As we enter November and the colder darker weather, we all too aware that we’re entering winter and its seasonal colds and flu. This is a time when we really need to take care of and boost our immunity to those pesky germs and infections. So, we thought this month would be the perfect time to explore aromatherapy-based immune system boosters, ideas and blends to help us all to stay healthier this winter.
So, what is the immune system and how does it work?
Our immune system comprises the organs and processes of the body that provide a protective barrier against infection and toxins. The immune system is our body’s evolutionary system for fighting ‘enemy invaders’; the pathogens or germs that can enter our body and make us ill. The human body is a rich source of bacteria, viruses and all sorts of microbes. Throughout evolution, the human body has developed this immune system for destroying these enemy invaders.
When our body senses a foreign substance, the immune system’s white blood cells produce antibodies. These are like little heat-seeking missiles intelligently designed to attack specific ‘invaders’ – germs, pathogens, infections. The antibodies gang up on these ‘invaders’ and eliminate them.
When a pathogen or germ enters our body for the very first time, it can take a few days for the white blood cells to create the necessary antibodies to fight off the resulting infection.
In this primary response stage, signs and symptoms of the infection start to develop and you begin to feel unwell. After the ‘enemy invaders’ have been destroyed, our body creates a blueprint of the antibodies produced and stores this blueprint in the immune system’s memory bank.
When that same germ next invades the body, the immune response – the secondary response – is much speedier in generating the same antibodies needed to fight off that infection.
OUr immune system is incredibly clever and complex. But, there are times – winter being an example – when it does need a bit of extra support.
Sometimes the immune system doesn’t work all of the time. Why is this?
The immune system does work most of the time. However there are times when it can get overwhelmed.
To have good health you need optimal performance from your immune system. But our immune system can become weakened or depleted by external factors such as poor nutrition or sustained periods of stress. A weakened immune system can impact us physically, mentally and emotionally, and ultimately lead to immunodeficiency. If we become immunodeficient, our body’s vulnerability to invading germs and pathogens increases.
So, the question we need to ask with immunodeficiency is what is causing this to happen?
And the answer almost always involves our lifestyle. This can be continual patterns of poor eating habits, eating too many processed foods, food additives in our diet, high alcohol consumption, sustained periods of stress or sleep deprivation. Our environment can also play a part in compromising our immune system. Breathing in toxins such as exhaust fumes on our daily commute is just one example of this.
For many of us, mental and emotional stress are almost permanently present in our lives. We’ve spent the last almost three years dealing with a pandemic and some truly awful and deeply wounding experiences that arose during this time. Continued high stress levels contribute to the weakening of our immune system. What happens is this; stress triggers the release of hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline into our bloodstream. Adrenaline triggers the fight-flight response, getting your body ready to fight or flee the perceived danger. Cortisol is released immediately after the fight-or-flight adrenaline and triggers the release of glucose (sugar) from our liver, giving us immediate fast energy to help us make a speedy getaway from the perceived threat or danger.
Our body’s response to stress is normally self-limiting. When the incident deemed to be a threat has passed, our hormone levels return to normal. As cortisol and adrenaline levels drop, our heart rate and blood pressure return to their standard levels, the fight-or-flight reaction subsides and the body’s systems return to their normal activities.
But, if we remain consistently exposed to stressful situations and feel threatened, that fight-or-flight reaction remains switched on and cortisol (and blood sugar) levels remain high. Overexposure to cortisol can disrupt many of our body’s processes including reducing the level of Helper T-cells and obstructing the production of natural killer cells, effectively suppressing some of our immune defences. And in the winter season especially, this can make us more susceptible to those pesky cold and flu bugs.
Colds and flu are our body’s natural way of building immunity too in that they allow the body to cleanse itself and the immune system is strengthened against future infections. But we can bring additional support to this immune-building function using aromatherapy and essential oils. In doing so we are harnessing nature’s bounty to boost our body’s innate natural systems.
With aromatherapy we can use essential oils that have proven immune system-boosting effects. Essential oils have antibacterial and antiviral properties, so can help boost immunity by working directly against invading bacteria or viruses. Some essential oils can enhance phagocyte, T- cells and B- cell production, all of which are vital for defending our body’s immunity.
Poor immune levels or mmunodeficiency can lead to us feeling low mentally and emotionally. Essential oils can help stop any mental or emotional downward spiral triggered by low immunity. This is where aromatherapy really comes into its own by helping to break the cycle of illness that’s caused by burnout, low mood and depression. Many essential oils have mood-balancing and uplifting properties. Aromatherapy massage is an especially powerful way to experience the therapeutic effects of essential oils.
