Contributions that have largely been ignored or disrespected.

I have witnessed similar attacks against chiropractors and other health professionals who have made valuable contributions to aromatherapy. The reality is that these health professionals not only look at essential oils from a fresh perspective that can lead to innovations, but they are also likely more qualified to discuss clinical aromatherapy because of their greater knowledge of biology, anatomy, physiology, molecular mechanisms, cellular function, organ system function, and so forth.

The overwhelming majority of published papers on essential oils are written by scientists that are not aromatherapists. Does this mean we should reject their works too because they don’t abide by the unwritten rule that only writings from aromatherapists are valid? Indeed, it wasn’t a traditional aromatherapist that the medical community sought out when a chapter on essential oils was needed for a medical textbook. Instead, they chose me and my colleague to write the chapter because they recognized our evidence-based approach.

Another deep-rooted dogma among traditional aromatherapists is the belief that network marketing is ruining aromatherapy. Whether methods of use or sales model in general, many traditional aromatherapists abhor network marketing companies involved in aromatherapy.

In truth, network marketing companies have done more to advance the popularity and acceptance of essential oils—in both the general public and medical/scientific community—in the last decade than any other factor. They also tend to invest money into research that advances our scientific knowledge of essential oils and make sizeable donations to hospitals and medical centers that advances the use of essential oils in clinical settings.

Methodological differences exist, but network marketing companies aren’t too far from moderate methodology taught in aromatherapy. I have been called a “quack” and one who promotes “dangerous” practices because I take a moderate approach to essential oils. The biggest reason for this is my stance on oral administration and neat topical application. There is sufficient evidence (through published research and millions of user experiences) now to confidently say that ingestion of most essential oils is safe and an effective way to experience benefits. So much so, that insisting that you cannot ingest essential oils is not only obsolete it is anti-science.

When it comes to topical application, my books provide ranges of dilution, some of which allow for the neat application of essential oils. What people overlook is that I teach dilution is a more effective way to use essential oils because it improves absorption. I teach that dilution should be practiced in most cases and neat application reserved for a few instances such as toenail fungus, trace amounts on a bug bite, or application to a mouth sore. Most of the time, dilution up to 50% (depending on the oil being used and the purpose) is the best option for both safety and efficacy. Moreover, I was among the first—if not the first—to report that people with compromised immune systems are more prone to skin irritation by essential oils.

Sylla agrees that oral use and topical application I higher dilution above normal guidelines (up to 50%) is warranted, “I have learned in 40 years of practice on myself and others that sometimes higher dilution above normal (up to 50%) or internal use is called for.” She continues on the topic of safety, “Once we have the proper information and safety data we can make safe and effective remedies. There is no need to be scared to use our oils, just be scared enough to know your oils safety and use appropriately.” In other words, become properly educated on the composition, usage guidelines, and cautions of essential oils through an evidence-based book or aromatherapy certification to use them more confidently.

Other traditional aromatherapists consciously reject the truth—despite the preponderance of evidence—to pander to their prejudices. They argue until they are blue in the face, using much speaking to support their established beliefs even when inaccurate. For them, it is easier (or maybe an ego thing) to maintain paradigms than change (or maybe admit they were wrong).

Instead of building walls, I encourage both sides to build bridges. Let’s focus on our common love and passion for essential oils and other natural solutions. Together, we can work on more pressing issues than arguing with one another, like essential oil quality and adulteration, sustainability, maintaining medical freedom, and increasing the use of essential oils in mainstream clinical settings.

Sylla makes an impassioned plea to her colleagues, “For the good of the global aromatherapy community and the health of the world, it is time for us to come together, and learn what we can from each other instead of ‘othering.’  Let’s move forward together, it feels so much better and creates bridges instead of walls.”

Just like the Berlin wall fell in 1989 due to a series of revolutions by brave reformist-minded individuals, the walls of aromatherapy need to come tumbling down for healing and the advancement of essential oils. The demise of the aromatherapy walls, built over decades, will lead to improved collaboration and the advancement of aromatherapy and essential oils. As Ronald Reagan stated, “tear down this wall.” Make a commitment today to reach across the aisle and seek commonality and to understand one another. We will all be better for it.

The Keto Diet: Fad or Fabulous?

All diets are fads. Short-term means to an end rather than a healthy way of eating. Nevertheless, some diets are repeatedly resurrected and repackaged. Such is the case with the low-carb high-fat diet, of which the most recent cult craze is the ketogenic diet—keto for short.

What is the keto diet?

Originally developed to treat severe epilepsy in infants and children, the keto diet is a low-carb, high-fat diet that is largely adopted today to lose weight. Clinical keto diets limit carbs to 20 to 50 grams per day (primarily from nonstarchy vegetables). Protein is kept at a minimum to maintain muscle mass without disrupting ketosis—amino acids (glutamine and alanine) can be converted to glucose through a process called gluconeogenesis, which could move the body out of ketosis. [1],[2] But even this is controversial and scientists are still evaluating the long-term effects on muscle mass caused by the keto diet. The keto diet shares many similarities with the Atkins diet and other low-carb diets.

The keto diet simulates a fasted state and after three to five days of following a very low-carb diet your body is deprived of sugars and starches it was used to relying on for fuel. This causes a reduced secretion of insulin and forces the body to burn fat for fuel instead. The result is an overproduction of acetyl-CoA that places the body in a state called ketosis (or ketogenesis)—a state in which a type of acid called ketones (beta-hydroxybutyric acid and acetone) are the primary fuel for your body. Glucose (blood sugar) is the preferred fuel source for many cells in the body and when it is limited, the body uses fat as a fuel source.

Brain function is strongly linked to glucose levels and how efficiently the brain uses it as a fuel source. However, in a state of ketosis, the glucose-hungry brain uses ketones—that can cross the blood-brain barrier—for fuel. In the end, your body’s organs, tissues, and cells make dramatic adjustments to their new energy source.

Several variations of the keto diet exist:

  • Standard—Very low-carb (5%), moderate protein (5–20%), high-fat (75%–90%)
  • High-protein—Very low-carb (5%), high-protein (35%), high-fat (60%)
  • Cyclical—Alternating periods of high-carb days with ketogenic days
  • Targeted—Consuming carbs during or near exercise

Benefits of the keto diet

Most people use the keto diet to rapidly lose weight. Any diet that removes or severely limits carbs usually causes rapid weight loss due to a corresponding caloric restriction. In addition, the keto diet can produce a more steady delivery of energy to organs and tissues, which reduces cravings and hunger. [3] Studies show that the keto diet does promote weight loss, some of which reported that it is more effective than a low-fat diet, but the highest quality studies show them equally effective. [4] Most people will experience initial rapid weight loss on the keto diet.

