Fundamentals of Aromatherapy
Your oils have a pleasing fragrance, Your name is like purified oil; Therefore the maidens love you. . . . How beautiful is your love, my sister, my bride! How much better is your love than wine, And the fragrance of your oils Than all kinds of spices!
—Song of Solomon 1:3, 4:10
Imagine yourself walking through a beautiful garden. After brushing up against a rose, you faintly smell the floral scent. You bend over to get a better whiff and encounter an aroma that stops you in your tracks. This, my friend, is the essential oil.
Or, imagine making homemade lemonade as a refreshing treat after working in the garden on a hot summer day. When you’ve finished cutting all of the lemons and juicing them, you are pleasantly surprised to find your kitchen permeated with an uplifting, citrus aroma. This, too, is the essential oil.
Essential oils represent nature in its most concentrated form. They are extracted directly from the bark, flowers, fruit, leaves, nut, resin, or roots of a plant or tree, and just one drop contains a complex network of molecules that deliver myriad effects to the body. They are entirely, utterly natural.
Used medicinally for thousands of years through a variety of nonconcentrated forms, the true power of these oils is not in facilitating one-time therapeutic effects (as drugs do), but in addressing physiological disharmony and helping your body achieve the inner balance it needs to heal itself. And their power to facilitate healing is so effective that the scientific world has begun to take note—thousands of peer-reviewed articles published in databases around the world discuss their efficacy.
Laying the Foundation
Before you dive into the therapeutic use of these precious plant-based compounds, you need to understand the basics. I welcome you along a journey that I hope will prove not only insightful but also empowering.
Think of growing your understanding of essential oils as a project similar to building a house. If the foundation isn’t set properly, the entire structure will soon crumble, particularly when a storm hits. And storms always seem to hit at the most inopportune moments, don’t they?
Using essential oils requires patience, study, and practice and should never be seen as a “quick fix” for your health problems. You need to learn how to use them properly. If you’re not armed with the foundational principles of essential oils, you won’t know what to do or where to turn for answers if the results aren’t what you expect. You might give up on using natural solutions far too soon, or fall back into the prescription medication trap, even though many drugs have long-term consequences, including, for some, a risk of addiction.
When you take the information and instruction in this book to heart, I trust that this will never happen to you.
Setting the Record Straight
On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
While it’s not an exhaustive study of the subject, consider this section my very best attempt to distill six thousand years of recorded use of essential oils down to a Reader’s Digest version of aromatherapy history.
Are you ready?
OK, let’s put first things first with a myth-buster that may shake up your essential oil theology: Jesus didn’t use essential oils. It’s actually one of the more pervasive delusions among lay people and students of biblical health. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say, “If it’s good enough for Baby Jesus, then it’s good enough for me!”
Truth is, the magi gave the Christ child gold, frankincense, and myrrh resins. How do I know this? Because essential oils as we know them didn’t exist back then—the essential oils that we use today require highly advanced distillation techniques that weren’t yet invented.
Of course, crudely distilled alcoholic beverages have been around since our earliest recorded history—museums have three-thousand-year-old terra-cotta distillation apparatuses on display—but the likelihood that anyone could have extracted essential oils from plants is slim to none.
What we do know is that virtually every culture dating back to the beginning of time used aromatic plant materials in their sacred rituals as incense, in their body care as ointments and perfumes, and in their medicine as poultices, salves, and tinctures. Could Mary have created a healing salve or ointment from the frankincense resin that the magi gave her? Certainly. But she didn’t use a drop of myrrh essential oil to cure Jesus of a sore throat. Big difference!
The CliffsNotes Version of the History of Aromatherapy
Moreover, the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Take also for yourself the finest of spices: of flowing myrrh five hundred shekels, and of fragrant cinnamon half as much, two hundred and fifty, and of fragrant calamus two hundred and fifty, and of cassia five hundred, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, and of olive oil a hint. You shall make of these a holy anointing oil, a perfume mixture, the work of a perfumer; it shall be a holy anointing oil.
Burning leaves, resins, and other aromatic plant materials for incense has been a religious tradition throughout recorded history. As far as we can tell, these practices ushered in the dawn of aromatherapy.
