If you’ve ever enjoyed the scent of a rose, you’ve experienced the aromatic qualities of essential oils. These naturally occurring, volatile aromatic compounds are found in the seeds, bark, stems, roots, flowers, and other parts of plants. They can be both beautifully and powerfully fragrant. Essential oils give plants their distinctive smells, essential oils protect plants and play a role in plant pollination. In addition to their intrinsic benefits to plants and their beautiful fragrance, essential oils have long been used for food preparation, beauty treatment, and health-care practices.
But what exactly is a volatile aromatic compound? In short, these compounds are small organic molecules that tend to change quickly from their solid or liquid state to a gas at room temperature. They are called volatile because they change state quickly. When you first open a bottle of essential oil, you instantly notice that the aroma is potent and you can smell it typically even from some distance. The physical and chemical properties of the volatile aromatic compounds that compose essential oils allow them to quickly move through the air and directly interact with the olfactory sensors in the nose. Such unique properties make essential oils ideal for applications inclusion in aromatherapy – using these compounds from plants to help maintain a healthy mind and body – as well as other applications. The type of volatile aromatic compounds present in an essential oil determines both the oil’s aroma and the benefits it offers.
Over 3,000 varieties of volatile aromatic compounds have been identified to date. The nature of an essential oil varies from plant to plant, within botanical families, and from species to species. The delicate ratio of aromatic constituents found in any given essential oil are what make it unique and give it specific benefits.
The sense of smell is a tool that can elicit powerful physiologic, mental, and emotional responses. Essential oils are quickly absorbed by the smell receptors, which have a direct link to the limbic system by way of the olfactory nerve. The limbic system is part of the brain that supports a variety of functions including smell, emotions, behaviour, and memory. For this reason, essential oils have an especially powerful effect via aromatic application. Some essential oils induce uplifting or invigorating effects, while others are more calming.
Topical application is a very effective method for applying essential oils. Because essential oils have low molecular weights and are lipid soluble, they easily penetrate the skin. Once absorbed, they stay in the applied area for a localised benefit.
Essential oil contributes many health benefits as well as flavouring and aroma properties to foods. When in their concentrated form, essential oils can be used as dietary supplements for more targeted and potent health benefits. Internal use is a very safe and effective method of application because of the sophisticated physiologic processes of our bodies.
When ingested, essential oils directly enter the blood stream via the gastrointestinal tract, where they are transported throughout the rest of the body. Essential oils are lipid soluble so they are readily transported to all organs of the body, including the brain. Then, like all things we consume, essential oils are metabolised by the liver and other organs and are then excreted.
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