As stated above, the keto diet was originally developed for children with hard to control seizure disorders. The diet helps control epilepsy through multiple mechanisms and biochemical alterations that reduce excess neuron excitability. [5] Doctors and scientists state that efficacy requires at least three months of a ketosis state. One major drawback to using keto for epilepsy is most people discontinue the diet because of its restrictions and diminished palatability.

Diabetes is characterized by metabolic changes such as high blood sugar and impaired insulin sensitivity. The keto diet promotes the release of excess fat, which can reduce the risk, or burden, of diabetes alone. Research also suggests that the keto diet may improve insulin sensitivity and reduce diabetic medication requirements. [5],[6]

Ketones, especially beta-hydroxybutyric acid, protect brain cells against damage caused by multiple types of assaults and emerging research suggests it may be beneficial for neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. [7] Although the mechanisms of neuroprotection are not fully understood, these benefits may be due to improved brain cell signaling, restoration of neurotransmitter channel functions, improved cellular energy, and maintenance of cellular homeostasis. [8] The keto diet may also improve cognition and reduce age-related cognitive decline. [9]

Preliminary evidence also suggests that the keto diet has anti-cancer effects. [10] However, more study and research is necessary to determine if the keto diet has a place as an adjunct to cancer treatment.

What are the risks and dangers?

One of the primary risks of the keto diet is an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. A high-fat diet can lead to elevated triglycerides, increased atherosclerotic plaque, and harmful metabolic changes that increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. [11],[12],[13] This is ironic since many obese individuals use the keto diet to lose weight to reduce the risk of obesity-related cardiovascular problems.

Very low carb intake has been linked to premature death. [14] In fact, the researchers concluded that both low-carb and high-carb diets are associated with an increased risk of early mortality. The sweet spot seemed to be about 50%–55% carbohydrate intake that emphasizes plant-based foods—fat and protein from sources such as vegetables, nuts, whole-grains, and peanut butter—to promote longevity.

In order to force the liver to pump out ketones, the keto diet severely limits carbs, dramatically reducing the intake of the most nutritious foods—fruits and vegetables. These foods are a good source of dietary fiber, which maintains bowel health, helps control blood sugar, promotes a healthy weight, and lowers cholesterol levels. In addition, diets with insufficient fiber are associated with gastrointestinal disorders and colorectal cancer. [15],[16],[17] Constipation is a common adverse effect of the keto diet.

While neuroprotective benefits have been observed when adhering to the keto diet, high-fat diets also promote deterioration in memory, attention, processing speed, and mood, and increases brain inflammation. [18],[19] This suggests that high fat intake may negate or even reverse the cognitive benefits of ketones.

Increased risk of kidney stones is a well-known consequence of the keto diet, occurring in about 1 in 20 children. [20] To reduce this risk, individuals should ask their healthcare provider about supplementing with potassium citrate. The keto diet can also be dangerous for people with kidney disease. People with kidney disease often need to consume a low-protein diet, which may not align with the keto approach.

Reduced insulin levels caused by the keto diet cause your kidneys to release more electrolytes. [21] This can lead to dehydration and the “keto flu”—flu-like symptoms, constipation, cramps, irritability, and other symptoms lasting form a few days to weeks.

It goes without saying that if you reduce fruit and vegetable intake you are at a greater risk of nutrient deficiency. [22] These foods are loaded with vitamins, minerals, and other beneficial phytonutrients that maintain optimum function of your mind and body.

Bonus: Naturally increase ketones without resorting to the keto diet

It is well-known that prolonged fasting and the keto diet raise ketone levels. But, what if there was a natural way to boost ketones without the risks of the keto diet? This may be possible by leveraging a compound found in mangos—mangiferin. Mangiferin stimulates the liver to produce ketones leading to significantly increased blood levels of ketones according to clinical research. [23] The study participants consumed 150 mg of mangiferin per day for 12 weeks, which increased beta-hydroxybutyrate by about 18% and acetoacetate by about 10%. Mangiferin supplementation also increased insulin sensitivity. This study suggests a safer way to increase ketones without resorting to a restrictive diet.

Conclusion

While weight loss and other benefits are possible with the keto diet, it is not a sustainable or long-term way to eat. The potential problems of the diet outweigh the benefits in the long-term. The keto diet is best reserved for people who have a specific medical condition for which it is indicated or who plan to use it for a short period to kick start weight loss (even this must be carefully considered). Ultimately, the high fat content—especially saturated fat, limited nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables, and health risks of the keto diet make it a concern for long-term health.

Alternatives to the flu shot frenzy

Pharmacies, health practitioners, grocery stores, and big-box stores all heavily push the flu vaccine this time of year. It’s hard to go anywhere without being bombarded by advertising for the annual flu shot. This frenzy occurs to capture a piece of the flu shot money pie. There is big money to be made for both the manufacturers and those administering the vaccine. But, given the questionable ingredients and lackluster effectiveness of the vaccine, many people are seeking alternatives to the flu shot.

What is the flu?

Influenza, or the flu for short, is a contagious respiratory system infection caused by a group of viruses known as influenza. Human influenza viruses A and B are the strains responsible for the flu experienced in humans during the winter months. It spreads from person to person by contact with tiny droplets expelled into the air when infected people cough, sneeze, and even talk. Contaminated surfaces are less often the cause of transmission from one person to another.

What are the symptoms of the flu?

The flu can cause mild to severe illness depending on the age and health of the person. Its hallmark symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Headache
  • Body aches
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose

Flu shot efficacy

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the 2018–2019 flu shot had an adjusted vaccine efficacy of just 29% for all ages. People at greatest risk of the flu—elderly individuals aged 50 and older and infants 9 to 17 months—fared worse with vaccine efficacy of only 12% and 6% respectively. Between 3% and 11% of people get the flu each year, making the 6% to 12% figures hardly significant and causing one to question whether you are receiving any protection at all by getting the flu shot each year.

Harmful and questionable ingredients in the vaccine

In addition to poor efficacy, some choose not to have the flu shot because of the harmful and questionable ingredients they contain. Chief among these is mercury (thimerosal), which is added to prevent the growth of microbes. Research links thimerosal to neurological damage, especially in children, by interfering with folate-dependent methylation. Moreover, the vaccine also contains toxic formaldehyde, aluminum, chicken egg proteins, gelatin, polysorbate 80, and antibiotics that have various risks.