The first records of essential oils as we know them today come from ancient Egypt, India, and, much later, Persia. Both Greece and Rome conducted extensive trade in aromatic oils and ointments with the Orient.1 It’s safe to assume that these products—not unlike the holy anointing oil recipe that God gave Moses—were extracts prepared by soaking flowers, leaves, resins, and roots in various fatty vegetable oils like olive and sesame.
It is presumed that fatty oils and alcohol were exclusively used to extract the essential oils from aromatic plants up until the golden age of Arab culture (eighth–thirteenth century AD), when a technique was developed using an alcohol solvent.2 History tells us that Arabs were the first to distill ethyl alcohol from fermented sugar, which could have been used to replace vegetable oils to create aromatic extracts (more on the difference between extracts and essential oils to come).
The history books are in disagreement over the exact dates and to whom we should give credit for first inventing hydro (steam) distillation, but it seems fair to say that we can thank Arab alchemists from the ninth century AD. One of the first dated references to the “quintessence” of plants (i.e., essential oils) dates back to The Book of Perfume Chemistry and Distillation by Yakub al-Kindi (803–870).3 Many credit Ibn-Sina, more commonly known as Avicenna (980–1037), for discovering distillation, but that’s still debated. In either case, he has gone down in history as being the one of the first to document using essential oils in his practice, including an entire treatise on rose oil!4
Fast-forward to early-twentieth-century France, when the renaissance of aromatherapy was birthed after chemist René-Maurice Gattefossé suffered a laboratory explosion and stumbled upon lavender essential oil as the remedy to heal the gas gangrene that ensued on his hand. Gattefosse devoted the remainder of his life to researching the therapeutic nature of essential oils and reported using many—such as chamomile, clove, lemon, and thyme, which were also used to disinfect surgical equipment and to treat infected wounds—on his patients during both world wars.5 The science of aromatherapy was recorded in print with his seminal work Aromatherapie: The Essential Oils—Vegetable Hormones.
Commonly misunderstood today to refer solely to the inhalation of essential oils (i.e., diffusing, nebulizing, enjoying their aroma), the term aromatherapy is more properly defined as the therapeutic use of essential oils.
Sciencey Information for Essential Oil Geeks
Let’s take a moment to walk through a couple of key terms, starting with the most fundamental of all: fixed oils and essential oils. You may wonder why the essential oils you’ve come in contact with don’t seem all that, well, oily. That’s because there are two different types of oils, which have different chemical (and, therefore, therapeutic) properties.
•Fixed oils. Also known as expressed or fatty oils, fixed oils are derived from both animals and plants. Common examples are cooking oils, including coconut, olive, and other vegetables oils that you see at the market. They contain fatty acids such as triglycerides, as well as certain phytochemicals, including vitamins, minerals, and a host of others. In contrast to volatile oils (aka essential oils), fixed oils do not evaporate (they will leave a stain on an absorbent surface), and thus cannot be distilled. Obtained by expression (the act of squeezing or using pressure) or extraction (drawing out using a solvent), fixed oils vary in consistency depending on the temperature and can be solid, semisolid, or liquid.6
•Essential oils. Also known as volatile oils because they evaporate readily, essential oils are the lipophilic (“fat loving”), hydrophobic (“water hating”) volatile organic compounds that are found in aromatic plants. Meaning, they have the tendency to dissolve or combine with fats or lipids, while repelling or not mixing with water. Somewhat of a misnomer, essential oils aren’t “oily” like the fixed, culinary oils just described, and they usually do not leave a residue when applied to your skin. They are generally insoluble in water but soluble in alcohol and fixed oils, and can dissolve fatty materials such as grease. Unlike fixed oils, they do not contain any nutritional content like vitamins or minerals.
Let’s clear up another common misconception: Once referred to as “essential” because they were thought to represent the very essence of odor and flavor, essential oils are not “essential” for life at all.7 However, though they may not be “necessary” for life, I can think of no other substance on the planet that I would consider essential to have in my medicine cabinet!
What gives these precious plant compounds their healing powers are the more than three hundred different aromatic molecules found in each bottle, and chemists are continually identifying more. These compounds contain physiological and pharmacological properties that affect nearly every organ and virtually every function necessary to human life.8
The amount of oil in each plant varies considerably—it takes more than three hundred pounds of rose petals, thirty pounds of lavender flowers, or forty-five lemons to fill just one of those itty-bitty 15 ml bottles of essential oil that you have in your home. Just think about how many tons of plant matter it must take to supply the world’s growing need for these precious plant-based compounds!
