Essential oils are nothing new. Derived from plants into potent extracts, essential oils have long been a component of holistic medicine and alternative treatments. They have been shown to help reduce stress and anxiety, improve sleep, fight bacteria, reduce pain and improve digestion, for starters. Recently, scientists have even begun to study whether these same oils can be used for athletic performance.
In order for essential oils to be effective, they must enter the body through inhalation or the skin. If you’ve ever received a massage, facial or walked by an aromatherapy diffuser, you may have experienced essential oils without even realizing it. Technically, the oils can also be ingested, but most experts agree ingestion carries serious risks, including possible organ toxicity, so it’s probably best to skip that route.
When applied topically, it’s usually recommended to dilute essential oils by mixing them with lotion or another less concentrated oil. Once applied, the oil will be absorbed into the skin to treat the local area. When inhaled, the oils can stimulate the limbic system, that complex network of nerves responsible for everything from heart rate and blood pressure to emotion, stress and memory. The result: You just might feel better and perform better, too.
ESSENTIAL OILS FOR STRESS
An Austrian study found essential oils can markedly reduce an individual’s stress level, and that essential oils are a viable option for preventing and treating stress and burnout.
A study published in the American Journal of Nursing Science found a variety of essential oils can prove effective against anxiety, depression and fatigue, and promote improvements in quality of life across the nervous, endocrine, immune and circulatory systems. Another study found inhaling lavender oil significantly decreases blood pressure, heart rate and skin temperature.
There’s a lot of literature on the topic and more than 100 essential oils available to experiment with. But a few of the most popular (and studied) options for reducing stress and anxiety include lavender, ylang-ylang, sage, peppermint, bergamot, neroli, lemon and orange.
ESSENTIAL OILS FOR ATHLETIC PERFORMANCE
The research into essential oils for athletic performance is less robust, but there has been some exciting data in recent years to illustrate their possible application for athletes. A BMJ study noted that essential oils can play a role in preparing the body and mind for optimum sports performance and helping the body to recover more quickly by reducing the effects of fatigue.
A 2013 study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition looked at how peppermint oil (heavily diluted in water and ingested) impacted runners during a treadmill test. Those who supplemented with peppermint showed improved respiratory efficiency, heart rate and blood pressure, and also reported lower levels of perceived workload.
Another study showed inhaling spearmint and orange oils improved lung function and exercise performance of athletes. On the recovery end of the spectrum, aromatherapy with ginger oil shows promise for relieving pain and inflammation in the muscles and joints.
There’s more to learn about how essential oils impact athletic performance. But if you’re interested in trying them, they’re easy to use and may give you an advantage over the athlete next to you. Hey — every little bit helps.