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Our health depends not just on what we eat, but on the optimal function of the digestive system to digest, absorb, and assimilate nutrients and efficiently eliminate waste products.
This optimal digestive cascade can only occur in the relaxed “rest and digest” parasympathetic state of the nervous system. When the body is in stress, it drops into the sympathetic fight-or-flight state to flee from danger and shuts down all functions that are not necessary to survival, including the digestive system.
In ideal circumstances, our digestive system is the primary channel for carrying healing nutrients and energy into the body. Unfortunately for many of us, the cumulative damage of processed foods, GMOs, chemically-treated water, environmental toxins, increased stress, and not eating in the parasympathetic state have impeded the optimal function of our digestive systems.
When our digestion is compromised, it’s challenging to assimilate nutrients through the digestive tract. This is one of the reasons that many people continually test low for nutrients like Vitamin D, Vitamin B, Zinc, or Iron, despite frequent supplementation.
But the good news is that even if the front door to healing—the digestive system—is partially blocked or closed, the body does have some back doors to access the system. These backdoors are the sense of smell, known as the olfactory system, and the skin.
Essential oils are uniquely suited to open these backdoors, bypassing a compromised digestive system to offer the healing we’ve been looking for.
Essential oils stimulate the parasympathetic “rest-and-digest” state.
Digestion actually begins with the brain. The smell of food triggers the brain to send signals to the gastrointestinal tract, triggering the parasympathetic digestive cascade. This parasympathetic response is activated by the vagus nerve, one of two extremely long cranial nerves that extend from the brain through every organ of digestion in the abdomen.
It is the vagus nerve that triggers all the parasympathetic responses, including the digestive cascade, which includes:
>> The mouth releasing saliva to help break down carbohydrates.
>> The stomach releasing stomach acid to help digest proteins more completely.
>> The pancreas releasing digestive enzymes.
>> The gallbladder releasing bile to support fat digestion and detoxification of old hormones.
>> The small intestine absorbing and assimilating nutrients. The parasympathetic state triggers peristalsis, the muscle contractions that move food and waste through the digestive tract. A lack of motility can lead to microbial imbalances, like IBS, SIBO and candida.
>> Large intestine relaxing the sphincters for optimal elimination of waste. Inducing the parasympathetic state is a great solution for constipation issues. When we are in stress (sympathetic fight-or-flight state) or just being busy, the heart rate increases, blood pressure increases, respiration quickens, and blood flow is routed toward external muscles to help with flight in the case of an emergency. The blood flows away from internal organs of digestion, which essentially shuts down the digestive process.
Essential oils trigger the parasympathetic response.
There are several ways to trigger the parasympathetic state during meals, including mindful breathing, sitting in an upright position at the table, and consciously eating in a slow, relaxed way. Unfortunately for many of us, the stresses of life—physiological, emotional, work, family, relationships, environmental—make it challenging to fully relax.
Essential plant oils are uniquely suited to help people relax before meals for many reasons. We know that the brain needs nutrients, circulation, and stimulation. The latter element, stimulation, is the hardest to provide through diet alone. This is where essential oils, with their unique abilities to reach the inner-brain through nasal pathways and stimulate the nerve endings in the skin (which connect to the parasympathetic nervous system) fill a critical void.
How to use essential oils to trigger the parasympathetic state for optimal digestion.
Your skin, your largest organ, is relatively permeable to fat-soluble substances like essential oils. The molecules of essential oils are so small that they can pass through your skin into the capillaries and quickly be absorbed into the bloodstream. One study found that the constituents of topically-applied lavender oil were measurable in the blood within 20 minutes, and stayed in the blood system for up to 90 minutes.
This transdermal channel is the reason nicotine patches, motion-sickness patches, and hormone creams work. The transdermal channel also bypasses the stomach and liver, both of which chemically alter the therapeutic effects of drugs and essential oils.
To receive this benefit for digestion, apply essential oils behind the earlobe on the mastoid bone, where it is most accessible to the surface of the skin.
Essential oils can be miraculous for healing by themselves, but when combined into blends they often emphasize the best characteristics of each single oil. For example, I combine clove oil, which is highly stimulatory and contains high levels of the compound Eugenol, known for impressive health benefits, with lime essential oil, known to have the smallest molecules, allowing it to easily permeate the skin. When combined, these two oils form a powerful remedy that quickly stimulates the nerve endings in the skin and the triggers the vagal nerve to drop us into the optimal “rest and digest” state.
By triggering the shift into parasympathetic state, all downstream digestive function improves optimizing digestion, absorption, and assimilation of nutrients necessary for the healing you’ve been looking for.
Author: Jodi Sternoff Cohen
Editor: Danielle Beutell