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Updated February 4, 2021
The Egyptians used them to embalm the dead. A 12th-century physician recorded how these oils were distilled and utilized in Spain. And in 2018, essential oils are quickly becoming popular among athletes and others looking to reach peak performance in a more natural way. One recent study showed that essential oils boosted lung function and athletic performance. Other anecdotal evidence points to these oils’ abilities to relax sore muscles, decrease post-workout pain and energize your body.
Simply put, essential oils aren’t just for aromatherapy anymore—and that’s a good thing.
So what are essential oils? These oils are extracted from various parts of a plant—leaves, bark, etc.—and are typically inhaled and applied on the skin. A few of them are ingestible, but you should consult a doctor before doing that, as most of them are meant for smelling or applying topically. These oils are secreted by plants in nature to help them survive in harsh environments. By distilling their essence, you’re utilizing their therapeutic powers.
Here are a few of the key essential oils, what they do, and best practices for taking them to enhance your performance.
Cannabidiol (CBD) Oil
Before you throw an essential oil party, you should know CBD oil won’t get you stoned, even though it is derived from the cannabis plant. That being said, there is anecdotal evidence that hails it as an anxiety-killer, mood-lifter and insomnia-buster. And recently, it’s also been touted for its ability to help athletes ward off inflammation and post-workout pain. For that reason, it could be a complete game-changer.
But before we get ahead of ourselves, remember that CBD essential oils aren’t heavily regulated, so the concentration might differ depending on the product you buy. Make sure you pick a manufacturer with a proven track record and the right dose for your needs.
Taken from the bark and leaf of the cinnamon tree, this oil has a musky, slightly spicy texture that can bring relief through inhalation if you have a chest cold. If you’re applying cinnamon oil topically, it can help reduce muscle soreness. In-vitro and in-vivo studies have also shown anti-microbial and antioxidant properties, which help you stay fit for every workout and fight off toxicity in your body.
Long seen as fussy and distinctly feminine, lavender can bring powerful benefits for both men and women. It can be mildly sedative, anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial, among other properties. One study found that using lavender oil significantly reduced preoperative stress among patients, and it can have a similar effect on you if you often feel anxious. (And we all know how stress can prevent us from losing weight and maximizing our muscle gains.)
If your skin isn’t sensitive to lavender oil, consider mixing it with a base vegetable oil (50/50) for better skin absorption.
When it comes to relieving respiratory issues (common flu to bronchitis), eucalyptus oil is your best bet. Eucalyptus activates the cold receptors in our nose, thus reducing nasal resistance. It also has an uncanny ability to make the body feel energized, awake and ready to hit a workout.
This essential oil is made up of nearly 70-90% of the compound eucalyptol, which boasts some pretty impressive antimicrobial and antioxidant properties. Not only does eucalyptus oil help with headaches, a combination of peppermint oil and an absorption oil showed positive effects on mood swings and tense muscles.
This popular essential oil is extracted from the lemon’s peel. Both refreshing and cleansing, lemon oil has been known to reduce nausea and morning sickness in pregnant women. But it has benefits for people across the board.
Lemon can stimulate the nervous system to boost performance, and also treats athlete’s foot—if you’re unlucky enough to be dealing with that. It’s also an antioxidant that keeps your skin hydrated and stops free radicals from taking over and forming acne and other degenerative issues. While citrus-y mouth washes are known to cause dental erosion, using lemon oil does not have the same effect. There are numerous studies that suggest lemon oil and other variants might help with a number of oral diseases.
This essential oil is known to reduce cortisol (stress hormone) levels and reduce oxidative tension. Rosemary oil smells similar to the cooking herb, and its natural properties improve your blood pressure and respiratory rate, making you feel more active and ready to hit the gym.
Essential oils dos and don’ts
Before you dive into the world of essential oils for better performance, consider these “dos” and don’ts.”
- Do use them as mild stress relievers. Inhaling lavender or rosewater oil can help keep you calm.
- Don’t rub oils near your eyes, ears and other sensitive areas, especially areas with broken skin.
- If your skin starts to feel itchy, wash off the oil. Essential oils will react differently with various skin types. A good idea is applying the oil to a small surface area at first.
- Diluting your oil is important because in its pure state it can turn out to be too much of a good thing.
- Don’t use oils that give off a funny odor. Make sure you keep a tab on the expiration date of your essential oils.
- Look for a producer that uses minimal added ingredients in its oil. That was there’s a lower risk of allergic reactions.
Aromatherapy won’t cure you of chronic ailments, and it won’t make you LeBron James. But using essential oils can help keep all kinds of stress at bay, while energizing your body and, in some cases, helping you manage pain. The tiny molecules found in essential oils make it easier for cells to absorb and can even traverse the blood-brain barrier.
Rubbing these oils on your skin or inhaling them are the two most common methods. But if you want to try ingesting them, a few drops of lemon or peppermint oil in water can go a long way. Just make sure you don’t overdo it on essential oils; these natural plant extracts are surprisingly powerful.