Uncovering the Healing Arts of Essential Oils

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Have you ever stopped to question why people enjoy a mint after dinner? There is the obvious reason that it helps freshen breath, but this habit originally formed from ancient beliefs that mint could also aid digestion.

For thousands of years, other aromatic herbs known as essential oils have been central to various aspects of life, including sustenance (as seasoning), beauty (as perfume), health (as medicine), and spiritual life (via their role in ritual).

Millennials clinging to old-world simplicities are beginning to revitalize these practices.

Essential oils are the liquid substances extracted from fragrant plant material, usually through the process of distillation with steam or water. They offer a means by which individuals can try to self-heal and grow, and connect with their own mind, body, and spirit.

Through observing the many diverse uses of these natural ingredients, we can better understand their positive and negative effects in modern medicine. A heightened awareness towards this age-old, albeit unconventional, medium could reveal a natural and holistic alternative to prescription drugs with terrible side effects.

BTRtoday discusses essential oils with all-natural perfumer Mandy Aftel.

“Many folk remedies around the world and of different cultures include aromatic materials and always have,” says Aftel. “All of those herbal traditions and many, many indigenous traditions, include natural aromatics.”

Aftel’s book “Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent” came out about a year ago and focuses on five iconic aromatics—cinnamon, mint, frankincense, ambergris, and jasmine–along with their connection to deep human appetites. Each one is connected to a primordial root of our existence dating back to the beginning of time. Aftel includes the history of traditional uses and remedies along with recipes.

“Many of the materials that call to us today are the same as those that Cleopatra ran her hands through, that were used to wash the feet of Jesus, or to ward off the plague,” she writes. “These materials are a direct link to the past.”

The healing arts have a complex history that links to the Bible, as well as ancient China, India, and Egypt. Infused oil remedies continued to flourish into the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, as practiced in abbeys, convents, and monasteries. Aftel writes that these were the precursors of aromatherapy, herbalism, homeopathy, and other forms of alternative medicine and therapy.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Wonderlane.

Besides what we know about their history, there is also healing evidence to be found in the chemical properties of these plant materials. In order to better understand the science behind it, University of Minnesota’s professor of clinical aromatherapy Linda Halcon explains the chemistry of these substances.

“Essential oils are really complex chemical substances that are made by plants and secondary metabolites,” she says. “They have their biological effects due to those chemicals, so each essential oil contains anywhere from 50-200 separate chemical constituents.”

Halcon continues to explain that the chemical makeup of each oil provides for different sets of desired effects. Some are helpful in improving cognitive performance while others might reduce this kind of performance (“overthinking,” she clarifies) and allow for a user to feel relaxed. If an essential oil contains a high concentration of esters—a chemical sedative—then they might produce feelings of sleepiness. Lots of alcohol or ethanols could prove to be antimicrobacterial.

Aftel explains that the odors of plants reside in different parts of them—through the bark, seeds, roots, leaves, rind, and so on. Sometimes different parts of the same plant will produce totally different essences. She writes, “They are extracted into a concentrated liquid form, eminently suitable for creating fragrances and flavors, but we should bear in mind that when using these extracts, we are basically working with fumes.”

Due to their chemical properties, scientific researchers have discovered various uses for oils. For example, while religious leaders have proclaimed for thousands of years that burning incense is good for the soul, biologists have finally confirmed that it is good for our brains too. Burning frankincense can activate poorly understood ion channels in the brain to alleviate anxiety or depression.

Due to FDA restrictions on testing with these chemicals, proving their benefits can be particularly challenging. That being said, aromatherapy and other complementary treatments such as massage and acupuncture can be used along with standard treatments for symptom management.

For example, the citrus oils (sweet orange, lemon, mandarin, and grapefruit) tend to be very uplifting and grounding.

Some other common therapeutic uses include:

Tea tree oils for bacterial, fungal, and viral infections
Peppermint for headaches, fever, nausea, heartburn, and fatigue
Lavender for stress and anxiety, minor burns, insomnia, pain relief, and wound care
German chamomile for inflammatory skin problems
Bergamot for mild antidepressant and tonic
Rosemary for stimulant and anti-infective agent
Eucalyptus for respiratory infections
Ginger for nausea and inflammation
Lemongrass for fungal infections
Basil for insect repellent and anti-parasitic
Mandarin for upset stomach and restlessness, particularly in children

Courtesy of Flickr user Nina Nelson.

When shopping, different brands such as Aura Cacia will typically inform consumers what each specific oil can be used for.

Halcon says that it’s always nice to give people a choice of at least two because not everybody likes the same smells. Aftel also suggests that people should try different scents and techniques and go toward what is attractive to them.

“I think if something smells good to you, that’s already something” she says. “We’re all attracted to different smells, so maybe [one] would like the smell of cedarwood because it reminds them of a trunk or a closet or a forest or they just like it. I think getting something that people like, something that’s attractive to them, is very important.”