Natural flu shot alternatives

Vitamin D. One of the most important steps to support healthy immune function is to take therapeutic levels of vitamin D when the flu virus is most virulent. In fact, some experts hypothesize that flu season is directly correlated to a lack of vitamin D synthesis in the skin because humans are not exposed to sufficient sun during less sunny months. Indeed, research suggests that supplementing with vitamin D—a very inexpensive supplement—can reduce the risk of flu with better efficacy than the bleak 29% of last year’s flu shot. Elementary-aged children should take 2,000 IU of vitamin D daily, while teens and adults should take 2,000 to 5,000 IU daily for optimal protection.

Probiotics. Given that up to 70% of your immune system lies within your gut, it is no surprise that taking a probiotic can reduce your risk of flu. One study found that taking combinations of various probiotic strains—three to five strains including Lactobacillus plantarum LP01 or LP02, Lactobacillus rhamnosus LR04 or LR05, and Bifidobacterium lactis BS01, lactoferrin, and prebiotics—reduced flu-like respiratory illnesses by a remarkable 75%. The probiotics also reduced symptom severity in people who did get the flu, by a significant 37%. Take a probiotic at least once daily with at least three of the above mentioned numbered strains.

Elderberry. Clinical research confirms that elderberry syrup (15 mL, four times daily) reduces the length and severity of flu symptoms, but it can also be taken to maintain healthy immune function. Most manufacturers recommend one teaspoon (5 mL) daily to maintain healthy immune function.

Essential Oils. As shown in Medicinal Essential Oils, some essential oils contain anti-viral properties and some demonstrate specific activity against the flu. These include tea tree, cinnamon bark (its primary constituent cinnamaldehyde), orange, clove, eucalyptus, rosemary, and melissa. Blending these oils together and taking two to three drops of the blend in a capsule, twice daily, may help support healthy immune function.

The evidence-based conclusion

Rather than expose your body to a largely ineffective and potentially harmful flu shot, keep your immune system in tip-top shape with natural products. Taking more than one of the solutions above is likely to enhance the protective effects you experience. By doing so, you’ll stay healthy during the challenging winter season and avoid missing life’s important celebrations.

Eating dark chocolate may improve mood

Mood disorders affect almost ten percent of U.S. adults and nearly fifteen percent of adolescents, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. With so many people suffering from mood disorders people are looking for answers in nature and food. Fortunately, a recent study suggests eating a common treat—dark chocolate—may positively affect mood and relieve depressive symptoms.

Researchers from University College London joined forces with Canadian scientists from the University of Calgary and Alberta Health Services Canada to assess the benefits of chocolate consumption on mood. They analyzed data from over 13,000 adults included in the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey and assessed their depressive symptoms according to scores on the Patient Health Questionnaire. Other factors such as height, weight, marital status, ethnicity, education, household income, physical activity, smoking, and chronic health problems were taken into account to ensure the study only measured the effects of eating chocolate on mood.

Remarkably, what the scientists found was that people who reported eating dark chocolate in two 24-hour periods had 70% lower risk of reporting relevant depressive symptoms, even after adjusting for the above-mentioned confounding factors. (1) In addition, people who were in the top 25% of eating any type of chocolate were the least likely to report depressive symptoms. The study suggests that eating a bit of dark chocolate on a regular basis can positively benefit mood.

Chocolate contains several beneficial nutrients—fiber, iron, magnesium, copper, manganese, selenium, and zinc—and phytocompounds—powerful antioxidants and flavanols—that have proven health benefits. (2) For example, chocolate flavanols improve vascular function and reduce blood pressure. (3a, 3b, 3c) The antioxidants protect cholesterol against oxidation, which can reduce heart disease risk. (4) Interestingly, improved blood flow triggered by chocolate flavanols may also protect the skin against sun damage by increasing blood flow increasing hydration and density. (5) Eating flavanol-rich cocoa can even improve brain function. (6)

Among these beneficial ingredients are phytocannabinoids that can produce a feeling of euphoria when consumed. (7) Phytocannabinoids have the ability to bind to receptors in the endocannabinoid system, which regulates mood stress, response, immunity, inflammation, and much more. This stimulates an endorphin release that has an antidepressant-like effect and elevates mood.

Food is a significant and easy way to alter mood levels because of the effects of food consumption on dopamine receptors in the brain. Certain food ingredients (like chocolate) interact with these receptors to activate the reward and pleasure centers of the brain. Scientists have even observed that people may crave foods that contain these pleasure-triggering ingredients when feeling sad.

Dark chocolate contains 50%–90% cacao solids, whereas milk chocolate contains from 10%–50% cacao and significantly more sugar. A reasonable portion of dark chocolate to reap health benefits is about 10 to 40 grams per day. Some studies report benefits with as low as 6.3 grams consumed, while others found benefits at 48 grams. However, keep in mind that 40 grams of dark chocolate can provide 220 calories and 13 grams of fat, so don’t overdo it at the expense of your waistline.

So go ahead and indulge in a little dark chocolate to help improve your mood and promote greater happiness. It’s certainly an easy way to stimulate the production of endorphins, create feelings of pleasure, and promote a positive mindset.

The powerful influence of smell on memory, emotions, and overall health

Although one of the least explored senses in the field of research, the sense of smell (or olfaction) may be one of the most important senses for overall health. Smell has a unique relationship with memory and emotions that is unmatched. No doubt you’ve experienced déjà vu due to exposure to a scent. This familiar and memorable aroma—like grandma’s oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, your dad’s garage, new car smell, or the flowers outside the house you grew up in—activates specific areas of your brain reigniting vivid memories and emotions. These nostalgic experiences intimately linked to aromas are called scent memories and demonstrate just how powerful the sense of smell is.

Your sense of smell is directly connected to your brain. Functional magnetic resonance imaging shows that when you smell something two parts of the brain are activated—the amygdala and hippocampus. The amygdala is the emotional center of the brain and the hippocampus plays a major role in memory, so it is not surprising that scents arouse powerful memories and emotions. Indeed, a captivating and familiar aroma has the power to not only remind you of a past person, place, or event, but it triggers emotions more powerful than those generated by other senses like sight and sound. (1)

Collectively, the amygdala and hippocampus (both parts of your limbic system) coordinate a conditioned response that rapidly links familiar aromas with their associated memories. Other senses (visual, auditory, and tactile) do not pass through these areas of the brain, which explains why aromas produce greater emotional responses than the other senses.

