In this article, you will learn about:
- Traditional Uses of Fennel
- 5 Health Benefits of Fennel Essential Oil
- Essential Oil Composition
- Note on Seizures & Hypertension
- Best Ways to Use Fennel
Fennel oil comes from the flowering herb, which is related to the carrot family of plants. As a digestive health promoting herb, it is in good company with other beneficial herbs like dill and coriander. The seed is most commonly used in culinary preparations, though the essential oil can come from the seed or the aerial (above ground) parts of the plant.
Various preparations and applications of fennel have strong and reliable benefits, and safety is a priority with this potent essential oil.
Native to southern Europe, fennel is found in many Mediterranean recipes, much like its closely related dill, caraway, and coriander. Fennel's primary use in whole-herb preparations has been for digestive health. Seeds would be chewed after a meal to improve digestion, and it was included in many recipes for the same reason. (1)
While the seed was the more substantive part of the plant used, the leaves, stem, and flower are highly aromatic. Like anise, fennel has a touch of black licorice scent and flavor that make it uniquely suited for aromatic preparations.
While we have little evidence of fennel being used aromatically throughout history, there's no question that the ancients enjoyed the essential oil, if only as they walked by their cultivated plants and brushed the leaves, releasing the oil. Today, we can do far more.
5 Health Benefits of Fennel Essential Oil
Traditional uses of fennel include everything from digestive wellness to anti-inflammatory, pain relief, antioxidants, breast milk production, and more. The primary use would have been with the whole herb, and many believe that the concurrent compounds help deactivate the risks of estragole. (2)
The essential oil has fewer compounds, but choosing an oil that has lower estragole, using it in appropriate concentrations, and sticking to external use can help us access the benefits of fennel without compromising safety. Here are the top five benefits of fennel I'd like to feature.
1. Improved Digestion
Historically, fennel seeds were chewed after meals to improve digestion. More recently, fennel has been used and tested as a remedy for infant colic. It's important to note that the above concerns led to unfortunate and tragic side effects for some of the infants and the study and its methods should not be repeated.
However, we do know that “Fennel seed oil has been shown to reduce intestinal spasms and increase motility of the small intestine.” (3) For adults with appropriate application, we can translate that knowledge into safe use. Including fennel in recipes and moderate internal applications, as well as including the whole seed into our diets can help maximize the digestive benefits of fennel seeds.
Indications: One drop diluted into lipids and combined into recipes; topical massage oils for stomach aches.
2. Relieved Menstrual Cramps
Fennel essential oil's antispasmodic abilities are showcased when used against menstrual cramps and dysmenorrhea. In 2001, researchers tested fennel essential oil on a rat model of menstrual issues and painful cramping. The essential oil was able to reduce both the frequency and intensity of some of the “cramp” contractions. (4)
The soothing actions of aromatherapy are well suited to this kind of application, as each step works together toward the ultimate goal of relief. The soothing aroma, calming effects of massage or breathing deeply, and medicinal actions work together to further the results.
Indications: Topical massage oil blended with balancing herbs for PMS and cramping.
3. Calmed Anxiety
A potential benefit of fennel that researchers are in the preliminary stages on is that of anxiety reduction. The researchers used internal applications studied on mice, finding significant and promising anti-anxiety results. (5) As an animal model, preliminary test, and internal use study, this isn't a 1:1 application to real life. However, we can utilize it in our inhaled and topical anxiety and calming blends to seek synergistic and added benefits. In other words: It can't hurt to try!
This is especially noteworthy in light of the menstrual cycle benefits just described. Both cramping and anxiety tend to be symptoms of PMS and difficult menstrual cycles, and fennel could help to relieve them.
Indications: Anti-anxiety inhalers, topical or inhaled PMS blends, diffusion during anxious times.
4. Inhibited Fungal Issues
Topical antifungals are a big over-the-counter market, yet not all are effective. Fennel essential oil provides a potential alternative, with excellent antifungal actions. From a 2015 study,
With better antifungal activity than the commonly used antifungal agents and less possibility of inducing drug resistance, fennel seed essential oil could be used as a potential antidermatophytic agent. (6)
Inhibiting fungal growth in the form of athlete's foot or other topical infections, or even just in the home environment, can be difficult. This puts fennel among protective and healing sources for combating fungal issues.