The compounds contained in an essential oil are affected by how the oil is extracted and what part of the plant is used. While you don’t necessarily need this information to buy and start using essential oils, reading it can help expand your understanding of these potent healers. And since this is a book that can live on your shelf for years, as you’re ready to deepen your learning about essential oils, you can always revisit this section.
Thankfully, we are continually perfecting the manufacturing methods necessary to extract the volatile organic compounds from plants.
Understanding Essential Oil Manufacturing to Help You Purchase the Right Products
Have you noticed that your favorite bottle of vanilla is not labeled as an oil, but an “absolute”? Yep! Same with jasmine and other plants that are too delicate to steam distill.
Or, have you seen the term CO2 on your bottle of turmeric or frankincense? These bottles look and even smell like essential oils, but they are different products because they were not steam distilled. And, because they were extracted differently than essential oils, they contain unique chemical properties, which lead to different therapeutic benefits and safety considerations.
The obstacle that all essential oil users have to overcome is that some companies mislabel their bottles and some sellers misrepresent their products. Even worse, I’ve encountered dozens of studies written by scientists who refer to the wrong products in their research.
Bottom line: Absolutes, CO2 extracts, and essential oils should not be used interchangeably. Most of the research we have is about essential oils, which is why I don’t cover the medicinal uses of CO2 extracts in much detail in this book because they are still considered experimental.
So, to help you understand the differences among the various products on the market today, here is an overview of the primary extraction methods to be aware of before you start purchasing essential oils:
•CO2 extraction. Supercritical fluid extraction (SFE) uses supercritical carbon dioxide (sCO2), which is a fluid state where CO2 is held at or above its critical temperature and critical pressure. Not to get too deep into chemistry here; you’re most likely familiar with CO2 being a gas at standard temperature and pressure (STP), or dry ice when frozen. In its supercritical, fluid state, it has an uncanny ability to perform as a commercial and industrial solvent. Unlike other commonly used toxic solvents, like hexane, CO2 is safe and environmentally friendly. The resulting extract is currently all the rage in the aromatherapy community.
•Distillation. Primarily produced with steam, essential oils can also be water and steam distilled as well as steam vacuum distilled. Let me help you visualize the process: Steam from boiling water comes into contact with biomass (lavender flowers, sandalwood, cinnamon bark, etc.), softens it, and breaks up the volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Now loose, the lipophilic/hydrophobic (nonpolar, or nonsoluble in water) VOCs then pass through a condenser wherein the steam separates them from the biomass that originally contained them. Also traveling with the steam are the lipidphobic/hydrophilic (polar, or soluble in water) components of the plant. In the condenser, the steam is cooled and the polar constituents separate from the nonpolar constituents while sitting in a tube. The water is then separated from the oil, and what’s left are hydrosols (“floral waters”) and essential oils.
If you’re keen on trying to do this yourself, you can pick up a home distiller kit for a few hundred bucks. It takes a little getting used to, but you’ll find that you can make some high-quality oils from many of the herbs, shrubs, and trees you have in your backyard!
•Enfleurage. One of the most expensive ways to extract volatile organic compounds, enfleurage is used for fragile flowers such as jasmine. This is a labor-intensive process that is rarely used today; however, it is still interesting to note because of its historical significance. Enfleurage can take weeks to complete and essentially uses animal fat (pounded and coated onto glass) to extract the essential oils from delicate flowers. The end result is an oil/fat mixture known as a pomade that needs to be washed with alcohol to remove the fat. After the fat is removed, an extract containing volatile and nonvolatile principles is left, so it’s referred to as an absolute.
•Expression. Primarily reserved for citrus peels, mechanical pressing (aka cold pressing) literally squeezes the volatile organic compounds out of the rind of a fruit. At one point in history, this was done by hand using a sponge to collect the oil, but those days are long gone. Citrus oils can also be steam distilled, but the aroma has a tendency to change considerably and the therapeutic properties are much different.
Copyright © 2018 by Eric Zielinski, D.C. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.