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What's Really in Your Essential Oils? A Peppermint Essential Oil Case Study

Posted by Sarah Wehri on

Essential oils are practically synonymous with health in American culture.  People say 'essential oil' like they're saying 'broccoli' or 'carrot'...implying both healing properties and an innocuous presence simultaneously. But, have you ever stopped to wonder what is in your essential oils?  The answer might surprise you. 

For our case study, we're going to take a look at one of the most popular essential oils: peppermint.

First bear with me and check out the chemical details.  These are the active constituents per the current PubChem entry and their IUPAC names: 

The chemicals in peppermint essential oil (National Center for Biotechnology Information. PubChem Compound Database; CID=6850741, https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/6850741 (accessed Oct. 10, 2016).)
  •  3,7-dimethyl-1-oxaspiro[3.5]nonane
  • 3,6-dimethyl-4,5,6,7-tetrahydro-1-benzofuran
  • 5-methyl-2-propan-2-ylcyclohexan-1-ol
  • 5-methyl-2-propan-2-ylcyclohexan-1-one
  • (5-methyl-2-propan-2-ylcyclohexyl) acetate
  • 5-methyl-2-propan-2-ylidenecyclohexan-1-one

(National Center for Biotechnology Information. PubChem Compound Database; CID=6850741, https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/6850741 (accessed Oct. 10, 2016).)

So, you're wondering why I'm showing you this very boring science stuff?  

A couple of reasons, the first being, as I've noted in blogs before, all ingredients are chemicals. This is a point that is often forgotten by people who are not chemists, so it bears repeating. Just because the label says peppermint essential oil it doesn't mean it isn't a chemical. In fact, your product contains the whole suite of chemicals shown above. This is true for other essential oils as well.

The second reason, is to give you a visual of why essential oils have the effects they have. Many have been used medicinally for centuries.  It is not magic, there are active ingredients in them! What is an active ingredient? It is any chemical that causes a physiological change. They perform an action on the organism. The term 'active ingredient' is most often seen on medicine packaging, where it is required by law.  Nature has active ingredients too though they won't be listed on packages (usually). 

So what does it mean that essential oils have active ingredients? It means they are affecting change in your body when you use them. Historically, peppermint has been used to calm digestion, invigorate the senses and as a respiratory aid to clear congestion and calm coughs.  If you take peppermint essential oil at a level that it can affect health, it is a medicine and needs to be respected a such!  

But, how does it work? 

Researchers have found that peppermint relaxes intestinal cells by reducing the uptake of calcium and it does so in a concentration dependent manner, very similarly to the dihydropyridine family of hypertension drugs. (Hills & Aaronson, Gastroenterology, 100 (1), 1991, pp 55-65) If you aren't familiar with muscles, the big picture introduction is that they work by a highly regulated pathway involving calcium causing contraction and magnesium causing relaxation. By preventing the uptake of calcium, the cell is unable to contract and you start to feel better.  This relaxing effect is observed in other types of cells as well, including those of the respiratory system making it a popular cure-all during cold season. 

And what happens if you take too much? 

Ok, it sounds awesome so far, but biological systems can be confounding.  It is important to remember that more is not always better just like the glass of wine you drink with dinner that has positive health benefits, but if you drink the whole bottle it is going to do some liver and brain damage. 

The good news is peppermint has a low toxicity. The LD50 for rats is 2426 mg/kg consumed orally (Lewis, R.J. Sax's Dangerous Properties of Industrial Materials. 9th ed. Volumes 1-3. New York, NY: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1996., p. 2600)  LD50 is the dose required to kill half of the rats, the LD stands for 'lethal dose'.  

It is not safe just because it doesn't kill you, however. Peppermint is a documented sensitizer able to induce moderate to severe rash after repeated exposure. It also contains hepatotoxic components and can have neurological impact. (Nair,  2001;20 Suppl 3:61-73)
A very interesting case study was reported in 2012 of a man arriving at a hospital in a coma, with poor liver and kidney function, skin lesions, and disorientation upon waking.  The cause was later traced to repeated consumption of large amounts of menthol drops. After discontinuing the drops for several months the patients symptoms were alleviated and full function was recovered.  (Baibars et al., Case Reports in Medicine Volume 2012 (2012), Article ID 187039, 3 pages)
So is it good or bad?
Neither. It depends entirely on how you use it!  Peppermint is innocuous used at low levels in aromatherapy or in cosmetic or food preparations where it is present for aesthetic purposes. Most people are able to metabolize it easily so there is not an adequate amount present to cause issues. Peppermint and many other essential oils have documented medicinal uses and if you consume it in large amounts or in a very potent form, particularly if it is repeated, it can become a poison.  
The purpose of this blog is to highlight the good and the bad regarding essential oils and to get people to start thinking critically about the materials that surround them in everyday life. They are a chemical that can change the way your body works, for the better and for the worse depending on how and how much it is used. They are incredibly potent and have large concentrations of active ingredients in them, so proceed with care. They can be poisons and should not be consumed without the guidance of a skill professional as not everyone reacts the same way to the chemicals and some  of them are more poisonous than others.  For more information about misuse of essential oils see this article: http://www.poison.org/articles/2014-jun/essential-oil

    

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