What causes our body’s positive response to essential oil aromas?
Essential oils work by stimulating the olfactory system, which is connected to the limbic system in the brain. This is the part of the brain that controls functions such as breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, memory, hormone balance and stress levels.
When we inhale essential oils the aromatic molecules travel to receptors at the top of our nasal cavity. The aromatic molecules penetrate these receptors and send signals to the olfactory bulb located within the limbic system. From there, aromatic impulses are sent to the olfactory cortex in the temporal lobe and the limbic system, causing the hypothalamus and pituitary gland to release neurochemicals and hormones that balance and regulate our body’s endocrine, immune, and nervous systems.
Hormones act like chemical messengers targeting specific cells in the body and when they reach those particular cells, they’ll trigger a specific response. So, when we inhale an essential oil with stimulating or calming properties, this will trigger a response in the appropriate system or systems.
Which are the best immune-boosting essential oils?
There are so many essential oils that can help boost immunity. We’ve picked a dozen of our favourites for you to add to your winter care first-aid kit.
All of the following essential oils have antibacterial, antimicrobial and / or antiviral properties and are very effective when used in a bath, steam inhalation, inhalator or diffuser. Also, Bergamot, Clove Bud, Peppermint, Thyme White  and Tea Tree  have the added key action of boosting lymphocyte production. These are immune cells that are made in the bone marrow and are found in the blood and in lymph tissue.
- Black Pepper
- Cinnamon Leaf
- Clove Bud
- Eucalyptus Narrow Leaf
- Tea Tree
- Thyme White
Bergamot (Citrus bergamia)
Bergamot’s refreshing fruity-sweet, citrus aroma will be familiar to many as its scent is the flavouring used in Earl Grey tea. The essential oil is antiviral and antiseptic in action. It reduces inflammation, strengthens immunity and cools fevers. Bergamot also helps soothe stress and anxiety, and relieve insomnia, all issues that can contribute to weakening our immunity.
It’s a delightfully cheering and balancing oil that blends well with nearly all essential oils.
Caution: Bergamot is phototoxic so opt for a Bergamot FCF oils if you’re putting Bergamot on your skin and then going out into sunlight.
Black Pepper (Piper nigrum)
Another firm favourite here, this warm spicy, woody oil is really fortifying for the immune system and has a strong affinity with the respiratory system.
It has antibacterial, antiseptic and anticatarrhal properties and is an effective expectorant too. These actions make this oil a must-have for immune building and support.
Black Pepper blends well with Cinnamon, Lemon and Sandalwood.
Cinnamon Leaf (Cinnamomum zeylanicum)
For many Cinnamon Leaf with its spicy, warm aroma is strongly associated with apple pie and Christmas. But its uses are not just limited to those. Cinnamon’s aroma gives a wonderful cosy feeling, ideal during the colder winter months.
Cinnamon Leaf essential oil has many benefits, including being antibacterial, antiviral and a digestive stimulant. Mentally, Cinnamon Leaf essential gives you a positive boost of energy when you’re exhausted and instills warmth and comfort.
This essential oil blends beautifully with oils from the citrus family, for example, Sweet Orange and Lemon, which are also helpful for boosting the immune system.
Caution: Choose Cinnamon Leaf essential oil rather than Cinnamon Bark or Bud as the latter two are severe skin irritants.
Clove Bud (Syzgium aromaticum)
Derived from the flower buds of an evergreen tree, cloves have a long history of use, dating back thousands of years. Wars were fought in Europe to secure this extremely profitable spice!
Clove is another the classic apple pie and Christmas spice. This essential oil’s spicy, warm, woody and slightly fruity aroma brings depth to any aromatic blend. Clove essential oil’s restorative and stimulating effect on the immune system can help prevent colds and flu and ease respiratory and sinus problems. It’s also a digestive stimulant.
Mentally Clove re-energises and uplifts you and it’s warming and comforting emotionally. The classic blend of Clove and Sweet Orange essential oils diffused in your home creates an instantly cheering effect.
In a blend, Clove works well with Ginger and antiseptic oils from the citrus family such as Sweet Orange.
Eucalyptus Narrow Leaf (Eucalyptus radiata)
A personal favourite here at Subtle Aromatics, this vibrant yet soft, fresh, woody oil is a popular choice for strengthening immunity. The Eucalyptus family of oils has a deep affinity with the respiratory system.
With antimicrobial, antibacterial and antiviral properties, Eucalyptus Narrow Leaf is a perfect winter season essential oil. It’s a go-to essential oil for fighting coughs, colds and flu, as well as building your immunity to avoid these.
