With an aroma of black licorice, star anise essential oil can be as polarizing as cilantro, but it might be worth taking a close look at star anise, which is rich in health benefits, especially relating to boosting respiratory health.
Star anise (Illicium verum) is often confused with aniseed (from the fennel plant), but the two are very different, despite having similar scents and some of the same chemical structure.
Star anise essential oil is pressed from the sun-dried seeds of the star-shaped and aptly-named star anise fruit, which is similar to the shell of a nut.
There are two different types of star anise, Chinese and Japanese, although Japanese star anise is toxic (it is used as a natural agricultural pesticide), leaving Chinese star anise for common use.1
Star anise essential oil pairs well with citrus oils including bergamot, orange, lemon, lime, tangerine, mandarin and grapefruit; florals like rose, neroli, and ylang-ylang; herbals like spearmint, lemon balm, German chamomile and Roman chamomile; spicy oils such as vanilla, black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, coriander seed, nutmeg and the complementary fennel, as well as cedarwood, cypress, and tea tree essential oils.
The History of Star Anise
Star anise comes from Illicium verum, a type of evergreen tree native to certain parts of Vietnam and China. The tree produces a fruit known as star anise—the Chinese call it “eight-horned anise” in recognition of the eight star-shaped pericarps (arms) of the fruit.
The tree can grow as tall as 35 feet high, and star anise can be eaten fresh or dried. The leaves of the tree are considered poisonous and are not used in any Eastern folk medicine treatments.
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Throughout history, star anise has been used to promote sleep, ease joint pain, relieve muscle aches, and improve digestion, which in turn benefits the immune system.
Specifically, star anise has a long history in Chinese medicine, where its use dates back at least 3,000 years. Here, it was used to improve appetite by supporting healthy digestion.
Greeks and Romans used star anise for the energy boost it provides because, when used in small amounts, the essential oil can act as a stimulant.
Later, star anise was initially believed by Europeans to have originated from the Philippines because British navigator Thomas Cavendish pillaged it from the islands in 1578, and when he brought it back, he was unaware that star anise actually originated in southern China. 2
Botanist Clusius brought star anise to London in the early 17th century, and the pods were traded to Europeans on a route between China and Russia, where they were called Siberian cardamoms.
Europeans took advantage of star anise by using it in a wide range of different liquors. The Greeks made Ouzo, the Italians created Galliano, the French produced Pernod and Pastis, and the Swiss concocted absinthe, a spirit that was banned in the United States for some time because it was believed to produce hallucinations when consumed it in excess.
With time, the popularity of star anise spread, and the spice soon found its way into the dishes of different regions of India, including biryani rice and curry.
It was mentioned in the 4th edition of the reference book, European Pharmacopoeia, in 1978.
Star anise essential oil offers a wide range of health benefits, including promoting healthy skin, supporting respiratory health, boosting immune system function, maintaining healthy digestion, fighting fungal infections, and improving sleep quality.
It’s the diverse collection of compounds found in the star anise essential oil that allows for the range of health benefits it provides. Some of the most important compounds are highlighted below.
One of the main compounds in star anise, anethole gives the essential oil its heady aroma. Research suggests that anethole may have antimicrobial, antifungal, and insecticidal properties.
Anethole’s structure is similar to catecholamines, a class that includes the “fight-or-flight” hormones adrenaline and norepinephrine, as well as the neurotransmitter dopamine, which activates the brain’s pleasure center. 3
A flavonoid, quercetin is a powerful antioxidant that has become regarded as a beneficial compound for relieving the symptoms of allergies and respiratory infections.
The antioxidant benefits of quercetin have also been shown to offering protection from the sun’s UV rays.
Limonene, a monoterpene, may act as an anti-inflammatory and antibacterial, speeding up the healing of wounds. Limonene is also a powerful antioxidant that can prevent damage from oxidative stress.
Linalool not only helps ease the symptoms of stress and anxiety, it also stimulates the production of vitamin E, a skin-friendly vitamin that acts as an antioxidant.
Antioxidants fight free radicals (damaged cells) by offering them the molecule they need to become whole.
Vitamin E targets free radicals that can potentially damage skin, so the skin’s structural layer remains durable and less prone to fine lines and wrinkles.
Alpha-pinene is a terpene that may help protect communication between the brain and the rest of the body by protecting neurotransmitters from an enzyme that attacks them. This finding opens the door to the use of star anise, as well as other essential oils containing alpha-pinene, in studies relating to dementia.
Additionally, alpha-pinene interacts with the same neurotransmitters that are affected by anti-anxiety drugs, making it a compound that may also offer stress relief.