Scientists are just beginning to understand the complexity of the sense of smell and its involvement in human health. The discovery of olfactory receptors outside the nasal cavity in areas such as the kidneys, heart, skin, and immune cells highlighted a wider role for olfaction in human health than previously known. (2) A growing body of evidence suggests that olfactory receptors not only play a role in the function of multiple organs and systems, but they also have potential to be used in the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of disease. (3) This research has revealed that olfactory receptors perform important functions such as:

  • Regulate heart function.
  • Promote death and reduce the spread of certain types of cancer cells.
  • Regenerate skin cells to speed the wound healing process.
  • Promote prostate health.
  • Aid digestion.
  • Regulate blood pressure.
  • Stimulate insulin secretion by the pancreas. (4)
  • Regulate appetite. (5)

Nostalgic memories and positive emotions can also be produced by the potent aromatic molecules found within essential oils. When an essential oil is smelled, aromatic molecules are carried by olfactory sensory neurons to the olfactory bulb. The olfactory bulb filters and processes the incoming signals and then mitral cells carry an outgoing signal to the olfactory cortex and the limbic system, which includes the amygdala and the hippocampus. A wide variety of psychophysiological responses occur in response to this outgoing signal that can promote improved health. Here are a few essential oils associated with improved memory and emotions:

  • Citrus oils like lemon, orange, and tangerine are strongly uplifting. Inhalation of citrus fragrance helped normalize neuroendocrine hormone levels and immune function in people diagnosed with depression and was deemed more effective than antidepressants. (6)
  • Rosemary is called the herb of remembrance and for good reason. Teen boys and girls (aged 13 to 15 years old) experienced significantly improved short-term memory when they inhaled rosemary essential oil. (7)
  • Lavender essential oil is associated with a more relaxed state. Healthy individuals who inhaled lavender essential oil reported feeling fresher and more relaxed than individuals who inhaled a base oil. (8)

These few studies—and many more existing studies—show that essential oils can improve mood and memory function simply through inhalation. For more research to support the use of essential oils for memory and emotions, see Medicinal Essential Oils: The Science and Practice of Evidence-based Essential Oil Therapy.

The power of the sense of smell should not be overlooked nor underestimated. The evidence is clear that olfaction plays a significant role in overall human health, so don’t cut your health short. Stop to smell the roses and be sure to incorporate essential oil inhalation into your regular daily routine.

The Real Risk of Lavender and Other Essential Oils for the Hormone System

A recent study reignited fear and confusion in parents about one of the most versatile and trusted essential oils—lavender—and whether it has estrogenic properties. The study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism claims an association between lavender products and premature thelarche (PT; the development of small breasts typically before age three) and prepubertal gynecomastia (PG; the growth of breast tissue in males).

Dozens of sensationalized articles ran with this study’s assertions blurring the line between good scientific journalism and clickbait publicity. Most journalists only read the study abstract and do not dive deeper into the methodology and other important details, which leads to an oversimplification and sometimes misinterpretation of the results. Many health professionals and well-meaning people spammed their family and friends with these oversimplified and misconstrued articles to “prove” they should not use essential oils. So, is it time to throw out lavender and tea tree essential oils and avoid their use in children, or is this a case of scientists untrained in and ignorant of essential oils making absurd conclusions?

Previous research findings

Previously, a study argued that chronic lavender exposure caused PG, while another study alleged that both tea tree and lavender “probably caused” PG in boys. These studies spread like wildfire because they create doubt in people’s minds whether they should use one of the most popular and effective natural solutions available—essential oils. However, one should be cautious in jumping to conclusions and remember correlation does not mean causation.

The first study contains three case reports of PG that resolved after the discontinuance of lavender-containing products. One was a shampoo with lavender listed as an ingredient and the other two regularly used the cologne agua de violetas. They analyzed the cologne with HPLC, and based upon an “assumption” and comparison with an analysis of lavender essential oil concluded that linalool and linalyl acetate were components of the cologne.

The scientists failed to provide the full HPLC analysis of the oil for verification of lavender biomarkers and to rule out synthetic and adulterant markers. Given the substantial adulteration of lavender essential oil and the common practice of perfumers to use petroleum-derived synthetic chemicals (like synthetic linalyl acetate), it is highly likely that the cologne does not contain true lavender essential oil but synthetic bioidentical chemicals. It is also probable that an adulterated lavender was used in the shampoo product. In addition, reports show that about half of tea tree oil samples don’t meet the composition standards to be considered genuine and pure tea tree oil.

If you want to read the flawed science of the latter study, I invite you to review page 24 of my book Medicinal Essential Oils. For additional insight into how these studies are flawed—including confounding false-positive results due to the use of 96-well plates and the fact that essential oils may extract plastic chemicals up to 10,000-fold—see my Facebook live video.

Estrogenic activity of lavender and tea tree essential oils

Each of these studies validity is entirely dependent on lavender (or tea tree) producing sufficient estrogenic effects to disrupt the endocrine system. However, compelling evidence suggests lavender and tea tree do not have estrogenic potential.

The rat uterotrophic assay is the gold-standard test in living organisms to detect the estrogenic activity of a substance. During this test, immature female rats are repeatedly exposed to doses of a substance for three days. The weight of their uterus is measured on the fourth day, which provides a sensitive and toxicologically relevant measurement of the estrogenic activity of the tested substance.

In 2013, scientists evaluated the estrogenic effects of topical lavender in the rat uterotrophic assay. Immature female rats were administered 20 or 100 mg/kg of body weight over (roughly the equivalent of an adult applying 1.5 mL to 7.5 mL of lavender essential oil each day for three days) the course of three days. A positive control group was administered 2.5 mcg/kg of 17α-ethinyl estradiol (a synthetic estrogen used in birth control pills). The weight of the uterus and ovaries were recorded 24 hours after the final dose was administered. As expected, the positive control group that received 17α-ethinyl estradiol experienced significant increases in mean absolute and relative uterine weights. However, uterus weights of the lavender treated group did not increase relative to normal values. The scientists concluded that lavender essential oil “was not active in the rat uterotrophic assay and gave no evidence of estrogenic activity.”

Tea tree has not been tested in the uterotrophic assay, nor could any convincing research be found supporting an estrogenic or hormone-disrupting effect. Although a group of scientists contended that individual chemicals within tea tree oil disrupt hormone function, they relied upon flawed methodology that in essence makes their finding invalid (see the Facebook video above for more details).

