What are essential oils? These extraordinary substances have a few thousand years of historical use for treating everything from an infected wound to the plague. There are over 150 references to essential oils in the Bible. They have been used by the Egyptians, Chinese, Indian, French, English….in fact it is unlikely that they have not been used by all cultures over the history of time.
Definition: Essential oils, also called volatile oils, are scented oils extracted from plants. EO’s are the highly concentrated extraction of the natural oils that naturally occur in plants. Historically, they've been used in medicine, cosmetics, perfumes, food, and, more recently, aromatherapy. Essential oils are “essential” because they contain the “essence” of the plant, meaning the taste and/or odor (turpenes).
Many different processes for extracting Essential Oils have been employed over time. The most common method is distillation. Using the distillation process, most commonly by steam or water, where many parts of the plants are being used, including the plant roots, leaves, stems, flowers, or bark, a full compliment of tastes and scents end up being concentrated in the final oil extraction.
After distillation, the outcome is a highly concentrated portion of essential oil, which will have the characteristic fragrance and properties of the plant from which it was extracted and contain the true essence of the plant it came from. This includes the smell, but also the plant’s healing properties and other plant characteristics.
YES! Is the easy answer. The Therapeutic benefits of Essential Oils are at the core of Aromatherapy….whether inhaled or applied the benefits are extraordinary. Essential oils have been used throughout history in many cultures for their medicinal and therapeutic benefits.
Essential oils exist primarily for the health of the plant in which they reside. While the oils are still in the plant, they provide the plants with protection against predators and disease as well as playing a role in plant pollination. Just as they are beneficial to the plant they are beneficial to animals and humans.
The most common therapeutic application of essential oils is that of aromatherapy, where healing effects are achieved through the aromas of the essential oils. There are a number of essential oils that are believed to have an uplifting effect on the human’s mind; and many essential oils also have antiseptic properties, which means they reduce the possibility of infection when applied to the human skin. The beneficial effects of essential oils is still being discovered today.
Four favorites and very common essential oils that are popular for therapeutic benefits are:
· Lavender – helps to alleviate stress, anxiety, irritability mental fatigue, panic attacks and depression, but also good for bruises and stretch marks.
· Peppermint – helps with nausea, vertigo, and exhaustion and also good for headaches.
· Frankincense – used for immune system stimulation and to help with asthma, coughing and bronchitis.
· Tea Tree/Melaleuca – disinfecting and good for skin blemishes and acne.
Essential oils are the highly concentrated version of the natural oils in plants. While most oils can be applied to the skin or ingested without issue, this is not true for all essential oils. It is important to know what you are using and whether or not there are any considerations or counter indications before use. Always do your own research….and know your own body. Also, you want to, as much as possible, use a good quality oil that has been grown, processed and packaged with ethical and pure practices.
Having said that, there is no official grading system in place that makes any one oil a “therapeutic grade oil”, and another one not. Any company can technically call their oils “therapeutic grade” as the term is simply used solely for marketing purposes. Rarely is there 3rd party certification testing made available but can be asked for. If the oils are sourced and distilled properly, all aromatherapy oils should still contain all of their therapeutic benefits that come inherent with the source of that plant.
Essential oils or sometimes referred to EO’s, have a history going back centuries around the world. Their uses include the most basic use for their fragrant qualities to being used for spiritual and religious ceremony to being used to heal the sick. There must have been a time when someone first discovered their beneficial nature….but we do not have a written record from that time….yet we know that they have been used around the world for eons.
The earliest evidence of human knowledge of the healing properties of plants was found in Lascaux, located in the Dordogne region in France. There, cave paintings suggest the use of medicinal plants in everyday life that have been carbon dated as far back as 18,000 B.C.
History in Egypt:
From what we have learned in Egypt, Egyptians were the first people to extensively make use of aromatherapy and aromatic herbs. Evidence and recorded history have both shown that the Egyptians used aromatic oils as early as 4500 B.C.E. The use of aromatics are evident in religious practices, in cosmetics as well as medicinal purposes.
Mummification is another area that it is clear that aromatic essences and resins were extensively used as they preserved the deceased. Although it was thought that most essential oils were produced in Egypt by means of a type enfleurage extraction method, the Egyptians in actual fact did have access to the distillation method via the Mesopotamians as distillation pots have been found at Tepe Gawra dating back about 3,500 BC.
The use of aromatic oils was first recorded in China between 2697-2597 B.C.E during the reign of Huang Ti, the legendary Yellow Emperor. His famous book “The Yellow Emperor’s Book of Internal Medicine” contains uses for several aromatics and is still considered a useful classic by practitioners of eastern medicine today.
Traditional Indian medicine called “Ayur Veda” has a 3000-year history of incorporating essential oils into their healing potions, ointments and composite formulas. Vedic literature lists over 700 substances including cinnamon, ginger, myrrh and sandalwood as effective for healing.
The medicinal wisdom of the Egyptians were embraced and absorbed by the ancient Greeks - and the most well-known physician of that time - Hippocrates (c.460 - 377 BC) was also a firm believer of treating the patient holistically and included aromatherapy massage as a treatment.
The Romans again took over the medicinal wisdom of the Greeks and were great believers in hygiene to promote health and also place great stock in aromatherapy and the power of fragrances.
In Arabian Empire:
After the fall of the Roman Empire and the subsequent Dark Ages we saw the emergence of the Arabian empire which was in the position to draw not only from the Greek and Roman teachings, but also those of China and India.
It is the Persian physician Avicenna (980 - 1,037 AD) that is being credited with perfecting the distillation process of essential oils.
In the Dark Ages:
During this time it was the monks housed in their monasteries which tended after the sick and kept herbal medicinal wisdom alive, yet folk medicine as practiced by illiterate village herbalist normally lead to persecution of such people as witches.
Since the Church saw bathing as sinful, great stock was placed on aromatics to keep stench at bay, and most of the aromatics used also had anti-bacterial and anti-pesticide properties.
During this time, the holistic approach of Hippocrates all but disappeared.
In the Renaissance:
During this time there was a swing back again to the holistic treatment of illness and the most noteworthy of physicians were Paracelsus (Phillipus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim 1493 - 1541).
He once again turned to look at the wisdom of folk medicine and did not discount such knowledge as unimportant - much to the disgust of his contemporaries, yet proved his mettle by having great success in curing leprosy.
In Aromatherapy (Modern):
The term Aromatherapy as we know it today was first coined in 1937 by the French chemist and perfumer Rene Maurice Gattefosse. He was not a believer of the natural health movement but was interested in the properties that essential oils exhibited.
In 1910 he burnt his hand badly in his laboratory and being the first available compound handy, treated his badly burnt hand with pure undiluted lavender oil, which not only immediately eased the pain, but helped heal the hand without any sign of infection or scar.
He also found that minute amounts of essential oils are absorbed by the body and interact with the body chemistry.
During the second world war, as a result of Gattefosse's experiments, Dr. Jean Valet used essential oils to treat injured soldiers with great success.
In the 1950's Marguerite Maury started diluting essential oils in a vegetable carrier oil and massaging it onto the skin using a Tibetan technique which is applied along the nerve endings of the spinal column. She was also the first person to start using the essential oils in specific combinations for the specialized needs of the person that she was massaging.
More recent history of the 1970's and early 80's sees the use of essential oils and aromatherapy becoming a major component of alternative and Holistic health systems, and has a huge following across the world.