Essential Oils and Immune Health
Essential oils are highly concentrated plant oils used in aromatherapy. These aromatic oils are usually mixed with base oils and applied on the skin, used in massage, inhaled, or, in rarer cases, consumed internally.
One bottle of essential oil can contain upwards of 400 types of active compounds. After all, essential oils are concentrated solutions made of the entire plant. This is why, unlike a specific medication that has just one active ingredient and one specific effect on the body, one essential oil can have countless different properties.
Due to the complexity of these plant oils, researchers believe that essential oils can potentially boost immune health through a variety of different mechanisms, namely:
- Stimulating certain immune cells (lymphocytes, T cells, etc.)
- Lowering the levels of inflammation in the body
- Activating parts of the immune system (e.g. the lymphatic system, spleen).
Even though the antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and analgesic properties of essential oils have been studied more extensively, research regarding their immunostimulatory effects is rather new and scarce. This doesn’t mean, of course, that they do not boost the immune system, as there’s plenty of first-hand reports of people experiencing such benefits.
In fact, some of the essential oils scientists did study seem to have the potential to enhance some immune functions (more on that below). With all that said, until researchers examine the effectiveness of individual essential oils for improving immune health, it is impossible to confidently confirm such effects and recommend them.
Which essential oils have immune-boosting properties?
Among the dozens of essential oil varieties reviewed by scientists so far, the oils we list below have the most scientific evidence of immunostimulatory effects. We also list the ways you can use these oils at home.
1. Eucalyptus Oil
Eucalyptus oil is derived from the leaves of the Australian eucalyptus trees (Eucalyptus globulus), the very same trees koalas love to munch on. You’re surely familiar with the smell of eucalyptus oil because it’s often added to cold chest rubs and nasal sprays for its ability to cut through a clogged nose.
There are several ways you can use eucalyptus oil. You can mix 2-3 drops of eucalyptus oil in with a 1 tbsp base oil (such as almond or grapeseed oil) and apply it directly onto the skin or use it in an oil diffuser, but the simplest way is to add 5-10 drops of the oil to a warm bath.
Eucalyptus oil has anti-inflammatory properties, but recent studies also suggest that it has more direct immune-boosting effects as well. Two animal studies found that eucalyptus oil boosted the production of some immune cells and phagocytosis - the ability of immune cells to “eat” bacteria. They also confirmed that eucalyptus oil reduces the level of inflammation by lowering the number of cytokines (proteins that participate in the immune response).
Another study from 2020 pointed out that low and medium doses of eucalyptol (one component found in eucalyptus oil) have better effects on the immune system of rats than high doses. Therefore, it seems that eucalyptus oil can have immune-boosting properties, but it’s important to maintain moderation while using this oil
2. Ginger Oil
Ginger needs no introduction, as it’s already a kitchen staple in so many households. In fact, many of us already enjoy a big mug of hot ginger tea every day during the cold months - for both its pleasant warming effect and immune-boosting benefits. But have you ever considered ginger oil?
This essential oil is generally mixed with a base oil in a 1:5 ratio and used to massage and moisturize the body, but it can also be used in a diffuser. A review study from 2019 concludes that ginger oil is one of the few essential oils shown to boost the immune system in multiple studies.
One small study that involved colorectal cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy tested the effect of an aromatherapy massage with ginger oil mixed with coconut oil. The researchers found that the overall lymphocyte count in patients who used ginger oil was higher than those who got regular care. The patients also experienced fewer side effects and less pain.
Another study in immunosuppressed mice also found that ginger oil was able to improve the humoral immune response, which occurs when foreign materials are detected in the body and involves antibodies. So all in all, ginger oil seems to have a beneficial effect on the immune system.
3. Clove Oil
Many of us associate the smell of cloves with fall and winter, but did you know that clove essential oil has been used in traditional medicine to heal wounds and relieve toothaches for hundreds of years? Like the spice itself, clove essential oil comes from the flowers of a tree called Syzygium aromaticum native to Indonesia.
It can be mixed in lotions and carrier oils and used in massages and as ointments to heal minor scratches or wounds. A mix of clove oil and an edible base oil like grapeseed oil or olive oil can be also applied directly on a toothache - simply dab a piece of cotton in the oil mixture, and hold it on a sore tooth for a few minutes (avoid contact with the gums).
Clove oil combines anti-inflammatory properties with increased activity of antibodies and other immune cells. A very recent research article examined the effects of clove oil in mice with campylobacteriosis - a bacterial infection that causes food poisoning. In comparison to the mice who got a placebo, the mice that were treated with clove oil had a less severe illness, fewer bacteria, and less inflammation in the intestines. Earlier studies observed similar anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting effects.
4. Lavender Oil
Lavender essential oil comes from the beautiful violet blooms of the lavender plant (Lavandula angustifolia). The scent of lavender is calming and stress-reducing, which is why it’s commonly added to bath products intended for evening use. But lavender also has antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties. Lastly, the essential oil also seems to boost the immune response to bacterial infections.
A 2016 study investigated the oil’s ability to influence the immune response to staph bacteria. Lavender essential oil was able to lower the number of cytokines and stimulated the effectiveness of immune cells called macrophages.
A study that looked at 52 pregnant women tested the use of lavender oil massage and found that the women who got the massage had more IgA in their saliva. IgA (Immunoglobulin A) is an antibody necessary to help fight off sickness. Using lavender oil is just as easy as the previous two oils we’ve mentioned. It can be added to warm baths or diffused.
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