It blends beautifully with Lemon, Lavender and Rosemary, all of which are also stimulating for the immune system.
Geranium (Pelargonium graveolens)
Geranium is a beautiful oil with a sweet rosy herbaceous aroma with a small hint of lemon. One of the most effective essential oils for restoring balance in both body and mind, this oil is uplifting in action without being excessively stimulating.
Geranium is an excellent adaptogen; it restores and balances the body’s immune and nervous systems, helping to build up resistance to the effects of stress in our daily lives. This very feminine oil, with its affinity for the female psyche, is a gorgeous oil to add to a before-bed bath-time blend to soothe and restore in emotionally tough times.
It blends well with Bergamot, Black Pepper and Sandalwood.
Lemon (Citrus limonum)
This lovely fresh citrus scent is energising, rejuvenating and uplifting – perfect for bringing your zest back during the cold dark winter months. It helps clear foggy and muddled thinking, refreshing your mind and sharpening your focus.
It’s a great oil for fighting infection and supporting the immune system. Its anti-bacterial and antiviral properties help protect our body against bugs and infection.
Try it with Tea Tree and Peppermint essential oils for a potent, immune-supporting blend. Use with Sweet Orange in a diffuser for a cheery and antibacterial aroma.
Caution: Lemon essential oil is phototoxic so avoid exposure to direct sunlight or sunbed rays for 12 hours following application of the diluted essential oil to the skin. Lemon may cause skin irritation or sensitisation in some individuals.
Peppermint (Mentha piperita)
With its fresh, minty aroma, this is a great essential oil to stimulate and invigorate our immune system. Peppermint is one of the most effective oils for the digestive system, but it’s also effective for respiratory issues. Reach for Peppermint at the onset of a cold to relieve symptoms or to relieve fevers and headaches associated with colds and flu. is also cleansing.
It blends well with Eucalyptus and Lemon.
Caution: Avoid Peppermint if you’re taking homeopathic medicines as it could interfere with the remedies. Don’t use at more than 1% dilution (3 drops maximum in 15ml of base or carrier oil) on the skin or use more than 1ml (20-30 drops) per 24 hours (adult dose). Don’t use it immediately before going to sleep as it might keep you awake.
Ravensara (Ravensara aromatica)
With its woody, herby, camphoraceous aroma, Ravensara essential oil is highly antiviral, antiseptic and antimicrobial. It also has expectorant and immunomodulant properties. If you just want one strongly immune-boosting essential, this is the one to choose! It’s excellent at the beginning of an illness or if you’re feeling rundown. Mentally and emotionally, Ravensara helps soothe anxiety and stress.
This oil is a great alternative to Tea Tree, as it has lots of similar properties, but some may prefer Ravensara’s softer aroma.
Ravensara blends well with Black Pepper, Grapefruit (fabulous for ridding the body of toxins) and Sandalwood.
Sandalwood (Santalum album)
Sandalwood has a sweet, woody, softly balsamic aroma. It has an affinity with the respiratory system, and has antibacterial, antiseptic and antiviral properties.
It’s really useful for respiratory tract infections and as a tonic for restoring immunity.
Sandalwood blends well with Black Pepper, Lemon, and most citrus oils.
Tea Tree (Melaleuca alternifolia)
Tea Tree has a fresh, yet warm and spicy aroma. Famous for its antibacterial and antiseptic and properties, this essential oil is incredibly useful for fighting a wide range of germs. This amazing oil is a must-have for your home or travel first aid kit.
Diffuse tea tree to purify and freshen the air in your home during and after a bout of illness. An uplifting and energising oil, it will lift low mood and help ease cold and flu symptoms along with boosting immunity.
Tea tree blends well with Bergamot, Lemon and Eucalyptus Radiata.
Thyme White (Thymus vulgaris ct Thymol)
Thyme White essential oil has powerful antimicrobial and antiseptic properties. Its aroma is warm, spicy and herbaceous. As well as protecting the body from invading germs or pathogens, Thyme White helps our body optimise its own natural immune system.
Thyme White is an ideal winter essential oil, one that is commonly used to help prevent infection and to treat respiratory problems including coughs and colds. A few drops of this oil in your diffuser will purify the air in your home.
Caution: This is a powerful essential oil, and you should never exceed a maximum concentration of 1.5%, that is a maximum of 6 drops in 15 ml of a base or carrier oil. Avoid using it on damaged skin and near mucous membranes. Do not use it during pregnancy.