Indications: Diluted into topical applications and foot soaks for antifungal treatments.
5. Breast Milk Production
A 2014 study published in the Veterinary Medicine Journal evaluated what the research literature had to report about galactogogues (substances used to induce, maintain, and increase milk production) in both in humans and animals and found anise and fennel to be the most potent; primarily because of the content of estragole in their oils. (More on the potential effects of estragole below…)
In a special section about fennel, the authors of this article state, “The first report of its galactagogue properties was by a Greek botanist Pedanius Dioscorides (40–90 A.D)…It has been used as a galactogogue in humans and no adverse effects have been reported yet… F. vulgare has been used as an estrogenic agent for centuries. It has been reported to increase milk secretion, improve the reproductive cyclicity, facilitate birth, and increase libido. It contains E2-like molecules, such as anethole and estragole.” (7)
Personally, Mama Z can attest to fennel's ability to stimulate breast milk and so can the dozens of women we've coached from low to normal-to-high milk production throughout the years.
Indications: Applying a highly diluted blend of basil and fennel oil around the breasts into the armpit regions has done wonders for our friends, family and clients.
Unfortunately, there has been little research to prove this and it remains a controversial topic in the essential oil community. Many Aromatherapists believe that au naturel is always best. Meaning this: once baby enters the world and has been checked to make sure that everything is ok, the only things that are needed is skin-on-skin time with Mama, immediate nursing, and nothing else. No oils, no creams, nothing. Just Mama and baby. A connection needs to be made between the two, and a primary component is through the sense of smell; which is profound sensitive from birth.
A Parent's Magazine editorial covers this topic well, and here are some key takeaway from their article. (8)
- According to Lise Eliot, Ph.D. the sense of smell starts in the womb as baby can detect odors from the foods you eat and aromas you inhale through your amniotic fluid.
- Subsequently, breastfed babies can even “sniff out” Mom sooner than bottle-fed babies because they are held close to her body more often.
- Research actually suggests that, shortly after she arrives, baby can recognize the comforting scent that emanates from their mother's breasts, underarms, and even beauty products because of her keen sense of smell,
Because of this keen sense of smell, many Aromatherpists passionately recommend that Mama shouldn't use essential oils or scented body care products for several weeks – if not months – to give baby the time to experience the world and not overload the senses.
To this point, I feel it's important to mention that should put things into proper perspective. Moms across the nation regularly wear deodorant, perfume, use aerosols, burn scented candles and bring their baby to places that are filled with fragrances. It's impossible to avoid artificial or natural fragrances.
In fact, Marcia Levin Pelchat, Ph.D., a sensory psychologist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, in Philadelphia. suggests exposing baby to a variety of scents, and telling her what she's smelling. Pelchat recommends placing safe household items and objects underneath baby's nose – “just be sure she doesn't inhale or touch irritating spices, such as wasabi, powdered mustard, chili powder, or pepper, any of which can create a burning sensation in the back of her nose.” (8)
- Aromatic flavorings and seasonings (vanilla extract, cinnamon, paprika)
- Baby shampoo
- Clean diapers
- Leather shoes
- Ripe fruit
Essential Oil Composition
Fennel essential oil can be derived from the “aerial parts” (aboveground stems, leaves, and flowers) or the seeds of the Foeniculum vulgare plant, and the seeds are the primary part used in herbal and culinary preparations. Typically, the seed is what is used for essential oils, as well.
