Essential oils have been used in multiple ways, i.e., inhaling, topically applying on the skin, and drinking. Thus, there are three major routes of intake or application involved: the olfactory system, the skin, and the gastro-intestinal system. Understanding these routes is important for clarifying the mechanisms of action of essential oils. Here we summarize the three systems involved, and the effects of essential oils and their constituents at the cellular and systems level. Many factors affect the rate of uptake of each chemical constituent included in essential oils. It is important to determine how much of each constituent is included in an essential oil and to use single chemical compounds to precisely test their effects. Studies have shown synergistic influences of the constituents, which affect the mechanisms of action of the essential oil constituents. For the skin and digestive system, the chemical components of essential oils can directly activate gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors and transient receptor potential channels (TRP) channels, whereas in the olfactory system, chemical components activate olfactory receptors. Here, GABA receptors and TRP channels could play a role, mostly when the signals are transferred to the olfactory bulb and the brain.
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