Did you know that you can use the fragrant essential oils of plants to cure diseases? The spicy aroma of fresh basil, the sweet fragrance of a rose, the savory smell of oregano, and thousands of other volatile oils from plants are not just pleasant to smell, but are powerful medicines. Many plants can help us heal, but those which contain aromatic oils occupy a special place in natural medicine. Here is some basic information that will help you select and use the healing essential oils.
Dr. David Stewart, Ph.D., D.N.M. Integrated Aromatic Science Practitioner, indicates that there are approximately 500,000 plant species on planet earth, but only 18,000 (3.6%) have the means to produce essential oils. He describes the function of these fragrant essential oils in his book, The Chemistry of Essential Oils Made Simple: God’s Love Manifest in Molecules.
Dr. Stewart describes the role of essential oils, their regulation of bodily functions, and how they create homeostasis in plants and in humans:
Essential oils have been called “the life blood of a plant.” They circulate through plant tissues and pass through cell walls, carrying nutrition into cells and carrying waste products out.
When essential oils are applied to people, they do the same thing, carrying oxygen into cells and carrying waste products out. In fact, essential oils are one of nature’s best body cleansers. They can cleanse our cellular receptor sites of pharmaceutical drugs, petrochemicals, and other disruptors of intercellular communication. They can also chelate heavy metals and other toxins, helping to remove and flush them through the liver, colon, sweat, lungs, and kidneys. They can also increase our ability to absorb vitamins and other nutrients.
Essential Oils are Regulators of Many Functions
Essential oils act as plant hormones, regulating plant functions and orchestrating the production of vitamins and enzymes. They act as messengers and supervisors within the plant that help coordinate and initiate vital plant activities. Essential oils can also do the same when applied to humans. They can act as neurotransmitters, peptides, steroids, hormones, enzymes, vitamins, and other message-carrying molecules (called ligands) which intelligently assist our bodily functions and help to restore or maintain wellness.
Essential Oils Possess Homeostatic Intelligence
Homeostasis is that state where every vital biological process within a living organism is functioning as it should. It is a state of perfect wellness. Essential oils always work toward restoring and maintaining balance and homeostasis, first in the plants who create them, and then in the humans who apply them.
To say that an essential oil works toward balance and homeostasis means that the same oil can work in different directions depending on the needs of the plant or person. Oregano oil (Origanum vulgare) will kill hostile microbes while nurturing those that are friendly. Angelica oil (Angelica archangelica) can stimulate a uterus to contract or to relax depending on the need. Myrtle oil (Myrtus communis) is an adaptigen that can stimulate an increase or a decrease in thyroid activity depending on a person’s condition.
What exactly is an Essential Oil?
Dr. Stewart answers this question:
An essential oil is the volatile lipid (oil) soluble portion of the fluids of a plant containing odiferous compounds produced by steam distillation of vegetable plant matter. Plant matter can be any part of a botanical species including stems, branches, fruits, flowers, seeds, roots, bark, needles, leaves, etc. During the distillation process, the vapors are condensed, collected, and separated from the condensation water. The residual water, containing traces of oil constituents, is called a “ floral water” or “hydrosol,” and has therapeutic applications of its own.
Essential oils are mixtures of hundreds of compounds. For example, it has been found that orange oil (Citrus sinensis) contains 34 alcohols, 30 esters, 20 aldehydes, 14 ketones, 10 carboxylic acids, and 36 varieties of terpenes, including mono-, sesqui- , di- and tetraterpenes. And this is not a complete analysis. In fact, no essential oil has ever been completely analyzed to reveal its every constituent.
Essential oils are so complex, it may never be possible to discover everything that is in even one of them.
Only High Quality Essential Oils can Heal
Only the highest quality essential oils have the capacity to promote healing. The plants that are used as the raw material for essential oils must be healthy and clean. The processing methods must preserve the natural qualities of the essential oil. The essential oil that results must be 100% natural and 100% pure. Nothing should be added and nothing should be removed from the essential oil after it is processed.
Quality of Plant Materials
First, the quality of the plant material that is used to produce the essential oil is critical. Plant sources should be either certified organic or wild. Wild plant sources should be from a clean environment, and plants should not have been exposed to chemical fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides. Chemicals applied to conventionally grown plant materials can end up in the essential oil and be part of the final product that is sold to consumers. This should always be avoided.
Quality of Processing
The process that is used to extract the essential oil from the plant material is critical. High quality essential oils are processed using a low temperature distillation method. When low temperature distillation is used, the temperature of the volatile elements in the plant material will be kept below its boiling point, which prevents decomposition of the essential oil. This means that the characteristics of the essential oil molecules that result from distillation will be very similar to those that were in the plant. A few essential oils, such as citrus oils are mechanically pressed from the peel of the fruit.
