Have you ever wondered what inspires new drug discoveries? From the over the counter drugs you can’t live without (Ibuprofen, Tylenol) to the most sophisticated anti-cancer agents?
This recent review published in The Journal of Current Drug Discovery Technology will give you the answer: 60% of the anticancer drugs and 75% of the anti-infectious disease drugs approved from 1981-2002, can be traced to their natural origins in botanicals, herbs and other plant compounds. Overall, 60% of currently available drugs, including several major blockbuster drugs, originate from natural products (1).
The most creative minds in the field of new drug discoveries could tell you that it is very difficult to conceive complex molecules with therapeutic potential from synthetic chemistry alone. Why? Because the structural and functional diversity and the biochemical specificity found in natural products offers possibilities beyond what can be synthesised in the laboratory. For instance, complex compounds such as paclitaxel (taxol) would have never been discovered if they had not been identified initially from nature and found to contain anti-cancer properties (2).
So you’d be tempted to think that since modern drugs are derived from naturally-occurring compounds, they would improve on nature but unfortunately this is not the case. On the contrary, synthetic drugs are not nearly half as smart as their natural counterparts. Let’s take just one example: Chamomile vs Ibuprofen. This research article explains that molecules contained in chamomile (such as matricin, chamazulene carboxylic acid, bisabolol oxide A & B) are as effective as ibuprofen in quenching inflammation. However, while Ibuprofen can give you a lot of side effects, chamomile is perfectly safe to use and the reason for that is simple: while Ibuprofen is a non-selective COX inhibitor, inhibiting both COX2 and COX1 enzymes, the molecules in chamomile selectively inhibit COX2, without affecting COX1 pathway (3), which means that you get all the anti-inflammatory benefits without any of the side effects, such as gastric upset. And knowing that, what would you rather use?
Guided by this new insight, I’ve been doing a lot of PubMed research lately into the most effective ways to relieve stress, headaches, anxiety, depression and insomnia. And what I found out is nothing short of amazing: hundreds of clinical trials and medical studies show that many natural substances found predominantly in essential oils, something that many cultures around the world had used therapeutically for centuries, have pharmacological properties that surpass those of modern drugs with none of the side effects.
So doesn’t it make better sense to use these natural compounds instead? Here’s what the medical literature says about some of them:
WILD ORANGE ESSENTIAL OIL – As effective as diazepam in combating stress and anxiety
By its Latin name Citrus sinensis, Orange Essential Oil has long been known for its immediate relaxant effect.
This study in Physiology & Behavior (2000) found that the mere exposure of a group of dental patients to the ambient odour of natural essential oil of Citrus sinensis showed a relaxant and sedative effect. This is due to a substance called hesperidin which was identified as the sedative active principle of this plant(4).
Another study in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (2012) demonstrated the anxiolytic activity of sweet orange essential oil in forty male volunteers. The study evaluated psychologic parameters such as state-anxiety, subjective tension, tranquilisation, and sedation, as well as physiologic parameters (heart rate and gastrocnemius electromyogram). The results gave scientific support to the use of orange essential oil in anxiety disorders (5).
Even more amazingly, C. sinensis showed almost the same effect as diazepam in this study done on Wistar rats. The animals were exposed to orange essential oil (100, 200 or 400 μL) for 5 min within a plexiglass chamber and were then immediately submitted to the behaviour tests. All doses of orange essential oil showed anxiolytic effect. This study concluded that orange essential oil represents an excellent natural alternative due to its relaxant and sedative-hypnotic properties (6).
LEMON ESSENTIAL OIL – More effective than antidepressants in improving mood
It is common knowledge that one of the effects of stress on the body is suppression of immune system function. What you might not know is that a suppressed immune system can negatively impact the central nervous system, which results in symptoms of depression. Vice-versa, when you’re depressed, you’re never “just depressed”, your immune system is also down, making you more vulnerable to infections and all sorts of illnesses like cancer.
This study in Neuroimmunomodulation (1995) and many others indicate that treatment with citrus essential oil is more effective than antidepressants and can very effectively normalise neuroendocrine hormone levels and immune function (7).
And we even know its mechanism of action: this study in Behavioural Brain Research (2006) shows that the antidepressant-like effect of lemon oil is closely related with the 5-HTnergic pathway, especially via 5-HT1A receptor. Lemon oil significantly accelerates the metabolic turnover of DA in the hippocampus and of 5-HT in the prefrontal cortex and striatum. These results suggest that lemon oil possesses anxiolytic, antidepressant-like effects via the suppression of DA activity related to enhanced 5-HTnergic neurons (7).
Impressed? There’s more…
PEPPERMINT ESSENTIAL OIL – As effective as Tylenol (acetaminophen) in treating headaches
This controlled study showed for the first time that a 10% peppermint oil in ethanol solution alleviates tension-type headache as efficiently as acetaminophen, compared to the corresponding placebo. The oil was spread largely across forehead and temples which was repeated after 15 and 30 minutes. Compared to the placebo, a 10% peppermint oil in ethanol solution significantly reduced the clinical headache intensity already after 15 minutes. Acetaminophen, too, proved to be efficient compared to placebo but there was no significant difference between the efficacy of 1,000 mg of acetaminophen and 10% peppermint oil in ethanol solution (8).
Last but not least…
LAVENDER ESSENTIAL OIL – As effective as barbiturates in inducing sleep without impairment in motor abilities
This study published in Phytomedicine (2009) discovered that linalool, a natural compound found in lavender essential oil, had marked sedative and anticonvulsant central effects in various mouse models.The 1% and 3% linalool increased pentobarbital sleeping time and reduced body temperature while motor coordination was not affected. Linalool inhaled for 1h seems to induce sedation without significant impairment in motor abilities, a side effect shared by most psycholeptic drugs (9).
This study done on thirty-one adults showed that lavender increased the percentage of deep or slow-wave sleep (SWS) in both men and women. All subjects reported higher vigor the morning after lavender exposure, corroborating the restorative SWS increase. Lavender also increased stage 2 (light) sleep, and decreased rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep (10).
As a nutritionist, I’m always focusing on offering the best nutritional support to someone who presents with stress, anxiety, depression and insomnia and fixing the diet is usually the starting point, as well as supplementing the required nutrients needed for adrenal function, methylation and proper neurotransmitter synthesis.
However, there are a lot of people who are otherwise healthy and only experience these upsetting symptoms very infrequently or for short amounts of time. If you’re one of them, essential oils will become your best friends. Unlike vitamins and minerals that take longer to replenish, the natural compounds in essential oils (such as linalool in lavender, L-Menthone in peppermint) act on our neuro-endocrine system very quickly, so you will immediately notice a boost in mood and health.
Like with everything, when it comes to essential oils, quality is extremely important. There are many cheap products on the high street that contain impurities, are either diluted with a carrier oil or the oils themselves are degraded. For best therapeutic results, make sure that what you’re getting is Certified Pure Therapeutic Grade Essential Oils. After a lot of research, I finally found a company that provides this level of quality. To check out the various products and prices, please click on this link or copy and paste the following in your browser:
If you decide you want to use these oils regularly, it is more cost-effective to sign up for discounts, free products and loyalty points. There is a one-off fee to pay in order to register with doTerra .
doTerra essential oils are so pure that they can be used internally too. One drop in a glass of water is usually enough as they are very concentrated and a bottle will last for many months.
If you have any questions about this article or would like to know more about essential oils, feel free to email me at