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Essential oils for treating inflammation: An aromatherapist’s perspective

Written by Ellen Rowland

The complex world of inflammation

What is inflammation, and should I worry about it?

Inflammation has received a significant amount of negative press in recent years, with numerous scientific studies citing it as the biggest health threat facing humans (1) and as the “most significant cause of death in the world today” (2). But science also teaches us that inflammation is the body’s normal immune response to trauma(3,4)infection or injury, and a helpful ally in the fight against infection and disease. So which is it, friend or foe?

Acute or chronic?

The answer may not be so straightforward as we first hoped, but thankfully research that can clarify the muddied waters of inflammation and health does exist. Key to determining whether inflammation may be harmful or helpful to us is understanding the difference between acute and chronic inflammation. Acute inflammation is a natural bodily immune response to invading pathogens, injury or disease. There are a number of visual clues (known as the five ‘cardinal signs’ in ancient times (5)) which can help us detect whether the inflammatory process is happening in our bodies. These signs, which were coined by the ancient Romans and Greeks, are redness, swelling, heat, pain and loss of function (6). Most of us will be familiar with these signs – on cutting a knee, twisting an ankle or even breaking a bone, within minutes, our body – when functioning correctly – triggers them by sending blood to the injured site along with numerous cells such as macrophages which repair and protect the damaged tissue (7), and others which fight off disease, like neutrophils (8).

When inflammation gets out of hand

But what happens when inflammation becomes chronic? Recent research has shown that there are a number of environmental, social and lifestyle factors that can actually increase the likelihood of developing systemic chronic inflammation (SCI) (9). Whilst inflammation in and of itself does not necessarily pose a problem, when ongoing, it can lead to a number of diseases that “collectively represent the leading causes of disability and mortality worldwide” (10).These diseases include type 2 diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, different types of cancer, neurodegenerative and autoimmune diseases, osteoporosis and even mental health conditions like depression (11).

The wider factors at play

Chronic inflammation has a number of possible causes, including immune disorders, ongoing infection, auto-inflammatory disorders caused by cell defects and exposure to irritants, to name a few (12). However, our modern, urban environments, sedentary lifestyles, nutrient-poor diets and increasing lack of physical activity can all play a role in contributing to chronic inflammation (13) and sending the body’s immune response into overdrive, which in turn may create a “chicken-and-egg” (13) cycle of inflammation-disease-inflammation.

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