Diet & Lifestyle

Essential Oils for Immune Health

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Essential Oils for Immune Health

When you hear the words “essential oils,” what comes to mind? If it’s not immune health, you may be missing out on an effective weapon in your wellness arsenal. Essential oils—chemically-active aromatic compounds extracted from plants—have been used for centuries to scent, disinfect, and heal.

Today, essential oils can be found in everything from aromatherapeutic bath products and massage oils to scented candles and household cleaners. But, while these products can pamper, clean, and calm, there’s a growing amount of research that suggests that these highly concentrated oils also have pharmacological properties. These can fortify immunity and help ease the symptoms of seasonal illnesses. This isn’t surprising since the powerful compounds in essential oils originally serve as protection for the plants they come from. And these compounds can have similar effects on you.

woman standing outside with an umbrella over her head

Essential oils can provide an umbrella of antiviral and antibacterial protection against seasonal illnesses.

Essential oils for immune support

Many essential oils work directly to either fortify the immune response or eradicate the bacteria and viruses that can make us sick. They accomplish these tasks thanks to their specific immune-strengthening properties:

However, there are plenty of ways essential oils can indirectly help keep us well, too. For instance, some essentials oils like lavender can improve your sleep—a critical factor in a strong immune system. Others, like jasmine, can help alleviate stress and anxiety. This is critical since studies show that ongoing stress can undermine immunity and leave us vulnerable to both everyday illnesses and chronic diseases. (1)

Top 4 best essential oils for immunity

While the following essential oils can fortify your immune system all year long, they are particularly effective for cold and flu season.

1. Eucalyptus

With its distinctive scent, eucalyptus has long been used in over-the-counter cold and flu remedies to loosen phlegm and relieve congestion. The secret to its effectiveness is a compound called 1,8-cineole, which has powerful anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antibacterial properties. (2)

In one study that appeared in the journal Clinical Microbiology & Infection, eucalyptus essential oil had wide-ranging antibacterial effects on a variety of infectious bacteria in the upper respiratory tract, including strains that cause strep. (3) Other research reports that simply inhaling eucalyptus oil also fights the bacteria that causes tuberculosis and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). (4)

Battling bacteria and easing congestion are just two of the benefits you can get from sniffing this pungent essential oil. Findings published in the journal BMC Immunology suggest that eucalyptus oil might also stimulate the innate immune system by enhancing our phagocytic response to pathogens. (5) The phagocytic response happens when key cells in the immune system ingest harmful bacteria, viruses, and other foreign particles.

Eucalyptus essential oil is safe when inhaled. But a word of warning! According to the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy, eucalyptus oil should never be taken orally unless it is properly diluted and used under the guidance of a qualified health care provider as it can be poisonous. (6)

eucalyptus essential oil in a bottle next to eucalyptus plant leaves

Sniffing some eucalyptus essential oil can help lessen nasal congestion to help you breathe easier.

Did you know?
Because of eucalyptus essential oil’s antibacterial properties, it was used during the late 19th century to clean urinary catheters in British hospitals. (7)

2. Frankincense

Since biblical times, frankincense has been a prized essential oil. Derived from the resin of the Boswellia tree, frankincense is best known for its highly effective inflammation-fighting capabilities. Four boswellic acids in the resin are responsible for the essential oil’s anti-inflammatory properties and work along multiple inflammatory pathways. Acetyl-11-keto-β-boswellic acid (AKBA) is thought to be the most powerful of the boswellic acids. (8)

Scientific experiments have found a direct link between the oil’s ability to lower inflammation and an enhanced immune system. (9)(10) Used topically, research notes that frankincense essential oil reduces inflammation, kickstarts the immune response, and fosters tissue remodeling for faster healing. (11)

But inflammation isn’t the only way frankincense targets immunity. A study comparing frankincense to the antibiotic Ciprofloxacin found that the essential oil was as effective as the drug against many harmful microbes. (12) Frankincense also quells free radical damage thanks to its antioxidant potential. This helps protect against the daily immune-damaging assault from environmental pollutants, poor diet, and exposure to industrial toxins. (13)

3. Oregano

Widely used in Italian and Mexican cuisine, oregano is a powerful antibacterial, thanks to high levels of the active compounds: carvacrol and thymol. Studies suggest that these two compounds kill bacterial cells by making the cell membranes more permeable.

