Essential Oils Shown to Enhance Athletic Performance

Essential oils have been around for years, and several studies have shown them helpful in the treatment of various illnesses and improved health. According to the United States Handbook of Essential Oils, essential oils are a vital part of alternative and complementary medicine. The positive findings of essential oils are now trending into sports performance research for athletes. Essential oils are shown to improve anxiety, depression, and stimulate enhanced neurological function. Other studies have shown athletes using peppermint oil before an event had a significant improvement in lung function. These findings have stimulated additional research on citrus and spearmint essential oils for their effects on athletic performance in athletes.  

The Scoop on Essential Oils

Essential oils

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The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) defines essential oils as a product developed through a distilled mechanical process using water or steam and natural plant materials. During this distilling method, natural enzyme-rich oils are separated from the water phase. Popular ​essential oils include tea tree, peppermint, lavender, and eucalyptus. Each essential oil will vary in therapeutic and medicinal use. For example, lavender is known to help with anxiety and relaxation whereas peppermint is shown to be a natural energy booster.  

How Essential Oils Work

Mixed race woman holding bottle of essential oil

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Essential oils have been used medicinally for decades and shown to cleanse toxins from the body. They are also indicated to improve the ability of the body to absorb essential nutrients and vitamins. Essential oils can enter the body through skin application, ingestion, or inhalation (aromatherapy).

When applied to the skin, essential oils are absorbed and the active ingredients are used by the body for specific therapeutic treatment. For example, applying a blend of essential oil containing ginger is said to reduce arthritis pain and increase flexibility.

Ingesting or consuming essential oils is not recommended and advisable only under the care of a trained clinician or physician. Ingestion of essential oils may cause adverse health effects, including toxicity to the liver and kidneys, gastric upset, and contraindications when taking other medications.

The most popular way essential oils enter the body is by inhaling their aroma through the nose or mouth. This is also known as aromatherapy. Inhaling essential oils are said to positively affect the olfactory and limbic systems of the body. The olfactory system relates to all organs contributing to our sense of smell. The limbic system, also known as our emotional brain directly affects our heart rate, blood pressure, stress levels, hormones, breathing, and memory. The active ingredients in some essential oils when inhaled are said to travel to the lungs and improve our respiratory system.

According to other studies, inhaling essential oils has favorable physiological effects on the human body in general. Other research has indicated the inhaled form of citrus essential oil promotes relaxation and spearmint oil acts as a bronchodilator. These findings have stimulated further research on how citrus and spearmint essential oils can benefit athletic performance. 

The Research

Woman smelling essential oil at yoga retreat
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There is increased interest for athletes to use essential oils to improve athletic performance. A recent experimental study included 20 male physical education students split into two groups. The study design modeled a before and after use of essential oils for each group. The oils were administered to the participants through inhalation commonly known as aromatherapy. Accurate records were kept throughout the duration of the research. 

Essential oils selected for the experiment were Citrus sinensis L. (orange) and Mentha spicata L. (spearmint). Essential orange oil is commonly known as an antimicrobial and assists digestion and upset stomach. Essential spearmint oil has a long list of health benefits, including antispasmodic, decongestant, and diuretic. 

Each 10 member group was nebulized (inhaled) with a determined amount of either essential orange or spearmint oil mixed with a saline solution for five minutes before running a 1500-meter testing cycle. The 1500-meter run was selected as the best distance to examine the aerobic and anaerobic systems of the body after essential oil inhalation. According to researchers, the distance was also required to “ensure the duration of effect of the oils.”

Lung function tests were conducted on each participant pre and post essential oil inhalation using a spirometer. A spirometer is a device measuring the air capacity of the lungs and shown to be 84 to 92 percent effective in diagnosing obstructive lung disease. 

Results for participants nebulized with either oil showed enhanced lung function. Those individuals inhaling essential spearmint oil improved their spirometer test by 10 percent. The men using essential orange oil realized an even greater increase in lung status improving by 30 percent. Both study groups showed significant improvement in athletic performance with decreased running times. 

Although research findings showed improved athletic performance and lung function, the study may have a few limitations. One limitation was the research being absent from a control group. A control group within a study doesn’t receive any treatment and helps set the base values for more accurate testing. Other drawbacks included non-randomized study design, small sample size, and minimal research funding. However, the researchers in spite of these circumstances, applied great care to ensure the best study protocol to minimize bias and maximize ecological validity. 

Given this is the first study conducted on Citrus sinensis L. (orange) and Mentha spicata L. (spearmint) essential oils on athletic performance and lung function, more studies are recommended. The findings of this study support the effectiveness of both orange and spearmint essential oils to enhance athletic performance and lung function. 

Other Studies

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According to a study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, improved athletic performance and lung function were shown in males who orally supplemented with peppermint essential oil. Additional positive findings included reduced resting heart rate and systolic blood pressure. 

Other research examined how essential peppermint oil would affect the athletic performance of 30 healthy young men. Findings supported prior studies and included improved lung function, increased brain stimulation, lowered heart rate, decreased systolic blood pressure, and enhanced muscular strength. 

Another study conducted by Asghar S., and on 20 male athletes showed essential peppermint oil enhanced athletic performance. The research participants inhaled peppermint oil prior to their event and improved VO2 max (maximum volume of oxygen an athlete can use) plus reaction time.

Further research by McKenzie and Hedge examined the effects of essential peppermint oil under different running conditions. Eighteen young, healthy female athletes divided into two groups ran 3.25 miles with half the women wearing a peppermint-scented mask and the others unscented. Those participants inhaling peppermint oil during the run experienced a significantly lower heart rate.

French cyclists were part of a study by Dedeçay’s. The participants were given a combination of rosemary and peppermint essential oils prior to their event. The cyclists showed improved muscle relaxation, decreased muscle fatigue, and overall enhanced athletic performance. 

Should I Use Essential Oils?

Close up of mixed race woman smelling aromatherapy oil

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Essential oils and especially aromatherapy are said to be the most popular components of alternative medicine. Chronic research indicates essential oils may be effective in treating various illnesses and now shown to improve athletic performance. Most essential oils are considered a safe and natural way to improve our health and fitness. Before deciding if essential oils are right for you, it is advised to discuss this and any other alternative treatments with your physician. 

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