The most recent study again used an in vitro (laboratory) method by placing human cells in 6-well, 24-well, and 48-well plates. While the authors took measures—also assessed soybean oil—to assess whether essential oils dissolved plastic chemicals in the plates to elicit the observed hormonal activity, they did not use the gold standard in vivo (performed or taking place in a living organism) rat uterotrophic assay. In vitro studies don’t always correlate with in vivo studies, and particularly human clinical studies. With the conflicting results in these studies, the appropriate approach is to weigh the in vivo study results more heavily. In other words, the in vivo study that suggests lavender has no estrogenic activity supplants the most recent study that reported lavender has estrogenic activity in laboratory research.

Lavender and tea tree essential oil major constituents

Essential oils are complex mixtures of volatile aromatic molecules. They can contain from a dozen to hundreds of constituents depending on the oil. The ratio of these molecules is what gives essential oils their therapeutic benefits. It is also known that certain essential oil constituents can synergize, buffer, or counteract the effects of another constituent in the oil.

To aid in this discussion the typical percentages of major constituents in lavender and tea tree essential oil are provided.

Lavender

  • Linalyl Acetate 25%–45%
  • Linalool 25%–45%
  • (Z)-Beta-Ocimene 2%–8%
  • Beta-Caryophyllene 2%–6%
  • Lavandulyl Acetate 2%–6%
  • Terpinen-4-ol 1%–6%

Tea Tree Oil

  • Terpinen-4-ol 35%–48%
  • Gamma-Terpinene 10%–28%
  • Alpha-Terpinene 5%–13%
  • Alpha-Terpineol 2%–8%
  • Alpha-Pinene 1%–6%
  • Terpinolene 1%–5%

Penetration enhancing effects of essential oil constituents

Essential oils have been used to enhance the penetration and absorption of various substances through the skin. Indeed, scientists have observed this effect of essential oils for decades in relation to the transdermal delivery of drugs. Knowing this, synthetic chemicals—some of which are known hormone disruptors—are likely to penetrate through the skin at a higher rate when combined with essential oils.

Terpenes are the most common class of constituent found within essential oils and they are known to acts as penetration enhancers of multiple substances (vitamins, drugs, phytocompounds, etc.). Some of these individual terpenes have been explored for their ability to act as penetration enhancers. It is also possible that essential oils that contain multiple penetration-enhancing constituents—like tea tree and lavender—could possess a synergistic effect.

Lavender essential oil itself is a known penetration enhancer. Looking at the major components in lavender we find that the following are known penetration enhancers:

Tea tree essential oil also contains constituents that enhance the penetration of other ingredients or chemicals through the skin:

These lists are far from inclusive of all constituents in these two oils that increase the penetration of other substances through the skin.

Endocrine-disrupting chemicals in the products

A more plausible answer for the link between products that contain essential oils and PG or PT is interactions with other known hormone-disrupting chemicals present in the products. Many commercial personal care products (shampoo contains parabens and phthalates, which disrupt hormone activity) and colognes (many contain phthalates that disrupt hormone function) are a smorgasbord of harmful chemicals. Not to mention that essential oils may react with the chemicals (like bisphenol A, a known hormone disruptor) in the plastic containers of these products and cause them to leach into the product. Application of the product to the skin leads to absorption of both the plastic container chemicals and the synthetic chemical ingredients in the product.

While ingredients in wash-off products like shampoo and soaps have minimal contact with the skin, repeated exposure to these chemicals can have a cumulative effect. This is particularly true if the chemicals are being absorbed at a higher rate because the product includes lavender or tea tree essential oil. Colognes and perfumes are often sprayed directly on the skin and can have a higher absorption rate as a leave-on product.

In reality, exposure to hormone-disrupting chemicals is pervasive today because they are found in our water, air, clothes, food, furniture, vehicles, household cleaners, industrial chemicals, cosmetics, and personal care products. Indeed, one study found that infants are born with a tremendous toxic burden—an average of 200 chemicals present in umbilical cord blood at birth. Exposure to additional hormone-disrupting chemicals that are absorbed at a higher rate due to the presence of essential oils may have simply been the tipping point to trigger PG or PT.

The evidence-based and logical conclusion

Dozens of clinical trials using lavender or tea tree, combined with anecdotal use among millions of children, has not reported a statistically significant amount of estrogenic activity or hormone disruption for these two oils. We are each biologically unique and will respond to different substances uniquely. Most people can eat watermelon, but some have their throat itch and close if they do. Some children can eat peanuts, but to others, peanuts represent a threat to their life. Even among natural products, you will have a very small number of people that respond adversely or experience undesirable effects.

The presumed link to essential oils and hormone disruption in these studies is far from proven and frequently based on poor science and flawed methodology. The observations do not prove definitively PT or PG was caused by essential oils. This has been grossly overstated and aggrandized by the media. What we can learn from these studies is that consumers should be more selective about their products. They should choose natural products and products with essential oils that do not contain hormone-disrupting chemicals. Unfortunately, this is a major trend among companies selling soaps, lotions, shampoos, and other personal care products to capitalize on the growing essential oil industry.

The bottom line is you can still use tea tree and lavender essential oils on your children when diluted appropriately. With anything in medicine or health, the risks versus the benefits have to be weighed. And in this case, the vast whole-body benefits of these two essential oils far outweigh the minimal and rare risks that are far from proven.

Seven essential oils to support lung and sinus function during bad air

The Western United States is experiencing one of the worst fire seasons in recent history. Dozens of wildfires are burning across multiple states, taxing wildland firefighters and government resources. With the massive amount of fires burning, air quality in the West has significantly declined, resembling a dark and thick haze, that challenges the respiratory system of even healthy people. Here are seven essential oils that can aid lung and sinus function during these times of bad air.

People most vulnerable to smoky air
While many healthy people remain unaffected by the smoky air, sensitive individuals and those with existing health conditions are the most vulnerable to the negative effects of bad air. Children are particularly susceptible to the harmful effects of smoky air due to their more rapid breathing rate. On the opposite side of life, the elderly — who are more likely to have other health conditions — can easily succumb to bad air. People with heart (heart failure, angina, ischemic heart disease) and lung diseases (asthma, emphysema, pneumonia, bronchitis, COPD) are likely to experience chest pain, coughing, shortness of breath, and wheezing. Pregnant women should also be very cautious in these conditions as the air could potentially affect both the mother and the developing baby. Even healthy individuals aren’t immune to the effects. They can experience burning eyes and throat, chest pain, excess mucus production, and difficulty breathing if too much time is spent outdoors.

How smoky air affects the respiratory system
When wood and other organic matter burns it produces a mixture of gases — fires can boost ozone pollution by releasing nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons — and particulate matter. These microscopic particles are particularly concerning because they penetrate deeply into the lungs and cause a range of health problems, from a mild runny nose to chronic lung disease. Particulates produced by wildfires promote acute inflammation, oxidative stress, and reduced immune responses to infections according to research. Exposure to fine particles is also linked to cardiovascular disease (1) and premature death. (2) It is best to limit time outdoors when significant smoke is present in the air and sensitive individuals should consider wearing a mask.

