Essential oils: The most powerful antioxidants

written by Anthony Zappia | WELLBEING COMMUNITY BLOGGER


ORAC values for various foods, showing their antioxidant capacity. Data from the Essential Oils Desk Reference, 4th edition

A month ago I wrote about the issue of inflammation. Research has shown a link between inflammation and free radicals in the body. Whether it is the free radicals that cause the inflammation or vice-versa is still a matter of debate among medical researchers. In the words of James Joseph of Tufts University in Boston, in the United States, however, “Inflammation is the evil twin of oxidation (an effect of excessive amounts of free radicals). Where you find one you will find the other.”

So what’s a free radical?
The atoms that make up our body seek to maintain a balance. This involves each atom having the same number of electrons with a negative charge spinning around a nucleus, and with each electron being paired up. This keeps the atom stable until some outside influence (eg radiation) causes a split to occur, at which point it will be missing an electron. This is called a “free radical”. This now unstable atom will try to regain its balance by seeking out other electrons, thereby throwing neighbouring atoms out of balance. If left unchecked, this can cause a whole chain reaction with growing numbers of free radicals. This creates cellular damage.

Free radicals start a process known as oxidation, where fatty acids stored in cell membranes and body fat become rancid. This can lead to a hardening of the arteries, or atherosclerosis. Free radicals can damage the DNA in cells so that these cells don’t replicate properly and even mutate. Cell mutation is one of the early stages of cancer. Excessive amounts of free radicals also leads to premature aging, diabetic complications and, as mentioned earlier, there is a link to inflammation, a source of many illnesses.

Antioxidants vs free radicals
It should be noted that free radicals can and do serve useful purposes. The body does require a certain number of free radicals to fight off invading bacteria and rid the body of allergens. In these instances, free radicals act as messengers to activate the body’s defences. It’s when free radicals become excessive that problems can emerge.

This is where antioxidants come in. Antioxidants remain stable even after losing electrons to free radicals, so they’re able to end the chain reaction started when there is an excess of free radicals. So, clearly, we need antioxidants in our diet if we are to counteract the free radicals.

The antioxidant capacity of a substance
In 1994, researchers at Tufts University developed a test to measure the antioxidant capacity of common foods. Known as ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity), it measures the degree of inhibition to hydrogen peroxide, one of four very commonly found free radicals. Since then, tests have been developed for the other three types: hydroxyl, peroxynitrite and superoxide free radicals. The last one is regarded as the “big mamma” of free radicals.

The most powerful antioxidants
The table you see at the beginning of this article is the result of ORAC tests carried out by Brunswick Laboratories in Massachusetts, US. However, when you put it next to the following table, you very quickly see which substances are the most powerful antioxidants. There are about 40 essential oils that have an ORAC value higher than Ningxia Wolfberries, the food source with the highest ORAC score. And at the very top in antioxidant capacity is clove oil.

Till next time!



ORAC values for essential oils. Data from the Essential Oils Desk Reference, 4th edition

Disclaimer: Please remember that anything discussed here does not constitute medical advice and cannot substitute for appropriate medical care. Where essential oils are mentioned, it’s recommended you use only pure, unadulterated therapeutic grade essential oils and follow the safety directions of the manufacturer.

Further Reading:

Leon Chaitow, N.D., D.O., M.R.O., “Antioxidants and Aging,” Health World Online. December 2006, 2000.

Anne Underwood, “Quieting A Body’s Defenses,” Newsweek. Summer 2005. 26.


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Anthony Zappia writes a regular blog about health and social issues, areas that he's passionate about. Twelve years ago he became especially interested in essential oils and their ability to enhance health and wellbeing. Anthony continues to follow the latest research and is himself a user of essential oils.