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Medical Researchers Looking At Sandalwood


Sandalwood is one of the oldest aromatic materials, being acknowledged in ancient biblical and in Indian text as well as used in religious ceremonies throughout the ages. Botanically known as a small evergreen in the genus Santalum and family Santalaceae, this modest-sized tree (up to 10 meters) provides a great deal of commerce for India and to some extent Australia and is now being examined by the medical industry for its medicinal properties. There are several species of Santalum, but only a few are used commercially, most notably Santalum album (India) and Santalum spicatum (Australia). Other tress from such places as Polynesia and Fuji are in small numbers and in great decline. Oddly, other plants such as the Bead Tree or Candlewood are known as sandalwood but are not botanically parallel. Sometimes, non-related plants such as Red Sandalwood are used as fillers for the more expensive, genuine sandalwood.

True sandalwood contains aromatic heartwood (middle) and roots which when harvested are used for furniture items as well as distilled for its highly prized essential oil. Plantations have been set aside in both India and Australia to meet growing demand for Santalum essential oil. Sandalwood harvesting and manufacturing of incense sticks, furniture and essential oil provides great employment for many in India, especially in southern India. The value of sandalwood in India cannot be overstated. Besides its ceremonial significance, sandalwood is used extensively in Indian Ayurvedic medicine. The harvest and processing of sandalwood is strictly regulated and private ownership of the trees is not permitted. Since 1792 trees have been considered of Indian royalty and thus well guarded and protected. These valued trees take decades to develop their rich aromatic wood and are not considered commercially viable until at least forty years of age, but trees have been harvested at thirty to meet rising requests for its processed products.

Much of the valuable wood is found in the roots of sandalwood and thus harvested by uprooting the entire tree versus cutting it at the trunk. In the last few years alone, the price of sandalwood has skyrocketed, mainly due to rising demand and limited supply. Increased demand has mainly come from the perfume and aromatherapy industry. Sandalwood essential oil and paste is used in Indian and Chinese medicine and of course aromatherapy botanical medicine. The perfume industry covets this oil for its ability to blend well with other perfume oils; hence, it is used extensively in hundreds of cosmetic products.

Over the centuries, the use of sandalwood and its products have been an integral part of several religious cultures. It scent, either as an essential oil or ground as incense, is thought to bring one closer to the Divine. Hindus burn incense made from sandalwood oil in burial pyres and at funerals. It’s also used in temples to remind people of the heavenly realms. Yogis in India use the oil to anoint each other during ceremonies and before meditation as well deity statues often made of sandalwood itself.

Sandalwood Used to Fight Anti-microbial Bacteria

Opposition to antibiotic use in food agriculture has been gaining momentum. In years past, it was known that severe illness-causing microbes such as Salmonella and E. coli could be contracted through eating contaminated meat. Now, it is proposed that contraction of bacteria, in this case antibiotic resistant bacteria, can possibly be transferred through ingestion, handling of industrial animal manure, as well as through drinking manure-contaminated ground water. With these scenarios coming to the surface, scientists and government officials alike are in alarm and strongly suggesting the decrease if not absolute elimination of non-therapeutic uses of antibiotics in the meat industry. Recent media has brought attention to the proposed link between the steep increase of antibiotic-resistant microbes with use and perhaps misuse of antibiotics in agriculture. Modern industrial agriculture raises animals in tight often inhumane quarters which results in animals being much more susceptible to sickness and disease, thus the administration of antibiotics is very common. Because bacteria and other microbes can easily mutate (in as little as 20 minutes), it is no wonder that great concern is now mounting.

Hospital-acquired infections and antibiotic-resistant bacteria continue to be major health concerns worldwide. In a recent study conducted by the University of Keil, Germany in their Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery (Journal of Cranio-Maxillo-Facial Surgery 2009 Oct.; 37(7): 392-7) researchers found that sandalwood oil in vitro demonstrated an effective treatment for antibiotic-resistant strains as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) (a cause of severe soft tissue, bone or implant infections in hospitals) and antimycotic (antifungal)-resistant Candida species. Another microbe that plagues humans is Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori). This Gram-negative bacterium is thought to be harbored by over 50% of the world’s population and is strongly linked to the development of duodenal and gastric ulcers as well as stomach cancer. A 2006 study by the Graduate School of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Tokushima, Japan (Journal of Natural Products 2005 Jun; 68(6): 819-24) found that the crude extract as well as isolated compounds of sandalwood essential oil showed antibacterial activity against H. pylori.

Additional Applications

In a 2007 science review (Food and Chemical Toxicology 2008 Feb.; 46(2): 421-432), researchers found that sandalwood oil and its major constituents (namely alpha-santalol) have anticarcinogenic, antiviral and as well as bactericidal activity. Phenomenally, a study conducted by the Department of Virology at the University of Heidelberg, Germany (Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy 2007 May; 51(5): 1859-62) found that sandalwood essential oil exhibited virulence against isolates of drug-resistant herpes simplex virus type 1. The dreadfulness of virulence spread by mosquitoes is well-known, especially in Africa and South America. Mosquito-borne diseases include such maladies as malaria, dengue fever, encephalitis and yellow fever. Conventional mosquito treatment relies on chemical pesticides which are often administered in water where mosquito larvae reside. Yet, the risks to people and the environment are well established. Naturally derived insecticides, especially from aromatic plants and their essential oils was recently investigated at Omar Almuktar University, Elbieda, Libya, Africa (Parasitology Research 2006 Sep; 99(4): 466-72). Sandalwood essential oil (as well as other essential oils) induced 100% mortality of various mosquito larvae species within 24 hours or less.

Concluding Remarks

Since ancient times humankind has relied upon plants for their nutrition, their health and for other therapeutic uses that enrich their way of being. Today is no different. It is evident that in modern times, conventional overuse of antibiotics and pesticides has resulted in harm to humankind and the environment. As more information is brought to light about antimicrobial resistant bacteria and other harmful microorganisms, medical scientists will be diligently searching for alternative solutions. The science studies published thus far indicate that research into alternative treatments, including the use of sandalwood essential oil, to remedy this problem is increasing. It is hopeful that sandalwood and other essential oils will be incorporated into medical healthcare and perhaps awaken the larger populous about the importance of living simply and in partnership with the earth.

See more on specific healthful oils such as Egyptian geranium essential oil and other therapeutic aromatics.