The Health Benefits of Bergamot Oil

This popular aromatherapy oil may have topical and oral benefits

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Bergamot citrus essential oil

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Bergamot essential oil is one commonly used in aromatherapy. Extracted from the peel of the bergamot orange (Citrus bergamia), bergamot oil has a light citrus scent with floral notes that are said to have healing properties.

Commonly used in aromatherapy to elevate mood and alleviate stress, bergamot oil is said to have properties similar to grapefruit essential oil in that it is antiseptic, antispasmodic, and analgesic (pain-relieving). Some practitioners will add bergamot oil to water for use as a health tonic.

Despite its potential benefits, bergamot oil is known to cause side effects and interactions, particularly when used in excess.

Bergamot oil is also used as a food flavoring agent and provides Earl Grey tea its distinctive citrus notes.

Health Benefits

Practitioners of aromatherapy believe that inhaling essential oils or absorbing the through the skin transmits signals to the limbic system, the region of the brain that regulates emotions and memories, Doing so can induce physiological effects, including a reduction in blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration and an increase in the "feel-good" hormone serotonin and dopamine.

Bergamot oil can also as a nasal decongestant when inhaled and an antibacterial agent when applied to the skin.

In alternative medicine, bergamot oil is believed to treat or prevent a range of unrelated health conditions, including:

The evidence supporting these claims is generally weak. With that said, there have been positive findings in smaller clinical studies. Here is what some of the current research says:

Anxiety and Stress

Bergamot essential oil may help alleviate anxiety and stress at the biochemical level, suggests a 2011 study published in Phytotherapy Research.

According to the research, mice injected with the anti-anxiety drug Valium (diazepam) had lower biomarkers for stress if exposed to the scent of bergamot oil. These changes were seen not only in the animal's behaviors but in the steep decreases in the stress hormone corticosterone (the animal version of cortisol).

The researchers attributed these effects to increases in a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which the body produces to temper nerve excitability.

There have been few qualitative studies investigating these effects in humans. Among them, a 2017 study in Phytotherapy Research aimed to assess the effect of bergamot oil in women, ages 23 to 70, prior to a doctor's visit at a mental health clinic.

After eight weekly visits, women exposed to 15 minutes of aerosolized bergamot oil per visit achieved 17% higher positivity scores on a Positive and Negative Affect Scale (PNAS) than women exposed to a placebo vapor.

High Cholesterol

A 2019 review of studies published in Integrative Food, Nutrition, and Metabolism concluded that certain compounds in bergamot oranges, called brutieridin and melitidin, exert potent cholesterol-lowering effects. When taken by mouth, these flavonoids have been shown to reduce total cholesterol and "bad" LDL cholesterol in multiple studies ranging from 30 days to 12 weeks.

Brutieridin and melitidin work similarly to statin drugs in that they activate proteins, called AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK) that regulate blood sugar and fats. While the effect is not robust enough to treat diabetes, it may help lower cholesterol in some people.

Interestingly, bergamot orange juice may be more effective as it contains higher concentrations of brutieridin and melitidin than bergamot oil.

Skin Infections

Bergamot oil has long been touted for its antibacterial and antifungal effects, with some proponents suggesting that not only treats skin infections but those affecting the mouth and digestive tract. There is little evidence to support such claims.

With that being said, a 2019 study in the Open Food Source Journal reported that bergamot oil is able to neutralize Staphylococcus aureus (a common bacteria associated with everything from pimples to life-threatening sepsis) at concentrations of 27 micrograms per milliliters (µg/mL). At this concentration, bergamot oil is likely safe and possibly effective in preventing minor skin infections.

By comparison, it would take concentrations of 500 µg/mL to neutralize Escherichia coli, a bacteria commonly associated with food poisoning. At this level, bergamot oil would unsuitable for skin application and an unlikely candidate for oral use (given that the dose needed to eradicate E. coli would likely be intolerable and hazardous).

Similar contradictions have been reported in studies involving the antifungal effects of bergamot oil.

Possible Side Effects

Bergamot essential oil should never be applied to the skin at full strength. Doing so can cause extreme skin inflammation, stinging, and photosensitivity. It should instead be diluted with a neutral carrier oil (such as sweet almond or jojoba oil) before applying it to the skin.

Bergamot contains a substance known as bergapten which is highly phototoxic. If skin exposed to bergamot oil is then exposed to UV radiation from the sun (or a tanning bed), a potentially serious skin condition called photodermatitis may occur. Symptoms include redness, pain, swelling, blistering, and rash.

Bergamot oil has the highest concentration of bergapten of any essential oil. So phototoxic is the oil that even soaking in a bath with a few drops can trigger photosensitivity.

To avoid injury, always wash the skin thoroughly after using bergamot and apply plenty of high SPF sunblock when going outdoors.

Pregnant women and children should consult their primary health care providers prior to using essential oils for any purpose.