Essential oils that support overall respiratory system function
Essential oils are great remedies for the respiratory system due to their volatility. Their volatility allows them to enter both the upper and lower respiratory tract to influence complete respiratory function. In addition, their complexity (from a dozen to hundreds of constituents), multiple mechanisms of action, and multiple cell receptor targets make them an ideal solution to help you breathe easier during the most challenging situations.

Eucalyptus. A hallmark of inflammatory airway diseases is the overproduction of mucus. Eucalyptus essential oils are rich in the important monoterpene 1,8-cineole. (3) Preliminary research demonstrates that 1,8-cineole modulates the expression of genes involved in the production of mucus; therefore, it reduces overproduction of mucus. (4) Other research shows that eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus) essential oil prevents lung injury. (5) A standardized supplement called Myrtol  designed to break down mucus and alleviate sinus congestion, and clinically proven in more than dozen trials — containing eucalyptus, orange, lemon, and myrtle essential oils standardized for limonene, 1,8-cineole, and alpha-pinene (300mg, four times daily), significantly reduced coughing fits during the day and night in people with bronchitis. (6)

Myrtle. Used for centuries to treat pulmonary disorders, myrtle essential oil has moderate amounts of 1,8-cineole — depending on whether it is green or red myrtle — but also contains other respiratory-supportive constituents like alpha-pinene and linalool. Regular exposure to ozone and particulate matter has been associated with exacerbation of pulmonary fibrosis and possibly even the development of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. (7) A methanolic extract of myrtle, which contains volatile constituents found in the essential oil, reduced inflammation and fibrosis of the lungs in animals. (8) Myrtle essential oil has also been shown to positively influence genes related to the respiratory system. (9)

Balsam fir. Another essential oil that is known to positively influence pulmonary epigenetics is balsam fir. (10) This research supports its traditional use for respiratory disorders, including those involving respiratory spasms. Some scientists report that conifer trees, like balsam fir, cleanse the air around us by trapping particulates and airborne chemicals in their foliage.

Peppermint. Russian scientists found that inhalation of peppermint essential oil reduced symptoms of pulmonary tuberculosis and prevented its recurrence in humans. (11,12) Inhalation of menthol — one of the primary constituents in peppermint oil — significantly enhanced mucus clearance in smokers. (13)

Cinnamon, clove, and thyme. A recent study concluded that the essential oils of cinnamon, clove, and thyme are excellent choices to combat respiratory tract infections in liquid or vapor phase. (14) This means you could diffuse these oils to allow them to enter the respiratory tract and help cleanse the lungs of pathogens. Moreover, these essential oils are known as potent antioxidants, which will help protect against the free radical assaults caused by particulates that enter the lungs. Clove and cinnamon are often combined in immune blends, so you may already have a good option in your essential oil arsenal.

Ginger. Opening the airways can reduce wheezing and difficulty breathing. Preclinical research shows that ginger essential oil can reduce airway constriction. (15) The study authors noted that 1,8-cineole and citral, both present in small quantities in ginger essential oil, each triggered bronchodilation (dilation of the bronchi and bronchioles to improve airflow to the lungs).

How to use the essential oils

  • Diffuse a combination of the above oils for at least 60 minutes, twice daily.
  • Perform a steam inhalation of one or more of the above oils (cinnamon and thyme may be too strong) once daily. The steam may help improve mucus clearance.
  • Dilute and apply eucalyptus, myrtle, peppermint, and ginger to the upper chest, once or twice daily.
  • Consider taking a capsule with one drop each of myrtle, eucalyptus, orange, and lemon essential oils (simulates Myrtol), three to four times daily.

Conclusion

Hopefully, firefighters will get the fires in the West under control quickly. Pray for their safety and ability to do so. But, until then, use your essential oils to keep your respiratory system healthy, particularly if you are among the sensitive populations.*

* Note: If pregnant or under the care of a physician, consult your health practitioner prior to use. Some people with chronic respiratory systems may respond adversely to essential oils, so use with caution and under proper guidance.

The mislabeling of tea tree essential oil as a poison

Search for tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia) essential oil (TTEO) on the Internet and you will find multiple websites — even government maintained — with stern warnings not to ingest it because it is a poison. As I reported previously, the ingestion of essential oils is disappointingly controversial but TTEO is especially denounced as harmful. This blog is meant to explore the evidence behind the mislabeling of TTEO as a poison.

What is tea tree essential oil?

TTEO is the volatile and aromatic constituents obtained from the leaves of the Melaleuca alternifolia plant. It is native to Australia and has a rich tradition in indigenous medicine systems there. Aborigines in Australia used the healing powers of TTEO topically to treat wounds, cuts, injuries, and infections. The leaves were also soaked in water to make an infusion for sore throats and colds. Additionally, it is believed that the indigenous Bundjalung people of eastern Australia inhaled the oil from crushed leaves to treat coughs and colds.

Modern research has discovered that tea tree is helpful for acne, oral health, warts, wound cleansing, head lice, dermatitis, inflammatory conditions, and influenza infections to name a few. This research has led to a resurgence of this ancient remedy from the Australian bush.

Typical Composition of TTEO

Tea tree is a predominantly monoterpene alcohols and monoterpenes with some sesquiterpenes and sesquiterpene alcohols present. Its major constituent is terpinen-4-ol (4-terpineol), which is typically within the range of 35% to 48%. The monoterpenes gamma-terpinene and alpha-terpinene are also typically found in moderate to significant amounts. Other key constituents include 1,8-cineole (eucalyptol), alpha-terpineol, alpha-pinene, terpinolene, para-cymene, delta-cadinene, aromadendrene, and ledene (viridiflorene). See page 459 of Medicinal Essential Oils for more information about TTEO composition.

What does the evidence from animal studies show?

A key point of this discussion is that virtually anything that can produce a therapeutic effect also has the potential to produce a harmful or toxic effect. Several factors determine whether you experience a therapeutic or harmful effect, such as your current state of health, height, weight, age, and most importantly the amount used. Small children are more susceptible to toxic effects of therapeutic substances.

