Clary Sage: How it works
Clary sage Salvia sclarea essential oil comes from the flowers and leaves of the plant. It has a welcoming warm, somewhat sweet, slightly spicy, musky aroma. Emotionally, clary sage inspires a clearer perspective on heavy minded thoughts and can help you to find peace with loss. Although there is no therapeutic information on clary sage since it was exclusively used for the perfumery trade, there is research on the components (constituents) within the oil, Linalool and Linalyl acetate being the major components. (See additional resources 1)
It’s an interesting oil in that it has a lovely balance between a stimulant and a relaxant, offering an uplifting and supportive outlook while calming our minds.
Where there is a misconception is thinking that clary sage is an estrogen. That simply is not possible.
Clary sage essential oil does not contain estrogen or have estrogen like properties. It does have a great reputation for easing cramps, labor pains, increase menstruation and more and there is good reason for that. It’s through observation of women using clary sage that we know it works. We’ve read the experiences or had them ourselves. However, it doesn’t work as you may think it does or may have been led to believe it does.
To explain further, all biological functions depend on events that occur at a molecular level. Molecules in biological systems work the way they do because of absolute specific types of relationships between active molecules and receptor sites in all life forms, including us. Molecules are three-dimensional structures and often this perspective is lost to the untrained eye who only look at the two-dimensional representations of these structures on paper.
The structure of the molecule basically determines whether it can perform the desirable action, therefore 3D computer molecular modeling is so vital in drug discovery. If a molecule doesn’t have the right shape and size to fit where it needs to fit, then it is not going to be a candidate to meet the specific need that is being researched. With me so far? So, let’s take it a step further.
Looking at some chemical structures, we can plainly see why it’s impossible for clary sage oil, or any essential oil for that matter, to act as an estrogen in the human body. There are three main estrogens in humans known as estrone or E1, estradiol or E2 and estriol or E3. All three of these molecules belong to the general class of molecules known as ‘steroids.
Steroids are defined by molecules that have the four joined ring structures which include three six-membered rings and one five-membered ring arranged as in the structure shown below which is known as estradiol. All steroids have three hexagons and one pentagon joined together. They must have this structure to be a steroid with the specific steroid of interest being defined by the various functional groups that are attached to this basic quad-ring system. Without this basic backbone structure, the molecule cannot be a steroid, nor can it behave as a steroid would in biological systems.
Estradiol, one of the three main estrogens, AKA E2.
So why do people claim that clary sage oil has estrogen like properties? The claims we’ve seen point to sclareol. However, 99% of the time there is less than 0.5% in any clary sage found on the essential oil market. It’s a heavy molecule which makes it very difficult to get at a heavier level in the essential oil. It could be done but some proprietary distillation processes must be done. However, most companies will not go to that trouble because the sclareol is a valuable precursor to a very important molecule in the synthetic fragrance industry and not considered an important molecule to the essential oil.
Also, the molecular structure of sclareol has very little in common with the structure of any the estrogen molecules, E2 being the one that would have the most in common. Estradiol contains what is called a phenol functional group: a hydroxyl group (OH) attached to what is called a benzene ring. The phenolic structure of the molecule is important for estrogenicity which is present in the second ring. Estrogenicity stimulates the development and maintenance of female secondary sex characteristics, exert systemic effects such as the growth and maturation of long bones, and promote estrus in many females. as is the presence of a second ring.
However, sclareol doesn’t contain a phenolic structure, nor does it have a benzene ring. Sclareol is a labdane diterpene, and this class of molecule does not incorporate estrogen-like structures.
This is because both are what is called “diols”, meaning there are two alcohol groups. Sclareol is not a steroid but what would have to be termed a diterpene diol, not even remotely close to the necessary steroidal backbone.
Sclareol, a diterpene idol found in clary sage oil in trace quantities (less than 0.5%).
If we compare steroidal estrogen structures with the structure of sclareol, we can see that the sclareol does not have the quad-ring system that defines steroids. Sclareol only has 2 ring structures, which means it is in no way a good fit in any receptor site that would accept any of the estrogens.
In addition, the two alcohol groups in sclareol, which likely play a key role in how the estradiol molecule reacts once attached to its receptor, are in very different proximity to one another compared to the female hormone estradiol.