Another terpene, beta-pinene also impacts neurotransmitters, in this case, the ones that control mood. In addition to helping improve mood, beta-pinene is thought to act as an antioxidant and reduce the presence of toxins.
A terpene, nerolidol is believed to offer sedative effects, making it a good natural remedy for stress, anxiety, or a blue mood. It is also believed to inhibit the growth of fungus and bacteria.
Uses for Star Anise Essential Oil
If you’re looking for an essential oil that offers a wealth of health benefits, star anise is a good option. It has a long history in Eastern medicine, and contemporary studies have shown that our ancestors were smart to recognize the health benefits of star anise.
The primary benefits that star anise provides are highlighted below.
Fights Free Radical Damage
According to a 2007 study from India, researchers found that compounds in star anise help protect against free radicals that can cause cellular damage.
The linalool is believed to neutralize free radicals, according to researchers at India’s Ahilya University. Antioxidants also help fight oxidative stress that damages skin cells, reducing signs of aging. 4
The antiviral benefits of star anise essential oil have been tested against almost 70 strains of drug-resistant bacteria. According to a study appearing in the Journal of Molecular Neuroscience, shikimic acid’s antiviral benefits can help boost immune system function, allowing it to fight off potential viruses more effectively.
In addition, a 2010 study from researchers in Taiwan found that the compounds in star anise could play a role in the development of antibiotics that could prevent the growth of drug-resistant bacteria. 5,6
According to a 2010 study, a compound in star anise essential oil helps fight Candida albicans, a fungus that can impact the skin, mouth, or throat.
Supports Healthy Digestion and Immune System Function
A few drops of star anise essential oil added to a cup of tea can not only improve digestion system function—relieving symptoms such as bloating, cramps, indigestion, constipation, and gas— it also helps create a healthier environment for good bacteria to thrive.
When the digestive tract is healthy, natural probiotic production goes up, strengthening the immune system.
Star anise is especially effective for providing stress relief. Because star anise essential oil helps relieve tension, however, it should not be used in conjunction with other sedatives, including drugs that are a member of the benzodiazepine family.7
Improves Sleep Quality
The sedative properties in star anise may help improve sleep quality. The linalool and nerolidol in star anise work together to help ease anxious thoughts, allowing for a longer, more restful sleep.
Star anise essential oil has also been shown to relieve muscle and joint pain.
Properties in the oil are thought to increase blood flow to the area while reducing pain signals. It is most effective when mixed with a carrier oil (coconut or almond oil have nice consistencies) and applied topically to the affected area, allowing the oil to penetrate the skin and reach the inflammation beneath the skin’s surface.
The compounds in star anise have been shown to increase the function of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, one of the most important neurotransmitters in the body because it controls signals between nerves and muscles.
Acetylcholine also triggers the development of synapse in the brain, improving memory.
While star anise essential oil helps prevent bug bites when applied to the skin—mix it with an odorless carrier oil such as sunflower oil and mist it on the skin—it can also be ingested, allowing the individual who consumes to become less prone to bug bites.
That puts star anise oil on the top of the summer shopping list, especially if you live near water, where mosquitos can be relentless.
Supports Women’s Health
In Chinese medicine, star anise essential oil was used to help encourage lactation in women who had given birth. It has also been used to relieve the symptoms associated with PMS, including cramps and fluctuations in mood.
How To Use Star Anise Essential Oil
There are many ways to take advantage of the healing properties found in star anise essential oil.
- Mix a few drops of star anise oil with a carrier oil like almond or coconut oil to create a massage oil.
- Use star anise essential oil aromatically in a room diffuser, in a warm bath, or in a personal essential oil diffuser like Active MONQ.
Star anise should not be used by individuals with chronic conditions, by pregnant or nursing women, or by individuals taking blood thinners.
Star Anise Fun Facts
- Star anise is one of the ingredients in the Vietnamese dish pho that gives the broth a bold, can’t-get-enough-of-it flavor.
- Star anise is also one of the ingredients in Chinese five spice as well as garam masala in India.
- 90 percent of the world’s star anise crop is used in the production of Tamiflu.
- While gum and mints are the go-to for breath freshening in the United States, in India and Pakistan, star anise seeds are the more popular choice for chewing after a meal. (The antibacterial benefits may also boost oral health.)
- Hunters and fishermen have used star anise essential oil to mask their scents.
If you’ve only used star anise in food and drinks, or not at all, consider adding this multipurpose essential oil with a wide range of health benefits into your daily routine.
Whether you’re using it topically when diluted with a carrier oil or aromatically, star anise essential oil deserves a spot in your essential oil collection.