Animal evidence shows that TTEO can be toxic when ingested in very large doses. The amount required to cause the death of half of the animals in a study is called LD50. The LD50 for rats was determined to be 1.9mL to 2.7mL per kilogram (kg) of body weight. (1) To put this in perspective this is equivalent to a 154-pound (70 kg) adult ingesting 133mL of TTEO. They also found that 1.5g/kg caused the rats to be lethargic and ataxic (lack of voluntary coordination of muscle movements). Another study pegged the rat LD50 at 1.9g/kg. (2) To give you an idea of how much this translates to in human consumption, the same 154-pound adult would need to consume more than 26 teaspoons of TTEO to consume that much. No reasonable person would consume these amounts of TTEO.

Let’s compare this LD50 to essential oils that have been used in numerous human clinical studies safely. Peppermint essential oil has an LD50 of 2.426g/kg in rats and 2.49mg/kg in mice, within the same range as the LD50 for TTEO. (3) Anise essential oil is commonly ingested in capsules for digestive disorders. The LD50 of anise in rats is 3.12mg/kg, modestly higher than TTEO. (4) Even lavender essential oil, which is commonly ingested for anxiety, has an LD50 of 4.25g/kg. (5) This data shows that some essential oils not erroneously labeled as poisons, and commonly ingested by humans, have similar toxicity levels in animals to TTEO. It also reveals that even some of the safest essential oils, like lavender, do have a harmful level of use, although the level is extreme.

The data above certainly doesn’t merit labeling peppermint, anise, and lavender as poisons. So why is tea tree singled out with this dubious title?

Aspirin has an LD50 of 0.2g/kg in rats (6) — far lower than TTEO — but it isn’t being labeled as a poison with warnings in all caps stating not to ingest it. Instead, people are informed about reasonable doses that will not cause death. I doubt people Google to see if aspirin is a poison before using it.

People consume caffeinated beverages indiscriminately without considering if it is toxic or a poison. It too has an LD50 far lower than TTEO at 0.367g/kg in rats. (7) Should people be advised to call poison control centers when they ingest a cup of coffee?

Even vitamin A (retinol) has a similar LD50 to TTEO at 2g/kg in rats. (8) Medical professionals and much of the public is aware of the toxic potential of too much vitamin A and so we use it and administer it at reasonable and safe doses. Likewise, TTEO can be ingested at reasonable and safe doses without hitting the toxic and harmful level.

Remember, water is a life-giving and vital substance, but even drinking too much of it can cause water intoxication — a condition where excess water enters cells causing cells and tissues to swell. Should we then label water as a toxin, or would it be more reasonable to recognize it as a healthy means of hydration when used in reasonable amounts?

Reviewing the evidence in humans

Toxicity has also been reported in human case reports. Two cases of toxicity in adults are reported in the literature. One adult ingested half a teacup (most modern teacups hold 150mL of liquid, suggesting this individual ingested 75ml of TTEO!) of TTEO and the other half a teaspoon full (2.5 mL; which he had ingested previously without problems). (9) Both of these are examples of extreme doses and far beyond reasonable oral use of TTEO.

Most cases of toxicity occur in children. A 17-month-old child and two additional children who ingested less than 10mL (again a whole lot of TTEO) experienced drowsiness and ataxia. (10)

One case report states that a 4-year-old boy consumed a “small quantity” of tea tree oil, which caused ataxia within 30 minutes that progressed to unresponsiveness. (11) His symptoms improved with treatment over the course of ten hours and he made a full recovery. The term small quantity is very subjective and leaves open the possibility that he ingested what would be considered a large quantity in medical aromatherapy.

Several cases of toxicity have involved the ingestion of 10 to 25 mL of tea tree oil.(12) Again, these are extreme and not reasonable doses. Even the National Institutes of Health admits that TTEO “ingestion, demonstrate that at relatively high doses, TTO causes Central Nervous System depression and muscle weakness.” (13) They also state the symptoms generally resolve within 36 hours.

I find it particularly odd that a U.S. state poison control center states “Tea tree oil causes rapid onset of lethargy, confusion, ataxia, hypoventilation, and coma after ingestion of as little as 10mL.” (14) 10mL is hardly a “little” amount in medical aromatherapy, highlighting the inadequate knowledge of essential oils that is rampant among Western-trained health professionals and government agencies.

What we learn from these case studies is that we should limit TTEO ingestion to reasonable amounts and avoid it in children under age six. Indeed, ingestion of tea tree is likely best reserved for teenagers and adults.

The benefits of tea tree oil ingestion

Some question the need for ingestion of TTEO. Certainly, topical application has vast and varying benefits, but a systemic benefit is best achieved when essential oils are taken orally. We know that TTEO prevents an early stage of replication of the influenza virus (15) and therefore sublingual or TTEO in a capsule can be helpful to support the immune system. Epigenetics is an emerging and exciting field that we are just beginning to understand who essential oils influence the human genome. Research revealed in a landmark study that TTEO positively influences genes related to hormone function in men and women. (16) Again, a systemic benefit would best be achieved by taking TTEO orally. TTEO has vast application and oral administration is reserved for cases that demand it for maximum benefits.

The misinformed sharing misinformation about essential oils

This isn’t the first time people untrained in the clinical use of essential oils and without proper knowledge or the required thousands of hours of study have spread poor and misleading information about essential oils. You’ve probably heard that lavender and tea tree will make your boys develop breasts. Well, this couldn’t be farther from the truth and falls more in the realm of pseudoscience. See my video rebuttal of the “research” here. The fact is you need to check facts posted on social media and the Internet against credible experts and resources that follow an evidence-based approach.

The evidence-based conclusion

Based on the above evidence, it is abundantly clear that TTEO has an undeserved reputation as a poison when ingested. If we continue to call it a poison, we should also include caffeine, aspirin, and other substances with similar toxicity profiles.

Can toxicity occur when it is ingested? Absolutely. But, we must consider the extreme amounts required to ingest before we arbitrarily call a beneficial essential oil a poison. Individuals should seek qualified advice from an expert trained in the oral administration of medicinal essential oils before ingesting TTEO. If you are uncomfortable with ingesting TTEO, don’t. No one is forcing you to do so. However, you may be missing out on benefits best achieved through this administration method.

Reverse biological aging by naturally balancing cellular pathways

Billions of dollars are spent every year with one goal in mind — to maintain youth. Creams are applied, surgeries undergone, and extreme exercise or calorie restriction executed to maintain a youthful glow and youthful function. Knowing this, scientists have performed thousands of hours of research in search of the next miracle drug, molecule, or supplement to extend healthy human lifespan. Recent discoveries of cellular pathways — AMPK and mTOR — make this dream more of a reality.

What is AMPK?