Familiar compounds like alpha-pinene and limonene are found in fennel, but the seeds contain varying – and usually high – amounts of another compound that we don't see as often: estragole. (9)
Potential Effects of Estragole
Estragole is a phytochemical compound found in essential oils like fennel, tarragon, and basil. Interestingly, experts claim that estragole “is a naturally occurring genotoxic carcinogen with a DNA potency similar to the one of safrole.” (10) This has led to much controversy, culminating in official statements by health officials:
“…Exposure to [estragole] resulting from consumption of herbal medicinal products (short time use in adults at recommended posology) does not pose a significant cancer risk. Nevertheless, further studies are needed to define both the nature and implications of the dose- response curve in rats at low levels of exposure to [estragole]. In the meantime exposure of [estragole] to sensitive groups such as young children, pregnant and breastfeeding women should be minimised.” (11)
Note on Seizures & Hyptertension
A 2011 case report tells the story of a women who, “Although she was under antiepileptic treatment and had well-controlled epilepsy, she developed a typical generalised tonic-clonic seizure and remained unconscious for 45 minutes following ingestion of a number of cakes containing an unknown quantity of fennel essential oil.” (12) Because of this, the researchers concluded that, “This reported case recalls the fact that fennel essential oil can induce seizures and that this oil should probably be avoided by patients with epilepsy.” (12)
There are several epidemiological reasons why this conclusion is false and is out of the scope of this article to cover each one, but I’ll leave you with this thought: just because fennel oil was a common ingredient in the cakes that this woman ate, it does not prove that fennel was the cause. This is a classic statistics blunder that many make. “Correlation does not imply causation,” because there are countless other variables that not being considered (diet, environmental triggers, medicines, other ingredients, and etc.).
This is also a tough one for me to figure out because there's virtually no research on this. Nonetheless, virtually every blog that I see on the topic state that fennel is contraindicated for epileptics and people prone to seizures.
According to Aromatherapist Lauren Bridges, a mother of an epileptic child, this issue has become convoluted by myths and jumping to conclusions prematurely.
“Long story short, a lot of the seizure lists floating around the internet are not accurate nor real pictures of the risks and threats. None of them seemingly account for species or chemotype, which makes a difference in this matter. As far as a list of oils with convulsant properties, I would check essential oils safety expert Robert Tisserand's work, but with the understanding that this list can no way give a complete risk profile because of the nature of epilepsy an other seizure disorders.”
Same message applies to hypertension. According to Tisserand “I believe that there is no case for contraindicating any essential oil in someone with high blood pressure. As well as closely examining the evidence above, I also refer to more recent research, which confirms that the four “Valnet oils” present no risk. The lack of compelling evidence is reason enough to let go of this chimera.” (13)
If these are areas of concern for you, please contact your physician before using fennel.
Best Ways to Use Fennel
Fennel remains an important digestive substance in spite of safety concerns. When used in appropriate aromatherapy doses and for the appropriate circumstance, it remains beneficial. Remember:
Pregnancy, nursing, infants and children, and seizure disorders are contraindicated
One drop diluted into a lipid should be plenty for a full culinary recipe
Safety is established for inhalation, topical use, and small, diluted amounts internally
Don't exceed or override cautions without a trained and certified aromatherapist
These precautions can be considered for the other estragole-heavy essential oils, including anise and tarragon, so that you can feel confident enjoying their health and wellness benefits. Some of the best ways to use fennel include:
- Topical antifungal treatments with anise diluted into a carrier oil for topical treatment
- Bath salts mixed with a topical dilution used periodically as a foot soak
- Topical sprays are also beneficial for applying the treatment without leaving the skin to a moist, fungi-inviting environment
- Relieve PMS cramping and anxiety with a topical massage of anise and clary sage
- Add a drop or two of fennel to full recipes for digestive assistance
Safety & Drug Interactions
Are you sure you're using essential oils safely and effectively? Are you confused by dilutions and conversions?
Let me help you by taking out the guesswork. Download my FREE dilution chart guide HERE!
When it comes to drug interactions and contraindications, there are literally textbooks devoted to the study of essential oil safety and, as a trained researcher and doctor, I think it’s important to note that there is virtually no research out there discussing how essential oils interact with drugs in long-term human clinical trials. This means that essential oil safety is still a wild frontier in the science community and no one really knows (for certain) how essential oils will interact with drugs or your body.
Nonetheless, properly diluting your essential oils is fundamental to safety and effectiveness because they are highly concentrated plant compounds. To help you along your journey, I have a created an easy-to-use dilution guide that you can download for FREE to make sure that all of your topical applications are safe and effective for the entire family.
CLICK HERE to download my free Essential Oils Dilution Chart!
As with as medicine and natural therapies, this is only a guide and be sure to discontinue use if any adverse reactions occur and consult your physician immediately.