Internal Use

Bergamot oil is generally regarded as safe (GRAS) by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) when used as a food flavoring. However, the excessive consumption of the oil can cause nausea, stomach pain, and adverse neurological effects, including muscle cramps, fasciculations (muscle twitches), and peripheral paresthesia (pins-and-needles sensations in the limbs).

If taken internally, bergamot oil should only be used occasionally and in minute amounts, ideally under the care of a qualified physician. The internal use of bergamot oil in children is not recommended.

Interactions

Bergamot oil is known to intensify the effects of photosensitizing drugs, further increasing the risk of skin inflammation, rash, and blistering. Here are just some of the possible drug-drug interactions:

  • Alpha-hydroxy acids in cosmetics
  • Antibiotics like Avelox (moxifloxacin), Cipro (ciprofloxacin), Floxin (ofloxacin), Levaquin (levofloxacin), and tetracycline
  • Antifungals like Ancoben (flucytosine), griseofulvin, and Vfend (voriconazole)
  • Antidepressants like Elavil (amitriptyline)
  • Phototherapy-enhancing drugs like Oxsoralen (methoxsalen) and Trisoralen (trioxsalen)
  • Vitamin A derivative (a.k.a. retinoids) like Soriatane (acitretin) and isotretinoin

Bergamot oil also contains significant amounts of a substance known as bergamottin that is associated with a wide range of grapefruit drug interactions.

Though the impact of these interactions is unknown, it is important to advise your doctor if you use bergamot oil and take chronic medications of any sort.

Dosage and Preparation

Bergamot essential oil is typically sold in dark amber or cobalt blue bottles with a dropper cap. The colored glass reduces oxidative damage caused by UV radiation.

If used topically, bergamot oil used should be diluted with a cold-pressed carrier oil. The proportion of essential oil to carrier oil can vary based on your skin type, but some organizations, like the International Fragrance Association (IFRA), recommend no more than 0.4% bergamot oil for leave-on skin products.

A 0.4% bergamot massage oil can be made by mixing two to three drops of bergamot essential oil with one fluid ounce (30 milliliters) of a cold-pressed carrier oil, lotion, or vegetable butter.

Bergamot oil also can be inhaled by sprinkling a few drops onto a cloth or tissue or by using an aromatherapy diffuser or vaporizer. You can also add three to four drops to bathwater for a restorative bath.

Never inhale bergamot oil directly from the bottle. Doing so can cause nasal and throat irritation.

There are no guidelines for the appropriate use of bergamot oil when taken internally. Many alternative practitioners will tell you that one drop of bergamot oil diluted in four ounces (15 milliliters) of water can safely be consumed on an occasional basis.

Even so, you should use bergamot oil with extreme caution and ideally under the supervision of a qualified physician who can monitor for side effects and interactions.

Storage Tips

Essential oils should be stored in a cool, dry room away from direct sunlight, ideally in their original light-resistant bottles. They also keep well in the refrigerator.

If an essential oil accidentally freezes, let it come gradually to room temperature. Do not try to heat it. Essential oils are flammable and have different flashes points by which they can ignite.

Even though essential oils have a long shelf life, you should discard any that have become cloudy, smell funny, or have thickened in consistency. Always keep the cap screwed on tightly to prevent oxidation or evaporation.

What to Look For

Bergamot is classified as a cosmetic and food flavoring by the FDA and is not subject to the stringent testing required of pharmaceutical drugs. To ensure quality and protect your health, you need to know what to look for when buying essential oils.

One mark of quality is a membership in the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA). By becoming a member, producers must adhere to NAHA's quality and ethical standards when making or selling essential oils.

Among some other useful tips:

  • Avoid plastic bottles. Because bergamot oil is vulnerable to damage from UV radiation, it needs to be contained in a dark amber or cobalt blue bottle with a secure screw-on cap. Plastic bottles with flip-top lids are signs of a low-quality oil.
  • Check the provenance. Ethical producers will usually include the species name (in this case Citrus bergamia) as well as the country of origin on the product label.
  • Always read the label. There should never be any added ingredients in essential oils. Look for the words "100% pure" and "cold-pressed." The best manufacturers will detail their extraction methods.
  • Test the oil. Sadly, some manufacturers will cut their products with cheap vegetable oils. If in doubt, place a drop of essential oil on a piece of paper towel. If a large oil circle appears around the central drop, the oil is most likely adulterated.

Don't be misled by terms like "therapeutic grade" or "clinical grade." There is actually no standard by which essential oils are graded.

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Article Sources

  1. Sanguinetti M, Posteraro B, Romano L, et al. In vitro activity of Citrus bergamia (bergamot) oil against clinical isolates of dermatophytes. J Antimicrob Chemother. 2007 Feb;59(2):305-8. doi:10.1093/jac/dkl473

  2. Dugo G, Bonaccorsi I. (2013) Citrus bergamia: Bergamot and its Derivatives (1st Ed). Boca Raton, Florida: CRC Press.

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