Adenosine monophosphate-activated protein kinase (AMPK) is an important enzyme found inside every cell in the body. It serves as a master regulator of energy metabolism. AMPK detects energy levels (the number of ATP molecules) inside cells and controls responses when ATP levels are too high or too low. When activated, AMPK speeds metabolism, accelerates fat burning, and even influences how long you live.

Its activity level also closely regulates aging. The enzyme is most active in days of youth but its activity gradually decreases with each passing year. (1) This decreased activity is partially responsible for the buildup of visceral (belly) fat and muscle loss that occurs during the aging process. Excess weight, and the accumulation of fat around the waistline, accelerates aging. (2) Abdominal fat also generates an abundance of inflammatory chemicals. Indeed, deep abdominal fat transforms into an inflammation-promoting factory, leading to metabolic diseases. (3)

What happens when AMPK activity decreases?

Given that AMPK is the master cellular regulator of metabolism, it’s not surprising that a whole host of adverse effects can occur when its activity slows down.

  • Chronic inflammation
  • Increased visceral fat
  • Neurodegeneration
  • Accelerated aging
  • Dyslipidemia (high LDL cholesterol and triglycerides; low HDL)
  • Mitochondrial dysfunction
  • Poor blood glucose control

AMPK promotes cellular renewal and clean-up

Your cells continuously generate energy to remain viable. The process of energy creation produces toxic debris and metabolic waste that must be carefully managed by your body. Autophagy is the primary process cells use to clear damaged proteins and mitochondria, and other metabolic waste products. It is your cell’s internal housekeeping process.

The easiest way to think about this process is to consider fireplaces and a chimney sweep. Fireplaces are your cells. Inside these fireplaces, a series of oxidation reactions occur to convert food molecules into energy. As a result, the inside of the cell accumulates debris (like soot). The chimney sweep is autophagy, which cleans out the debris so the cell can operate more efficiently. Maintaining optimal autophagy is critical to cellular health and function.

Emerging scientific research suggests that autophagy is involved in virtually every intervention proven to extend healthy lifespan. (4) This discovery is a major advance in the quest to slow and reverse the aging process.

mTOR: AMPK’s partner in longevity

AMPK regulates autophagy and fat-removal partly by modulating a protein, and its partner in crime, called mTOR. mTOR stands for mechanistic target of rapamycin (an immunosuppressive drug that targets mTOR activity), and when properly balanced, triggers the breakdown of fat stores to produce cellular energy. (5) Indeed, scientists have discovered that mTOR functions as a central coordinator of metabolism and cellular growth in response to environmental and hormonal signals.

In essence, mTOR is the master conductor of your cellular symphony of processes. mTOR responds to stimuli such as amino acid levels, cellular energy status, oxygen level, and insulin growth factors. Its two complexes (mTORC1 and mTORC2) serve as a communication hub that integrates cellular nutrient and stress statuses and then formulates an appropriate response.

Like AMPK, mTOR activity is directly associated with the aging process. Animal research demonstrates that decreasing mTOR activity extends lifespan. (5) Conversely, mTORC1 signaling activity is increased in a number of diseases, including cancer. (5) The discovery of mTOR’s involvement in aging and age-related diseases creates an exciting prospect to not only delay aging, but reduce the risk of age-related diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.

The role of exercise and eating in AMPK activation and mTOR regulation

Before we explore proven natural solutions to slow aging at the cellular level, it is important to emphasize the importance of regular exercise and eating better. It’s no revelation to those who live a healthy lifestyle that vigorous activity and reducing caloric intake are two well-established strategies to active AMPK activity and regulate mTOR. (6)(7) Calorie restriction triggers mechanisms that improve metabolism efficiency and protect against cellular damage. Many of the health benefits of exercise are linked to mTOR activity in muscle, brain, fat, and liver tissue. (8) Achieving optimal AMPK and mTOR activation is therefore critical for overall health and healthy lifespan.

Health really is a product of what you eat, how you move, environmental factors, and your thoughts and emotions. You simply can’t outpace the effects of poor eating, inactivity, or chronic stress. Nutrition and regular activity are foundational and the longevity results achieved with other natural measures will be amplified when they are properly established.

Natural methods to increase autophagy and AMPK activation and regulate mTOR

  • Gynostemma pentaphyllum (Jiaogulan). Dubbed the immortality herb for good reason, jiaogulan is prized for its ability to promote youthfulness and longevity. Its health benefits are often attributed to its effects on AMPK activity. Laboratory research demonstrates that GP potently increases AMPK activation almost seven-fold (660%). (9A)(9B)(9C) Remarkably, that is far greater than increases achieved with the diabetes drug metformin (1.3–1.6-fold increase) — metformin’s best-studied mechanism of action is through AMPK activation. (10) A randomized clinical study showed GP busts abdominal fat. Scientists observed an 11% reduction in visceral fat when individuals took 450 mg daily. (11)
  • Hesperidin. The citrus bioflavonoid hesperidin also significantly increases AMPK. Clinical research suggests that hesperidin benefits people with metabolic syndrome (high blood sugar, high blood pressure, dyslipidemia, systemic inflammation, and excess abdominal fat). What scientists found was that hesperidin (400 mg to 500 mg daily) reduces systemic inflammation and abdominal fat. (12)(13)
  • Nicotinamide riboside. Preliminary research suggests that the NAD precursor nicotinamide riboside potently triggers autophagy, and improves mitochondrial function to extend lifespan. (14)(15) Typical doses are 100 mg daily.
  • Citrus bergamia (Bergamot) essential oil. Both bergamot essential oil and one of its primary constituents (limonene) stimulate autophagy according to laboratory research. (16)
  • Boswellia species (Frankincense), Pinus densiflora (Pine), and Pelargonium graveolens (Geranium) essential oil. Researchers discovered that three essential oils modulate the activity of the AMPK/mTOR signaling pathway. (17) Regulation of the AMPK/mTOR pathway is likely best achieved through ingestion of the essential oils. Perhaps as few as 1-3 drops daily may be effective. This will need to be determined by clinical research.

Caution

Turning down mTOR and activating AMPK (and therefore autophagy) is not for everyone. Those with sarcopenia (degenerative loss of muscle tissue) or other frailty-associated conditions could experience aggravation of symptoms through chronically decreased mTOR and elevated autophagy. (18)

Conclusion

Emerging evidence surrounding the AMPK/mTOR signaling pathway is an exciting cellular pathway to slow down the aging process and reduce age-related disease burden. Even more exciting is the possibility of influencing aging and age-related diseases with natural products. Don’t take your chances with expensive and risky surgeries to look and feel younger. Mother Nature prepared multiple solutions that you can give a try instead.