All biological functions depend on events that happen at the molecular level. Molecules in biological systems have very specific ways, based on three-dimensional structure, in which they interact to accomplish their designed tasks. We can see that, based on the structural parameters of both systems, there is no way that sclareol could ever perform the function of estrogen in the human body. Note, this is indisputable scientific fact.
The chemical evidence is plain to see. The fact is that sclareol is not a steroidal estrogen, does not mimic the function of any estrogen molecules, does not stimulate estrogen production (how can it?) and appears to have no mechanism by which it can “balance hormones” at least not by a pathway that has anything to do with estrogens.
Now, back to what we said in the beginning, we know it works. And I suspect that the combination of therapeutic actions of clary sage, most notably, as an emmenagogue, is why women find clary sage so effective. That along with anti-spasmodic, anti-depressant and sedative therapeutic properties are a sure win for easing symptoms during ‘that’ time of the month or any time. It’s why we love our clary sage. And although there are many oils that act as an emmenagogue, I find none that come near the fine balance of properties of our beloved clary cage. (see additional resources 5,6)
There are several ways you can use Clary sage. We’ll cover a few applications to take under consideration. I’ll start with one of the most rewarding ways to use Clary sage when those cramps come; and that is a Sitz or “hip” bath.
Sitz baths work remarkably well for different circumstances and most certainly, when the pressure of bloating and cramps are present. Anytime you want to ease pain or discomfort, inflammation or speed up healing, soaking in the warm water will increase blood flow to the area, easing discomfort and increasing your healing. There may be situations where a sitz bath may not heal your condition, but it can bring great relief to many associated symptoms. Run 3-4 inches of warm water in your tub and add a single or combination of oils. For a regular size tub, you could use 5-20 drops per ½ ounce (1 tablespoon) of carrier oil. Blend your essential oils with your carrier prior to adding to your water to keep essential oils from adhering to the skin and possible irritation. You may find adding this blend to bath salts may avoid a slippery tub. Choice of other oils for menstruation discomfort include Cypress Cupressus sempervirens, Basil ct. Linalool, Bergamot Citrus bergamia, Jasmine Jasminum officinale, Lavender Lavendula angustifolia and Sweet Marjoram Origanum officinalis.
You can use that same blend in an inhaler, using 15 drops per inhaler. Inhalation is the quickest route of application for emotional and mental issues, offering quick beautiful balancing energy to your mind, resting it. For those isolated pain places such as the lower back, blend 2-5% as needed with an unscented lotion or carrier of choice, keeping in mind that clary sage can be a moderate irritant. Apply as often as needed. For overall body use, keep your blend at 1% or less. Following these simple guidelines will allow you to enjoy the benefits, without risks.
Gabriel Mojay, Aromatherapy for Healing the Spirit, Clary Sage, pgs. 62-63
https://www2.chemistry.msu.edu/faculty/reusch/virttxtjml/intro3.htm The Shape of Molecules
The Aromatherapy Practitioner Manual, Sylla Hanger-Sheppard, pgs. 385 & 448
Essential Oil Safety, R. Tisserand/R. Young, 2007 2nd Ed. Estrogenic activity, pgs. 149-150
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK217812/ Molecular Structure and Function
1. Price, S. The Aromatherapy workbook. London: Thorsnons; 1993
2. Baratta MT, Dorman HJD, Dean SG, Brondi DM, Ruberto G. Chemical composition, antimicrobial and antioxidant activity of laurel, sage, reosemary, oregano and coriander essential oils. J Essent Oil Res 1998; 10: 618-27.
3. Lis-Balchin M. Aromatherapy: a guide for healthcare professionals London: Pharmaceutical Press; 2006.
4. Svoboda KP, Deans SG. A study of the variability of rosemary and sage and their volatile oils in British market: their antioxidative properties. Flavour Fragr J 1992; 7: 81-7.
5. Lee KB, Cho E, Kang YS. Changes in 5-hydroxytryptamine and cortisol plasma levels in menopausal women after inhalation of clary sage oil. Phytother Res 2014; 28(11): 1599-605.
6. Hillis WE. Polyphenols in the leaves of eucalyptus: a chemotaxonom survey-II.: the sections renantheroideae and renantherae. Phytochemistry 1967; 6: 259-74.
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