Other Signs of High Quality Essential Oils
When looking to purchase high quality essential oils, you can be guided by the presence of a number of other factors, which can be seen with the essential oil packaging.
Essential oils should be packed in light resistant containers. The bottles should be made of light resistant dark glass, or the bottles should be packed in covered metal cylinders to provide 100% light blockage. The label should state whether the source plant material was organic or wild crafted. The extraction method should be indicated, and the label should state that the bottle contains 100% essential oil. There should be no additives.
The label should state the common name of the plant source and the Latin name of the plant, and should indicate the part of the plant that was used to produce the oil. This is more of an exact form of labeling, since there could be a variety of plants that might use the common name and different parts of the plant can produce different qualities of oil. Look for a country of origin for the essential oil itself. Look for batch specific tracking information, which can be used to track the oil back to its source.
Look for quality certifications from essential oil certifying agencies. The FDA in the United States has not approved any “therapeutic” claims for essential oils, so you will not find this type of certification on the label. There are no independent third party certification organizations certifying essential oils as “therapeutic grade.”
Low Quality or Adulterated Essential Oils
The reason attention must be given to purchasing high quality essential oils is that products that are partially synthetic or completely synthetic can legally be called an essential oil. They may have real natural plant essential oil as a base; but compounds may be added or removed to produce a certain aroma or flavor profile. The companies that make these oils are seeking to manufacture a product that meets certain standards for flavor and fragrance, and are not intending to create oils that can support healing. These types of adulterated oils are intended for cosmetics and soap making. They could contain toxic chemicals, preservatives, or agricultural chemical residue, as well as the residue of chemicals that were used as agents to increase the rate of oil extraction from plants. These lower quality oils should never be used for healing purposes.
Keep it Pure, Natural, and Complete
David Stewart describes the greater goal for producing essential oils:
Thus derived, an essential oil will contain hundreds of constituents, most of them in trace amounts and measured in fractions of a percent. Yet every constituent is vital to the healing potential of the oil.
… Its delicate balance is the result of having been grown in a nurturing environment of love, gently coaxed from the plant, and packaged in a protective container guarded from light, heat, and air. Once delivered from the still, not one constituent is removed nor is anything synthetic added, lest the life of the oil be compromised and its ability to administer healing obliterated or reduced.
With careful distillation at atmospheric pressures and minimum temperatures, the extracted essential oil is very close to that in the living plant except that only the lightest molecules (generally those less than 400 amu) come through the distillation process. Heavier oil molecules of the living plant remain in the plant mass and can be accessed for therapeutic purposes as dried herbs. Dried herbs do not contain essential oils, except in traces, by virtue of the evaporation (drying) process by which they are preserved.
Using Essential Oils to Bring about Homeostasis and Cure Diseases
There are three basic schools of thought represented in essential oil training programs. As a result, aromatherapy practitioners and reference books will have different points of view regarding what they believe to be safe and effective ways of using essential oils. Each school targets specific pathways of application. Some schools will have a list of essential oils that they believe should not be used, while other schools and reference books will list those same oils as being highly valuable therapeutic agents.
Dr. Stewart describes the differences this way:
There are four basic portals through which essential oils can enter the body: through the lungs, through the skin, through the digestive tract, and through the absorbent tissues of our body orifices.
The German school emphasizes inhalation as the best way to receive the benefits of essential oils. Inhalation puts oil molecules directly into the blood stream through the alveoli of the lungs as well directly to the brain through the olfactory nerves which connect to the central brain.
The English emphasize massage with neutral carrier oils containing 2-5% essential oils as the best practice of aromatherapy. In the English school skin is the primary organ of absorption for essential oils applied diluted in low concentrations.
The French emphasize taking essential oils orally, but in practice they utilize all four methods of administration, including oils applied neat (undiluted) on the skin. In reality, all four ways are valid, each with their advantages and disadvantages. In rare cases, those of the French school may also administer essential oils directly into living tissues via hypodermic injections, as with certain cancerous tumors. However, this practice is reserved for licensed physicians only.
The best way to optimize the benefits of aromatic oils is to be open to administering them by any and all pathways— by nose, skin, mouth, intestines, rectum, and/or vagina— depending on the situation. This is what we recommend. This is what the leading aromatherapists of the world recommend…
Regarding aromatherapy in the United States and Canada, only the French and British schools predominate.
