Essential Oils have been around in my life for years, but it has been only since having children that I have discovered their amazing potential and great use in both human and veterinary medicine.
My journey with oils began as a teenager, when my father (an expert in plant cultivation) gave me a summer job working in his team, who at that time happened to be distilling and analysing a variety of different essential oils. Each day I would spend my time pipetting different oils (such as lavender, frankincense and eucalyptus) into little bottles ready for testing by the Gas Chromatograph-Mass Spectrometry equipment. At this point I had no idea how it worked, but I did know that it spewed out a list of the phytochemicals found in the particular sample of oil, and that I then had to put the data from those lists into a very large spreadsheet. Hours upon hours were spent transcribing percentages of exotic sounding chemicals such as Linalool, Linalyl acetate, Eucalyptol and Limonene, and during many of those hours I wondering why on earth the plants had made these things and what the significance could be to me.
Fast forward twenty odd years (ish!) and I returned to Essential Oils, but this time as a veterinarian, mother and dog owner. It was an awful car journey that triggered it – all three children and my rescue hound were driving myself and my husband mad, we had about six hours of driving to do, and for the life of me I couldn’t work out how I was going to stay in that car and stay sane. By pure chance I had a bottle of lavender oil that I’d been given in the front of the car and, triggered by the windy bottom eruptions of mostly likely the dog, I shoved the bottle in front of the car blowers. Within 5 minutes the children and the dog were calm and settled – and the dog stayed that way for the next six hours, an unheard of experience with a dog that in every other car journey climbed out of his harness, leapt about the car ended up in the front seat on my lap. Needless to say, I then spent the entire holiday reading every scientific paper I could find on the use of lavender, and other essential oils in the treatment of animals.
Not wanting to take material from future blog posts, today I’ve decided to do a little introductory into essential oils. So if oils are your thing, or you want to know more having read my story, then keep reading…
What are Essential Oils?
"a natural oil typically obtained by distillation and having the characteristic odour of the plant or other source from which it is extracted"
Believe it or not, Essential Oils are not actually oils at all – or at least not in the way we normally consider oil. They are actually produced by a wide variety of plants, and contain a range of components needed to help the plant thrive in its environment. We can consider them to contain the very ‘essence’ of the plant, and indeed this was why they gained their name as they contain the aromatic (smelly!) chemicals we associate with each plant species.
Essential Oil Chemistry
Essential Oils are made up of lots of different
phytochemicals (plant chemicals), all of which are produced by the plant for a particular purpose. All of these phytochemicals are made up of the atoms hydrogen and carbon, and therefore we call them hydrocarbons, and can group them according to their particular structures.
If we look at one of these hydrocarbons, we can see that it is made up of two or more repeating units. These units are called Isoprene units and the simplest of our phytochemicals, the Monoterpenes, contain two of them stuck together (see the picture on the left). Another group, the Sesquiterpenes, contain three isoprene units and so are bigger and heavier.
After we have formed our basic hydrocarbon structures, we can then add the fancy bits. These are little tweaks to our molecule which put them into different subgroups. Examples would include the Monoterpene alcohols (such as Linalool pictured on the left and found in lavender) or the Monoterpene
aldehydes (such as citral). Different groups have different properties that we can take advantage of when formulating blends for specific purposes.
One group we should note here is the Phenols. This group have a ring structure (known as a benzene ring) with an alcohol group stuck onto it. Limonene is a good example of a phenol. The phenols can be more reactive and slightly acidic, and traditionally have been thought to be a safety issue in cats. Latest practice however is not supportive of this - check out the safety information and our blog for more information.
Essential Oil Quality
When I use Essential Oils in my practice, I am very careful to always source the highest quality oils to use with my patients. I encourage anyone using essential oils at home to do the same as well, since unfortunately there are a large number of poor quality and even dangerous oils on the market.
The quality of an essential oil will depend on the particular plants being grown and their age, the weather and soil conditions, and the pests present in the environment. In addition, the manner in which the plant is harvested and then the oil obtained are also key to the final product. A quality supplier will take all of these into account when purchasing their oils and in addition should source from growers producing in an ethical and environmentally sustainable manner.
A good way of assessing whether the essential oil you are purchasing is any good, is to see if you can view the chemical analysis report for that particular batch. This report (obtained through the process of Gas Chromatography and Mass Spectrometry) details the concentrations of the various phytochemicals present within the oil. It also is used to assess the batch for any contamination with pesticides or other chemicals, which may have been added to change the scent of the oil. I’ll be looking at one of these reports in a few blog posts time so stay tuned if you’re a lover of the science!
Another thing to note about essential oil sourcing is that whilst we should always try and buy local if possible, with essential oils we sometimes need to go global in order to get the best, and highest quality oil. Certain plants only grow in particular climates, and even those plants that are less fussy will only produce their best oil in optimal conditions.
What can Essential Oils do?
To discover what Essential Oils can do for us, we need to go back to why the plant makes them in the first place…
· for communication with pollinators,
· for defence,
· for healing after damage.
Many constituents of essential oils have been shown in scientific studies to be anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-viral and anti-parasitic; effects which all relate to the plant's need to protect itself. In my clinical practice (and at home with my family) I often use these functions to replace commercial chemical products such as antiseptics, ear cleansers or bug repellents. Including essential oils in shampoos, coat conditioners or moisturiser can also be super helpful in preventing disease and can also result in a beautiful smelling pet!
Some Essential Oils have been used for centuries to create a calming and relaxing atmosphere, something that is often missing from our own modern lives, as well as the lives of our pets. After seeing the power of lavender when it came to calming my own dogs, I have recommended it to many clients, allowing them to help their anxious pets without the use of conventional pharmaceuticals. Other calming oils include Chamomile and Vetiver, both of which can be used with pets and offer alternative scents for anyone who doesn’t like lavender!
Finally there are many oils shown to aid healing and be anti-inflammatory in action. Helichrysum is one such oil with both properties and is highly prized in veterinary aromatic medicine. It’s one downside is its high cost, which results from the very large number of flowers needed to make the essential oil – 2kg of flower material would only yield 2g of oil. Copaiba is probably the winner of the anti-inflammatory category, with a large percentage of its chemical make up being a component highly effective at reducing inflammation within the body.
Essential Oils are one of nature’s most pleasant, and most powerful products. Whether you are new to this form of therapy, or an old hand, I would encourage you to always seek professional medical or veterinary advice when it comes to using these oils on yourself or your pets. As part of my holistic mobile veterinary service, I will be providing dedicated ‘Essential Oils for Pets’ consultations which will include a tailored essential oil protocol for your particular pets issues and lifestyle. In the meantime why not join my Essential Oil specific Facebook group and keep an eye out for more blog posts on essential oils and the amazing plants they come from!