- A bee stings you, or you get a splinter in your finger. After removing the stinger or splinter, you put ice on the area to reduce the inflammation.
- You wake up with a sore throat. You head to the kitchen for some tea with honey and a pain reliever like ibuprofen, to ease the inflammation.
- You turn your ankle while running. You come home, put your leg up, and use an ice pack to reduce the swelling and inflammation.
Those are the types of situations that immediately come to mind when you think about inflammation. The redness and/or swelling are inflammatory responses; they actually show that the immune system is working to protect the body from infection and further damage.
Those types of acute inflammation usually aren’t serious. The body does its job, the redness goes away and the swelling goes down, and we move on with life.
Not all inflammation is acute and temporary, however. Chronic inflammation can be much more serious and very difficult to treat. And some people suffer from what are called autoimmune diseases, in which the body mistakenly thinks there’s an infection to fight and activates its immune response in response.
Asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, tuberculosis, gastrointestinal diseases, hepatitis – they’re just some of the conditions and diseases which are often caused by hard-to-control, chronic inflammation.
Needless to say, ice, hot tea and ibuprofen aren’t effective, long-term treatments for those sorts of medical issues. They’re ordinarily treated with medication, quite often steroids which can have harmful side effects. Dietary and lifestyle changes may help substantially as well.
But a growing body of evidence shows that natural remedies can provide enormous benefits to those who suffer with acute inflammation, chronic inflammation and autoimmune diseases.
One of the best alternative treatments is the use of essential oils.
What Causes Inflammation?
To understand how essential oils (EOs) can treat inflammation, let’s first look briefly at its root causes and how the body responds to it.
When the body senses injury or infection, it dispatches white blood cells to the scene to protect the affected area. In turn, that causes the telltale redness and swelling we associate with acute inflammation. Blood flow to the area increases (causing redness), and some of the healing chemicals produced by the white cells and damaged tissues leak into adjacent tissues (causing swelling). As the injury heals or the infection subsides, the signs of inflammation go away.
That’s the best-case scenario. If there’s too much inflammation or it doesn’t subside quickly, the body continues to dispatch white blood cells, and the swelling and resultant pain can last for a much longer time.
In the worst case, inflammatory markers don’t completely go away, and the body just keeps releasing more white cells; that’s what’s known as chronic inflammation. And since there’s really nothing for them to battle, they often end up attacking healthy tissues and organs, causing widespread damage.
Those never-ending inflammatory responses are essentially how chronic inflammation leads to inflammatory and autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease. Over time, they can cause continuing irritation, muscle pain, swollen joints and joint pain, and cartilage loss. They can also be a contributing factor to life-threatening issues like heart disease and cancer.
Sadly, there’s no “magic bullet” that can reverse most of the serious health problems caused by chronic inflammation. The issue can only be managed, not cured.
And that’s where essential oils can really help.
Essential Oils and Inflammation
One of the most important ways to minimize the effects of chronic inflammation is to slow down the body’s production of hormones known as prostaglandins. Prostaglandins are major players in the “signaling system” that warns the body of inflammation which needs to be controlled. Too many prostaglandins can perpetuate the inflammatory response, and lead to chronic problems.
During inflammation, so-called COX enzymes are responsible for telling the body to produce prostaglandins. So the most efficient way to stop the process is by blocking the work of COX enzymes. NSAIDs – over-the-counter medications like ibuprofen and naproxen, commonly used for pain relief – are very effective COX inhibitors, which is why they’re often used to reduce swelling and treat conditions like arthritis.
(NSAIDs inhibit the production of two COX enzymes, including the COX-1 enzyme that also protects the stomach lining. COX-2 inhibitors like celecoxib are more often prescribed for chronic inflammation, because they don’t cause stomach problems.)
Exercise and dietary modifications can reduce the production of prostaglandins – and you’ve probably guessed the third way to do it. A systematic review of research shows that many essential oils have strong anti-inflammatory properties, because they’re able to block the action of COX enzymes and the production of excess prostaglandins. In one study, six essential oils (thyme, rose, clove, fennel, eucalyptus and bergamot) were found to be particularly effective at suppressing COX-2 enzymes, because of a substance called carvacrol that they contain.
There are other things that happen inside the body that apparently play a role in chronic inflammation and the development of autoimmune diseases. They involve things like “reactive oxygen and nitrogen species” and “nuclear factor kappa B,” and are too complicated to explain in a paragraph or two. Here’s what’s important to know, though: it’s been shown that the anti-inflammatory effects of essential oils are also due to their ability to play a key role in those processes.
That’s important information for those who suffer from chronic inflammation. But what about the treatment of acute inflammation you may suffer after banging your knee or experiencing an infected toenail? Essential oils can help there, too.
Since EOs work in much the same way as pain-relieving meds like ibuprofen, they’re also able to help you feel better quickly. Studies have additionally shown that essential oils can reduce simple swelling and redness, and even sore muscles and back pain, when applied topically or massaged into the effective area.
Their analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties are just of the picture. Many essential oils have antimicrobial, antibacterial, anti-viral, antioxidant and antifungal properties which help the body fight the “invaders” which have triggered an immune response.
(Important note: essential oils should always be blended with a carrier oil like coconut oil, jojoba oil or sweet almond oil before topical application; otherwise, they can cause skin irritation or burns. No carrier oil is needed if the EOs are being used in a diffuser for aromatherapy.)