Tips for Using Essential Oils
Always be sure that you are using high quality essential oils, and not oils that were intended for perfume or flavoring. Use an essential oil reference book to guide your use of the oils or consult an aromatherapist. Most oils can be safely used at home without special training, but as with any therapy, there are some precautions.
Removing an Essential Oil if it Causes a Burning Sensation on the Skin
Some essential oils can cause a burning sensation when applied to sensitive skin. If this happens, do not try to wash off the oil with soap and water. This will just spread the oil. Instead dilute the oil with olive oil, unscented massage oil, or coconut oil. Apply the diluting oil liberally. The burning sensation will stop almost instantly as soon as the essential oils become incorporated with the larger volume of the carrier oil that has been applied over them. Wipe off the oil when the discomfort stops. Apply additional carrier oil if discomfort reoccurs.
Inhaling Essential Oils
Taking the cap off a bottle of essential oil and sniffing it will not offer much therapeutic benefit. When you sniff a bottle, you are not necessarily obtaining the full complement of compounds that are in the oil.
One of the simplest ways to use an essential oil is to put some of the oil in the palm of your hands and to breathe the oil as it vaporizes into the air. You can do this by putting one or two drops of an essential oil in the palm of your hand and rubbing your palms together. Then open your palms slightly and put your nose between your thumbs and take a deep breath. Press the palms of your hands back together and hold your breath for a few second before exhaling. Holding the palms together will slow down the evaporation of the oil.
If you have not done this before with a specific oil, then take a small short inhale to get a sense of how the vapors feels as they enter your nose. Some oils such as peppermint will cause a sensation in the sinuses, which can be surprising for those using the oil for the first time. Take several relaxed breaths over the course of one minute. This is not a race, just relax and enjoy the oils. Since essential oils also penetrate directly through the skin and enter the blood stream, you will obtain a treatment through your hands as well. If you have a tendency to touch your eyes frequently, you might wish to use some carrier oil on your fingers to remove any residue of essential oil before you go on to your other daily activities.
Diffusing the Oils into the Air
There are essential oil diffusers, which are designed to distribute microscopic droplets of essential oil into the air of a room. This method has many benefits. First it cleans the air of a room and can provide a pleasant fragrance. This is a very healthy alternative to the artificially scented toxic products that are sold to “freshen” the air. Synthetic air fresheners are made from petrochemicals and coal tar, and often contain unidentified solvents and other carcinogenic ingredients.
Diffusing certain essential oils can be helpful for people when they have respiratory congestion. Some oils can sharpen thinking, relax emotions, or reduce stress. Some can help with sleep. Since some essential oils are highly antiviral, antibacterial, and antifungal, they can be safely used to disinfect one’s environment without harming human health.
Applying Essential Oils to the Skin
Most high quality essential oils can be applied directly to the skin without dilution. Some people may prefer to dilute the essential oils with a carrier oil such as coconut oil, olive oil or unscented massage oil before applying them to the skin. The oils can be gently rubbed on the skin. There are oils that are good for reducing muscle tightness, inflammation, and pain. These can be applied on the skin over the affected area.
The safest area of skin where essential oils can be applied is on the soles of the feet. A couple drops of essential oil will often be enough to spread over the sole of one foot. You can also add a layer of carrier oil over the essential oil to slow down evaporation. If you wish, the essential oil and carrier oil mix can be used to provide lubrication for a foot massage.
Absorbing Essential Oils in the Digestive Tract
Dr. Stewart describes how this works:
By “digestive tract” we are referring to oils taken by mouth, and swallowed so that they are actually absorbed through the stomach and intestines by digestive processes.
Swallowing the oils to be assimilated through the digestive tract results in a major portion being destroyed by the stomach acids. Hence, a greater quantity of oil is required when swallowed than when simply held in the mouth. However, some oils are too strong to be held in the mouth so that when internal administration is desired, swallowing them in capsules is an effective alternative.
Taking Essential Oils with Food or Beverages
Many essential oils have a very pleasant flavor and can be added to food or to water. A single drop of peppermint added to ice water makes a very refreshing drink. You can also add spearmint, lemon, orange, tangerine, or grapefruit to hot water and enjoy the fragrance as you drink it like tea, or add them to ice water.
Essential oils can be added to your recipes. Beware, however – oils such as oregano and essential oils from other herbs are very highly concentrated. A single drop of oregano oil might be too strong for most recipes. It is best to take a clean toothpick and dip it into the essential oil and then use the toothpick to stir the food that you are preparing. If there is fat or oil in your recipe ingredients, then the essential oil will quickly spread from the tooth pick into your saucepan or mixing bowl.