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Small But Mighty

Essential oils pack a therapeutic punch



Until recently my only exposure to essential oils had been at a fancy spa. I lay prone on a heated massage bed while new age music burbled softly in the background. The masseuse wafted numerous tiny amber bottles of fragrant (and not so fragrant) oils beneath my nose and asked me to respond to each one. My reactions went something like this: “… nice … very nice … so-so … not bad … ewww!” And finally, an enthusiastic, “Yes, that’s the one!” It was jasmine oil. And inhaling it made me deliriously happy.

Our sense of smell can instantly trigger childhood memories and is highly emotive. So why did I respond so strongly to that particular scent? It reminded me of my grandmother who always wore a perfume with an undertone of jasmine and I was propelled back to a happy time and place, when I felt safe and loved. 

That experience stayed with me. Recently, when I had the opportunity to attend a seminar led by herbal expert Gina Fasser, I was intrigued. I learned that essential oils were mankind’s first medicines, and have been used therapeutically for over 6,000 years to heal, soothe, and ease pain. They have long been prized for their fragrances as well as their health-giving properties, and were routinely used in religious ceremonies, food preparation, and beauty treatments in ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman cultures. Not surprisingly, there are 188 references to essential oils in the Bible, the most notable being the magi’s gifts of frankincense and myrrh to the newly born Jesus.

Essential oils can have powerful psychological and physiological effects. Smell is one of the five senses directly linked to the limbic lobe, which is essentially the brain’s control central. The limbic system helps to regulate our blood pressure, stress levels, heart rate, breathing, memory, and hormones. Therapeutic oils, while not a cure-all, can be effective in relieving insomnia, migraine headaches, stress, and sinus infections. They can help rebuild your immune system, calm a toothache, tame motion sickness, and brighten your mood.

But what are they exactly? Essential oils are extracts derived from aromatic plant species and their parts—including flowers, fruit, roots, stems, bark, seeds, and leaves. After they’re distilled, what’s left is the highly concentrated oil or potent “essence.” For example, it would take 28 cups of peppermint tea to equal one drop of peppermint oil. These oils can be utilized therapeutically in a variety of ways: applied topically, inhaled, diffused in the air, and ingested. They can also be blended with other oils to maximize their effectiveness.

However, the industry is not well-regulated, so if you’re comparison-shopping on Amazon or eBay, don’t be misled by bargain basement prices. Not all brands of essential oils are created equal––some have been found to have as little as 5 percent of the purported oil. Disreputable manufacturers cut corners by using chemical solvents, high temperatures, and rapid processing. So do your research and aim to find the purest quality essential oils with labels that state they are “therapeutic-grade.” 

For the uninitiated, a good place to start is with a universal oil such as lavender, known as the “Swiss Army knife of essential oils” because of its versatility. A drop or two can help relieve motion sickness (one drop on the end of the tongue, behind the ears, or around the navel); heal cuts (two to three drops help stop bleeding, kills bacteria, and cleans the wound); reduce itching and swelling of bee stings and insect bites (one drop on the affected area); heal cold sores (one drop on sore); decrease the pain of a minor burn (two to three drops); and ease hay fever and allergy symptoms (inhale deeply). 

When applying oils topically, you need to check whether they can be applied undiluted, or must be diluted with a carrier oil such as coconut, grape seed, or sweet almond.

When diffused, essential oils can purify stale air and destroy bad odors (lavender, lemon, sweet orange, balsam fir, and hyssop to name a few), or used in an office environment to encourage greater focus and mental alertness (peppermint, rosemary). Experiencing generalized muscle pain? There’s an oil for that. Marjoram and peppermint are the most effective. Certain essential oils can be used on babies to resolve ailments like teething, diaper rash, and cradle cap. The list of uses for essential oils is almost endless and while they will never replace Western medicine, they do have demonstrable therapeutic properties. In addition to smelling absolutely wonderful, they are a less toxic option than some medications.

I never forgot my powerful emotional reaction to jasmine oil. I now wear it every day and feel warmly enveloped in memories of my elegant grandmother.

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