Which are the best essential oils for inflammation? We happen to have a list right here.
Best Essential Oils for Inflammation
Ginger is one of the herbs that immediately come to mind when considering health and wellness. Your grandmother didn’t just use ginger to make holiday cookies, she also made ginger tea and added ginger to bath water when someone in the family was sick. And the medicinal use of ginger goes back a lot further than she does. It’s believed that ancient civilizations were using ginger root as a health tonic five thousand years.
Those civilizations – and your grandmother – didn’t have the benefit of medical research that’s been done more recently. Studies have found that ginger oil has strong anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects, and can help with the pain and inflammation of rheumatoid arthritis, as well as the secondary joint inflammation often caused by osteoarthritis.
Ginger essential oil’s analgesic properties make it a good choice for topical application when treating localized pain and swelling caused by sprains or bruises. It’s also effective in aromatherapy when chronic pain and inflammation are a greater concern.
And of course, there’s always ginger tea. Just ask grandma.
We’ve mentioned six essential oils whose carvacrol provides outstanding anti-inflammatory benefits. Thyme was the one that researchers singled out as most effective, suppressing COX-2 activity by as much as 65%. That’s probably why practitioners of traditional medicine used thyme and its essential oil for several millennia to reduce swelling and inflammation, even though they didn’t know anything about carvacrol or COX-2 enzymes.
Thyme essential oil is good for treating issues other than inflammation, too. It has strong antiseptic properties, making it a longtime choice for cleansing wounds and as an antidote for snake bites. More recently, evidence has shown that thyme EO may be a good topical treatment for acne, and its effectiveness as an antispasmodic suggests an ability to fight colds and respiratory tract infections.
An important caution: don’t use thyme essential oil when pregnant or breastfeeding.
Thyme’s carvacrol content makes it an outstanding anti-inflammatory, but in the research we’ve cited, clove essential oil finished in second place. Additionally, clove EO provides antioxidant benefits against free radical damage because of the eugenol it contains – and that action actually helps to fight chronic inflammation as well. The reason is simple: oxidative stress and damage have been linked to a higher risk of inflammatory diseases.
A cautionary note: eugenol can hurt sensitive or damaged skin, so it’s best to avoid topical use. And one possibly interesting note: eugenol is what gives clove cigarettes their distinctive aroma.
The primary component of eucalyptus essential oil is something known as eucalyptol, which has been successful used to treat inflammatory respiratory disorders like asthma and COPD. That anti-inflammatory power is why topical application of eucalyptus oil is also a good choice for the muscle and joint pain of arthritis. (And yes, you remembered correctly; eucalyptus essential oil was another EO on the list of oils with high carvacrol content.)
This oil can be used to treat headaches and skin infections as well.
Roman chamomile (not to be confused with less-effective German chamomile) can calm your stomach and your nervous system, and make you drowsy when it’s used to prepare tea. Its essential oil has strong anti-inflammatory properties, too; even when it’s used topically, research has shown that chamomile is able to inhibit release of the prostaglandins that increase inflammation. Chamomile essential oil is particularly effective at treating skin inflammation.
Another great choice for topical application is helichrysum essential oil. (If you have no idea what that is, helichrysum is a sunflower found mostly in Africa and Eurasia, and it’s often used in perfume and topical pain relief products.) This essential oil is a strong antioxidant, and as we’ve discussed, that’s important for fighting the inflammation associated with chronic and autoimmune diseases. Helichrysum EO is also effective topically as a treatment for joint and muscle pain. (A different type of cautionary note: it’s really expensive.)
Turmeric is a close relative of ginger, and it provides many of the same anti-inflammatory benefits when used either in aromatherapy or with topical application. It has another unusual benefit as well: the turmerone in turmeric essential oil can seemingly help prevent neurological inflammation, meaning it appears promising for the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s Disease and Alzheimer’s Disease.
Perhaps the most popular essential oil in aromatherapy is lavender. It is believed to provide a wealth of health and wellness benefits, thanks to its calming effect that helps ease stress and anxiety. It’s commonly used in massage therapy for menstrual pain and cramps. It can help treat insomnia and sleep issues.
And lavender essential oil has been shown to have impressive anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and analgesic properties as well. Research studies have looked specifically at the EO’s effect on rheumatoid and osteoarthritis and musculoskeletal issues, finding that lavender can reduce both the inflammation and the pain associated with those conditions.
Other Essential Oils for Inflammation
We’ve only scratched the surface. There are nearly 100 essential oils available online and in stores, and many of the ones we haven’t mentioned are also able to treat inflammation. They include:
- Clary sage
- Sweet marjoram
Essential oil blends can be a particularly effective approach to inflammation. You’d be best off consulting with an aromatherapist or naturopath to decide on the right EO blends for your specific medical conditions, but here are three suggestions. Be sure to add a carrier oil for external applications.
- Joint and muscle inflammation: ginger essential oil, lavender essential oil, sweet orange essential oil
- Skin inflammation: Chamomile essential oil, lavender essential oil, helichrysum essential oil
- Arthritis inflammation and pain: Eucalyptus essential oil, lavender essential oil, peppermint essential oil, rosemary essential oil, sweet marjoram essential oil
There’s nothing wrong with experimentation, either, especially if you’re combining EOs for aromatherapy. After all, what’s better than an essential oil blend that provides the relief you’re seeking – and smells wonderful at the same time?
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