Oregano essential oil in bottle

Maximize the anti-inflammatory and immune-stimulating activity essential oils provide by choosing high-quality oils rich in beneficial terpenes.

This compromises harmful bacteria, causing the cells to leak essential molecules they need to survive. When pitted against a variety of common infectious microbes, researchers discovered that oregano oil kills Salmonella, E. coli, and several types of Staphylococcus bug. (14) A 2017 study also found that oregano essential oil boasts strong antioxidant properties, adding to its immune-stimulating capabilities. (15)

Bacteria isn’t the only type of pathogen that succumbs to oregano. Lab research has discovered that oregano essential oil inhibits a variety of viruses including antibiotic-resistant herpes simplex, rotavirus, and some respiratory viruses. (16)

Did you know?
Oregano can combat norovirus, a highly-contagious foodborne infection responsible for the “stomach flu,” as well as countless cases of food poisoning. The secret to this popular pizza herb’s ability to kill the norovirus is carvacrol, a terpene that breaks down the tough exterior wall of the virus. (17)

4. Thyme

Like oregano, thyme essential oil is rich in thymol—a terpene that is an especially active anti-spasmodic that can help reduce coughs. (18) One study showed that when used in conjunction with primrose, thyme was effective in lessening the cough associated with upper respiratory tract infections. (19) Another study found that a combination of thyme and ivy reduced coughing fits by 68.7 percent in people with acute bronchitis, compared to just 47.6 percent among those taking a placebo. (20)

Beyond symptomatic relief, thyme essential oil produces a high level of antimicrobial and non-specific immune activity. (21) In one experimental study evaluating 120 strains of bacteria common in humans, thyme essential oil was effective against a range of infectious bacteria, including staphylococcus strains and treatment-resistant strains like MRSA. Thyme oil was also effective against the bacterial strains Enterococcus and Escherichia. (22)

How to use essential oils for immune health

Ready to add essential oils to your immune-fortifying toolbox? These tips can help you safely and effectively incorporate essential oils into your wellness plan:

  • Definitely dilute. Because essential oils are highly concentrated, you should always dilute them with a carrier oil like fractionated coconut oil or avocado oil.
  • Buy organic. Organic oils are often superior to non-organic oils since they are free from pesticide residue.
  • Pay attention to ingredients. The price of an essential oil typically reflects its quality and purity.
  • Choose well-researched oils. Always opt for essential oils with extensive research and one that is suited to your needs.
  • Don’t take essential oils orally without the guidance of a qualified healthcare practitioner. Since some are poisonous or can have contraindications, it’s wise to seek a practitioner’s advice for the safest, most effective use of essential oils for immune support.

The bottom line

There are a wide variety of ways that essential oils can help boost the immune system, whether directly or indirectly. Adding one or more of these targeted essential oils to your health routine can fortify your immune system and help you sidestep the common ailments so prevalent this time of year.

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  2. Dhakad AK, Pandey VV, Beg S, et al. Biological, medicinal, and toxicological significance of Eucalyptus leaf essential oil: a review. J Sci Food Agric. 2018;98(3):833-48.
  3. Salari MH, Shirazi AG, Hafezi R, et al. Antibacterial effect of Eucalyptus globulus leaf extract on pathogenic bacteria isolated from specimens of patients with respiratory tract disorders. Clin Microbiol Infect. 2006;12(2):194-6.
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  6. Essential oils: Poisonous when misused. National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy. Available at:
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  10. Mikhaeil BR, Maatooq GT, Badria FA, et al. Chemistry and immunomodulatory activity of frankincense oil. Z Naturforsch C. 2003;58(3-4):230-8.
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  20. Kemmerich B, Eberhardt R, Stammer H. Efficacy and tolerability of a fluid extract combination of thyme herb and ivy leaves and matched placebo in adults suffering from acute bronchitis with productive cough. A prospective, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial. Arzneimittelforschung. 2006;56(9):652-60.
  21. Azad IS, Al-Yaqout A, Al-Roumi M. Antibacterial and immunity enhancement properties of anaesthetic doses of thyme (Thymus vulgaris) oil and three other anaethetics in Sparidentax hasta and Acanthopagrus latus. J King Saud Univ Sci. 2014;26(2):101-6.
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