Based on scent alone, Aftel loves the smell of jasmine, while Halcon prefers the smell of sandalwood.

“It has a meditative quality.” Halcon says, “I’ve done an experiment over a number of years, and if I cover it in class I often save it as the last essential oil that we smell, and often when class is over, after we’ve smelled sandalwood, everyone just sits there. They don’t rush off to their next class, they just sit their and they’re happy, they’re content.”

Our favorite scents can also be based on certain memories. Aftel writes that scent has helped each of us, since we were babies, to recognize what is familiar and unfamiliar. Primal associations render scent inherently personal and specific, and the associative fingerprint is unique to each individual.

Halcon confirms that there is a chemical effect from scents that influences our thoughts, emotions and memories.

“I often use the example of if your grandmother used a lot of lavender and you loved your grandmother, you would probably feel good about lavender,” she says. “But if your grandmother was abusive, you would probably hate the smell of lavender.”

Halcon expresses her own scent memories saying “patchouli always reminds me of the sixties; I lived in Madagascar for a while and Ylang Ylang to me is the smell of Madagascar.”

Courtesy of Flickr user Esteban Chiner.

After discovering a desired oil, whether it is due to an emotional response or the simple enjoyment of the scent, the next step is to find out the best way to use it.

These natural substances can be inhaled, ingested, or applied to skin depending on the specific oil used and its desired effect. There are a variety of techniques that can be employed for inhaling, ingesting, or applying topically.

Blending the ingredients to make perfume, body oils, or other topical treatments requires a carrier oil. The most common for perfumes is 190-proof indentured ethyl alcohol. Others include jojoba oil, almond oil, olive oil, or coconut oil. These are all fixed-oils in which essential oils should be diluted.

Essential oils and their carriers can be found in a number of natural food stores, such as Whole Foods. Buyers can blend them with or without the help of an expert and find out what works best. There are countless recipes and DIY projects involving essential oils on Pinterest. (Check out Mandy’s Pinterest here).

These healing substances can also be utilized in food recipes. One of BTRtoday’s favorite recipes is a Lavender Frankincense Shortbread cookie recipe provided by blogger Lost Past Remembered and recommended to us by Aftel.

Another recipe from Aftel involves adding a drop of cinnamon oil to vanilla extract, then adding a drop of that to a glass of champagne. Yes, you can even add essential oils to your bubbles.

However, one must take precautions when using essential oils.

Halcon recommends to make sure they are being stored and used properly. Essential oils should be kept in the refrigerator to slow down the oxidation process.

“Just like over the counters you need to pay attention to expiration,” she explains. “Essential oils don’t have expiration dates but they oxidize, so I would recommend not keeping them more than six months to a year because once they oxidize, you’re more likely to have problems with them. By then they’ve changed into essentially a different substance.”

Halcon also expresses concerns with overuse. Just as many people abuse over the counter medications, botanical treatments such as essential oils are also susceptible to excessive tendencies. Also, because it takes a considerable amount of plant material to create these products, Halcon ensures a degree of restraint so that the natural world isn’t over-tapped. She warns that it’s in our best interest to keep these supplements out of the water supply so that we don’t find trace amounts, like we have over the years with antibiotics and birth control pills.

Halcon suggests speaking with healthcare providers about the uses of some alternative therapies. She says that many hospitals and nursing homes in the U.S. have aromatherapy programs.

“They usually start out using some pretty safe essential oils; the ones there is a pretty good research base for and long historical use for symptoms like nausea, pain, sleeplessness, anxiety, those kinds of things,” she says. “For example, for nausea after surgery, some hospitals have found they have been able to drastically cut their use of pharmaceutical medications.”

Aftel advises consulting Robert Tisserand’s “Essential Oil Safety: A Guide for Health Care Professionals” or the International Fragrance Association’s list of recommended guidelines in order to properly understand safety precautions with these materials.

They may also cause allergic reactions. For this reason, it is not ever recommended to use essential oils with children under two or pregnant women.

“Essential oils do cross the placenta, and it’s not necessarily that they will be harmful, especially if they are safer essential oils, but we just don’t know,” Halcon explains.

“A great proponent of the precautionary principle is if something isn’t proven safe, we should be very careful of it–especially in certain populations like infants, small children, and pregnant women. I admit that I’m on the conservative end, but in a way that’s my role because if we start having problems, I don’t want there to be any adverse effects in clinical settings that would set us back and people would think we shouldn’t use them at all, when maybe they weren’t using them properly.”

In other words, there really aren’t many known negative effects, but we must remain cautious to keep it that way. Essential oils have been helping people for as long as we can remember and there is a wealth of information out there about their wonderful effects. Just be sure to do some research first, then let us know what healing concoctions you’ve come up with!

BTRtoday does not endorse the use of essential oils. The thoughts and opinions expressed in this article in no way reflect those of the company as a whole. Readers should consult their physician before making an educated decision about essential oils.