Ways of using essential oils
Having an aromatherapy massage is definitely the most potent and pleasurable way of using essential oils. To provide a massage for yourself or a family member at home, you’ll need to make a blend of the oils that you would like to use and massage it in daily, maybe as part of your morning shower routine. This is a very effective way of getting the oils into your body’s system as you’ll get to inhale the lovely aromatic molecules and have them soak into and nourish your skin.
Add 2 drops of each (6 drops total) of your favourite 3 oils into 15ml of a carrier oil such as Sweet Almond and mix well. Massage the blend gently into your skin, having the strokes move in the direction of your heart. You don’t need to apply firm pressure unless you really want to. We recommend keeping the strokes quite gentle because if your body is feeling depleted, overstimulating it with firmer strokes won’t really help.
An example blend
15ml Sweet Almond carrier oil
2 drops Grapefruit
2 drops Black Pepper
2 drops Sandalwood
Mix well before applying to your body. Use daily.
Steam inhalation is really effective and handy if you’re in the middle of a cold or flu, especially if you have chesty cold symptoms. Use steam inhalation to dislodge some of that mucus so you can breathe easily again. With the right essential oils, it’s also a great method for boosting immunity.
Choose three essential oils and add up to 7 drops in total of your choice to a bowl of steaming hot water, as hot as you can tolerate. Place a towel over your head, and the bowl and inhale for at least 5-10 minutes. Keep your eyes closed while doing so. Repeat this two or three times a day if you’re dealing with an infection or a bug, or once a day if your focus is on building immunity.
An example blend
Into a bowl of steaming water add:
3 drops Eucalyptus Radiata
2 drops Lemon
1 drop Ravensara
1 drop of Peppermint
Follow the guidance above to use. If you feel the symptoms are deep in your chest, or you’ve had them for over a week, replace the Eucalyptus Radiata with Eucalyptus Globulus.
A hot bath
A hot bath is a wonderful way of getting the essential oils into your system, as well as giving yourself time out from your busy life. It’s a perfect remedy for the cold winter season. As you relax in the bath and breathe, the oils will work their way into your body and get to work dealing with cold and flu symptoms and restoring your immune system.
Choose three essential oils and add up to 12 drops in total into your choice of carrier. Mix in thoroughly. Close the bathroom door and windows and run your bath. Add 6 drops of your blend to the bath only when the bath is ready and at your preferred temperature. Agitate the water well to disperse the drops of the blend. Relax in the bath for 20 minutes or so, taking some slow comfortable breaths to inhale the aroma of the oils.
An example blend for boosting immunity
15 ml carrier or bath oil
2 drops Geranium
5 drops Grapefruit
4 drops Black Pepper
You can make this a part of your daily self-care routine, your quiet time away from phones, TVs and the pressures of daily life.
A quick and portable method of using essential oils to help boost immunity or help with cold and flu symptoms is an aromatherapy inhalator. An inhalator allows you to take your essential oil blend with you on the go. So even at work or on the school run, you can still make use of your chosen remedy or blend.
An aromatherapy inhalator comes with a cotton insert. Add 3 drops in total of your preferred oils from the selection above to this cotton insert. Place the insert into the inhalator and close the lid. Take a sniff as needed throughout the day. Try and do so somewhere where you can have a few moments of quiet so you can breathe in slowly, so opening yourself more to the therapeutic effects of the blend. But even a quick sniff on the move will help.
An example blend
1 drop Peppermint
1 drop Lemon
1 drop Ravensara
This is a lovely refreshing and antiviral blend that will help to decongest a tight chest, clear a foggy brain and clarify thought processes.
This is often the easiest method to work with essential oils. It’s a helpful method for symptom relief and boosting, though probably not as potent for these as the options above. However, diffused essential oils do offer protection since they kill airborne bacteria and viruses. You can use an electric diffuser or a candle burner. Simply pop your chosen oils in and then let them diffuse into the air.
Add water to your electrical diffuser or candle burner and pop in 2 or 3 drops each of up to 3 of your selected oils. Diffuse in 20 minutes segments letting the air fill with the healing aromas with those very properties required to boost your immune system and help bring symptomatic relief from cough and congestion.
An example blend
3 drops Eucalyptus
3 drops Ravensara
3 drops Sweet Orange
Add to the water in your diffuser. The aromatic molecules will filter into your body via your sense of smell.
As mentioned earlier, stress can be a common cause of low or weakened immunity, so slowing down, taking some conscious deep breaths and inhaling the essential oil aromas can be deeply healing in and of itself. This winter we invite you to slow down, start to tune into your body and its needs and have fun getting creative with essential oil blends.
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