About Botanical Oils
The use of botanical oils can be traced back thousands of years, with roots in cultures as diverse as the ancient Sumerians, Chinese and Roman Empire. Botanical oils are prepared from whole plant, preserving its scent, main active ingredients, and the essence of the plant. Botanical oils made from various plants have been used throughout history to honor gods, prepare bodies for funerals, preserve beauty, assist with hygiene and treat a wide variety of medical conditions. Instructions for the preparation and use of plants as medicine is catalogued in the works of Dioscorides, De materia medica, back in the first century.
Modern technology has allowed the active parts of plants to be identified and studied for their role in health and their usefulness against various medical conditions.
The Properties Of Almonds
The ancient almond tree has held an honored position in many cultures. Almond trees have several mentions in the Bible. An early spring bloomer, its Hebrew name means “industrious” or “vigilant” and it was considered a sign of God’s sudden and rapid punishment in ancient Israel. The Chinese view the almond as a symbol of enduring sadness and female beauty.
Types Of Almonds
The abundant oil of the almond is pleasantly mild in scent, light in color and does not bear a strong taste. There are two main varieties of almonds, sweet (Prunus dulcis) and bitter (Prunus amara or amygdalus). The sweet almond variety is used more widely because it produces more of the valuable oils that almonds are known for and it bears less risk of toxicity.
The bitter almond variety contains amygdalin, as do the seeds of other members of the Prunus family, including cherries, apricots and plums. When amygdalin is digested, the interaction with water and the bacteria of the gut produces high amounts of prussic acid, or cyanide. The bitter almond also contains benzaldehyde, its essential oil, which is toxic. Because these constituents are toxic or even lethal in very small doses, the bitter almond should not be eaten and is not sold in the United States.
The almond is a nutritional powerhouse. Almonds are made up of approximately 21 percent protein, 50 percent fat, 22 percent carbohydrates, over half of which is fiber, and five percent water, making almond flour a popular choice for diabetics.
The almond’s fatty acids are mainly unsaturated fats, with some saturated fats and no cholesterol. Specifically, almond oil has 4 to 9 percent palmitic acid, 0.9 to 3 percent stearic acid, 50 to 86 percent oleic acid and 20 to 30 percent linoleic acid. Of those, palmitic and stearic acid are saturated fatty acids, but compromise roughly less than 12 percent of the total fatty acids.
Linoleic acid, abundant in the almond, is an omega-6 fatty acid. While omega-3 fatty acids are better known for their health benefits, the diet and health of skin and hair require a balance of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. The American diet tends to contain a large amount of omega-6s, which can convert to the inflammatory arachidonic acid, especially when the source of them is meat. Plant sources of omega-6 fatty acids convert to gamma-linoleic acid, which is anti-inflammatory, before becoming arachidonic acid. The Mediterranean diet, which is recognized as an effective means of combating heart disease, is rich in plant sources of omega-6s, including almonds.
In addition to fatty acids, almonds contain the fat-soluble nutrients vitamin E, mostly as the potent antioxidant alpha-tocopherol, and vitamin A. B vitamins present in almonds include B1 (thiamin), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B6 and folate. Almonds are a rich source of potassium. Several other minerals are found in almonds as well, including calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc and a small amount of sodium.
The properties of any single plant may differ even from another plant of the same species and genotype, depending on when the plant is deemed mature, and variations in growing locations or conditions. While all of these nutrients will be present in any almond oil, the amount of each nutrient found in a certain amount of oil may change. Plants adapt to their environment, so a plant grown with more or less sun or rainfall may adjust to those conditions, producing slightly different nutrient profiles.
Almond Oil Preparation
The almond is not technically a nut or fruit! It is a drupe, which refers to its multiple layers. The outer hull of an almond tree’s fruit is a thick, green coating. Inside the hull is the endocarp, which is hard and woody, similar to the outside of the pit found in its cousin, the peach. Inside the endocarp lies the seed, or almond. Almond oil is extracted from this ripe seed.
Expeller Pressed And Cold Pressed
Expeller pressing refers to the process of slowly breaking down almonds under mechanical pressure, such as two rotating metal plates, to release the fats from the almond. Cold pressed means that the oil was expeller pressed at a low temperature. The low temperature prevents the oil from spoiling. Almond oil produced by a cold press process is darker in color than a refined process, but is believed to be higher in the properties that make the original plant valuable, including its monounsaturated fats and antimicrobial activity.
Distillation extraction for the essential oils of sweet almonds is not usually necessary because the oils are so abundant in the seeds. Even a home process is enough to release the oil.
Distillation extraction means exposing a plant to water or steam to break down the plant material and release the essential oil. The oils are cooled and condensed for collection.
Distillation extraction is used to extract amygdalin from bitter almonds. Amygdalin is not present in the raw oil, so expeller extraction would not work. The amygdalin is made by the action of emulsin, a component of the bitter almond that is activated when water is present. If the temperature is too high when this reaction happens, the emulsin breaks down and the amygdalin can’t be released. When amygdalin is produced, the bitter almond also releases the essential oil benzaldehyde and a small amount of hydrocyanic acid, also called prussic acid. This prussic acid, or cyanide, is extremely toxic but can be removed with an additional distillation, leaving oil of bitter almond free from prussic acid, also referred to as oil of bitter almond, FFPA. This is the flavoring popular in cooking. Even without the cyanide present, the benzaldehyde and amygdalin are also toxic so the bitter oil is used in drop doses.
