Updated: Feb 7, 2018
Essential oils are meant to be used for therapeutic purposes and where they come from plays an integral role in determining their effectiveness.
If you are a wine drinker, then you may be familiar with term “terrior” (pronounced “tare WAHr”). Terrior refers to how a particular region’s climate, soil, and terrain affect the quality of a grape and the resulting taste of a wine. Wine makers pay particular attention to the terrior when determining what vines are planted, which grapes are grown, and what the expected flavor profile of the final product will be.
There are 4 distinct traits of terrior and each play their role in determining the correct grape for the right region:
We may not be overtly aware of how terrior affects our wine preference. However, we do know that we will prefer a Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley over one from Houston. It’s the terrior that provides the key chemical and biological quantities and qualities that allow some plants to flourish and others to merely exist.
We see the same selection characteristics in other familiar products as well. Chocolate tastes different and has different health benefits based on where it originates and how it’s processed. Some people prefer Colombian coffee, others prefer Guatemalan, while some choose Mexican instead.
The same factors that influence the complexity and quality of our favorite wines, chocolates, and coffees are also at play when it comes to essential oils. Lavender can grow in many places around the world. In fact, I know a number of people who grow it in their backyards. But that doesn’t mean that the quality of the lavender is the same. When I say quality, what I’m referring to is the chemical makeup of the oils that come from the plant. The specific chemical composition of an essential oil is referred to as its chemotype. A recent study by the University of Alabama tested 4 different Thyme essential oil samples and found that each sample had a completely different chemotype.
Why is this important?
When we use essential oils and are expecting a therapeutic benefit, the chemotype of the oil determines whether the correct chemicals and levels are present in the oil to produce the desired effect. For lavender, it’s important to find linalool, a major chemical constituent in lavender and other oils, in a sufficient and balanced state in order for it to have a positive impact on our central nervous system.
Every essential oil is comprised of a multitude of oil constituents. The levels, or ratios, of these constituents determines the quality of the therapeutic benefit and can change based on many factors such as:
These factors, and many others, determine the quality of the plant and the resulting essential oil. Studies have shown that plants that grow in their native conditions tend to produce essential oils with higher therapeutic values.
In the case of wine, many wine makers have found that harsh conditions can oftentimes result in a higher quality wine because the plant has to expend more energy to produce a higher quality fruit to offset a lower yield. The same thing has been observed with plants used for essential oils such as Hawaiian Sandalwood and Frankincense.
Also like wine, harvesting practices play a critical role in the quality of the essential oil. The level of key active constituents can vary greatly depending on the time of year the plant is harvested. Waiting three to four weeks to harvest can completely change the therapeutic quality of the oil.
We use essential oils for specific purposes to address specific therapeutic concerns. In doing so, we also need to understand where the oil comes from, how it’s harvested, how it’s distilled, and whether it meets the potency level needed to achieve the desired results. Yes, the lavender in my friend’s backyard smells amazing. But it won’t produce an essential oil that meets the therapeutic levels that can be found in the lavender plants grown in France and Bulgaria.
You can find out more about essential oil quality, purity, and therapeutic benefits by contacting me at firstname.lastname@example.org.