It was the Aristotelian belief that everything on Earth was composed of the 4 elements fire, air, earth, and water. And when these were held together by Spirit, it brought Life! Death was considered to be a phenomenon by which the Spirit left the body. Some of the best minds of the era spent their lifetimes trying to capture this spirit/quintessence. Only a few such souls were successful in these attempts. They had captured the spirit of a plant/tree in a bottle and called it quintessential oil.
Quintessential oils or essential oils are biologically active, volatile compounds, extracted from aromatic plants. All plants on Earth have some aromatic compounds within them. Only 10% of them yield enough quantity of oil which can be economically harvested. Otto Wallach and Adolf Von Baeyer, amongst other scientists, studied and refined the extraction process.
How are essential oils ‘essentially’ captured?
One of the most ancient techniques to extract these oils is steam distillation. In this process, finely chopped raw material is steamed from below. The emanating vapors from above condenses to form oil-water droplets. The water and oils are then separated & purified using different techniques.
Most essential oils from herbs and spices are extracted by this method. Cold-pressing is another means used, particularly for citrus oil. Enfleurage is another means by which lighter, subtler fragrances are encapsulated. In this method, air passes through stainless steel grids containing flowers and then passes through odorless fat. The fats capture the volatile compounds in the air. These fats are then distilled and refined to get pure essential oil.
Adsorption is another process used. Adsorption unlike “absorption” takes place only at the surface of a medium. Here, aromatic compounds accumulate on the surface of finely powdered charcoal, before harvest. Lately, liquid carbon dioxide has been used to get more refined essential oils from various plants. Until this day many of these methods are still in use. Most essential oils we find in markets today are extracted in laboratories. More often than not it is done using highly specialized techniques.
The biochemistry of essential oils
Chemical compounds found in plants, fall into two major categories:
• Primary metabolites include carbohydrates, proteins, nucleic acids, and lipids. These are absolutely essential for the plant to carry out basic survival.
• Secondary metabolites are compounds not involved in the direct metabolism of the plant. These play a significant role in protection, competition, and interaction of different plants. We Humans have these compounds as medicine, dye and flavoring agents.
Essential Oils are composed of these secondary metabolites. These exhibit a wide range of biological activities, besides having their characteristic fragrance.
Our sense of smell is said to be more than a hundred times stronger than any of our other senses. Smells trigger emotional and physical responses from people. Very often we are reminded of people or places just by a fragrance. Each of these essential oils is used in different ways to add to the aroma of our lives.
Uses of essential oils
Essential Oils are used both externally and internally. Externally they are used as topical applications and in aromatherapy. Internally they are used in flavoring foods and beverages.
Essential oils are usually light, lipid-soluble, and are easily absorbed by the skin. Usually, they are diluted with a carrier oil such as fractionated coconut oil and gently massaged for better absorption. Essential oils are diluted in the ratio of 1:3 or 1:5 depending on the potency required. Usually, this is applied to the neck, chest, back, arms, legs, feet, and forehead. It is advised not to apply essential oils onto sensitive areas such as the eyes, lips, inner ears or open wounds. Alternatively, a few drops of essential oil could be added to the water before a shower.
Apart from topical application, Essential oils have been used in aromatherapy. Fragrances have a strong impact on the limbic system, the centre of the brain related to emotions, behavior and memory. Some of them have a calming effect while some have an invigorating effect. Just a drop or two placed on the palm and cupped to the nose while taking a deep breath has a strong lasting impact. They could also be added to cold-air or water-based diffusers to create a mild effect and set the mood for a room. Alternatively, they could be added to cotton balls placed near air vents or even diluted and sprayed as a room freshener.
A few essential oils have a rich culinary history. For ages, these have been used to infuse flavor into various dishes. When we add basil leaves to a dish we are in fact adding volatile aromatic compounds from the herb into our food. As awesome as these oils are made out to be, you have to watch out not to OD on them. A bit of oregano on the pizza is fine, but don’t go overboard. Essential oils are strong compounds and you know what they say about too much of a good thing…
1. Cinnamon essential oil, one of our favorites, has a pleasant aroma and a characteristic warm spicy aftertaste. It is known to be a great preservative and is used extensively in various cuisines. What most people don’t know is that cinnamon oil is the primary ingredient of Holy ointment mentioned in Exodus 32:22-26. This oil was sought out by the Egyptians and itself in the embalming process. You don’t have to aspire to be a mummy to use it though! A couple drops in the bath water or in an aftershave rinse will keep you at your A-game and smelling like a Pharaoh!
2. Lavender essential oil is known to help a person calm down and relax. It helps people suffering from insomnia, anxiety, and nervousness. “Rosemary for Remembrance” is as the saying goes. Rosemary essential oil is great for refreshing the mind and boosting one’s memory.
3. Peppermint essential oil has a high content of the refreshing compound menthol. This is used to flavor a wide variety of confectionery. Besides that, it is also known to have a soothing effect on the throat and stomach, and is used to relieve one from coughs and mild indigestion.