Bitter almond oil extract has a strong almond flavor and is used in cooking. Raw bitter almonds are not sold in the U.S. Commercial sources of almond extract may be made from amygdalin-producing fruit from the same family as the almond, including peaches or apricots. These fruits produce less amygdalin, however, so the flavor is less strong than when the amygdalin is taken from bitter almonds.
Medicinal Uses For Almond Oil
Uses In Ayurvedic And Chinese Medicine
Almond oil is taken internally and applied topically. In traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic medicine, the traditional medicine system of India, almond oil is used on dry skin conditions, including eczema and psoriasis. The almond in Ayurvedic medicine is considered the best of all nuts; capable of improving the essence of the body that supports intellect, spirituality and reproductive ability. Both Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine consider almonds to be effective for clearing conditions of the lungs, such as bronchial congestion. The oil may be taken internally or used in massage to stimulate clearing the lungs.
Almond oil is a popular base oil in cosmetic products because of its pleasant, mild properties. It absorbs well into skin and softens it, making it a top choice for soap making, lip balms and bath oils.
Almond oil is a carrier oil for medications and used widely as a carrier of other essential oils because its mild aroma does not overpower other scents. It’s a favorite among massage therapists. Almond oil is slightly oily, helping the massage therapist’s hand glide on the skin, but it does absorb well. The beneficial fats and nutrients present in almond oil can be absorbed through the skin. Use of almond oil to massage pre-term infants improved their neurological scores and boosted their weight gain compared to placebo.
Scars And Stretch Marks
Almond oil is well absorbed and rich in fat-soluble vitamins E and A. These nutrients probably contribute to the observed benefit almond oil has for reducing scarring after surgery and smoothing and rejuvenating skin. There is some evidence for the efficacy of massage with almond oil for reducing stretch marks during pregnancy.
Taken internally, almond oil is a rich source of omega-6 fatty acids and several other nutrients. Many studies have been done on the whole almond, finding benefit for cardiovascular disease, including raising HDL, the “good cholesterol,” reducing belly fat and lowering LDL, the “bad cholesterol,” by replacing high carbohydrate snacks, lowering glucose levels, preventing liver damage and improving functioning of the blood vessels.
A growing body of research supports the importance of the gut micro biome for health. One study compared the effect of freshly ground almonds to almonds that had been defatted on the gut bacteria. The study found that almonds freshly ground with the fats intact supported a better bacterial profile than the defatted nuts. Almond oil supports a healthy bowel transit time, making it useful for treatment of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Almond oil is considered beneficial for a wide variety of conditions based on traditional use, although there is not consistent research for or against the efficacy of these uses. Almond oil is considered anti-inflammatory, immune-boosting, anti-hepatotoxic and may also reduce the incidence of colon cancer.
Use Of Bitter Almond Oil
The bitter almond oil is toxic to ingest, but historically has been used for managing fevers, possibly because it can kill bacteria, viruses and fungi. It has been used as a vermifuge to kill worms in the GI tract. Bitter almond oil induces sweating, and urine output. While there are no studies on humans, the use of bitter almond oil for spasms, pain, cough and itch is recognized.
Questions About Almond Oil
What should I look for in an almond oil?
Unrefined, expeller pressed almond oil will contain the best profile of nutrients and fats. It may be darker in color and stronger in scent than a refined oil, but the overall scent and taste should still be fairly mild.
If I am allergic to almonds, can I use almond oil?
If you have a nut allergy, or if you are not sure if you have a nut allergy, almond oil should be avoided, even as a topical agent.
Is it safe to use almond oil on kids?
If your child has a nut allergy, or if you are not sure if your child has a nut allergy, almond oil should be avoided, even as a topical agent. There have been cases of kids developing allergies to almonds based on topical exposure only. Ask a doctor about testing for almond allergies.
Can I cook with almond oil?
You could cook with almond oil; the oil – or an almond extract – may be an ingredient in baking recipes. Almond oil is not stable at high temperatures, however, so it is not the best choice for use with high heat.
How long is the shelf life of almond oil?
Kept under proper storage conditions, almond oil will last about 2 years. The high vitamin E content of almond oil actually works to protect it from the oxidative stress that forms as oil begins to go rancid, extending its shelf life. Almond oil is low in moisture, with only about a 5 percent water content, so as long as humidity is sealed out, it does not break down easily. Almond oil should be kept in cool conditions, as it will break down at higher temperatures.
Won’t almond oil clog my pores?
Almond is a good emollient, which means it is good at breaking down skin and softening it. Even so, the pores of the face can be more sensitive to clogging by thick oils. If you tend to have oily skin, almond oil may be better used on other parts of the body.
Will I gain weight from the calories in almond oil?
Most studies show that weight loss is the result of more almonds in the diet. As a nutrient-dense food, it can help you feel full sooner, replacing higher carbohydrate foods that are lower in nutrients overall.
Caution And Considerations
Almond oil is made from almonds. Do not use topically or ingest if you have an allergy to almonds or to all tree nuts.
Almonds are in a group of foods that can cause an oral allergy syndrome. The other foods in this group of birch pollen foods are apples, almonds, carrots, celery, cherry, hazelnuts, kiwi, peaches, pears and plums. If you have a reaction to any of these foods, ask your doctor before making almond oil a regular part of your diet or cosmetic regimen.
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By Dr. Keri Layton, Naturopathic Medicine