Herbal Medicine & Essential Oils – Choosing the right (natural) tool for the job

This blog post was prompted by conversation topics that seem to have come up a few times recently, and I felt compelled to write about it.

When I worked in IT, I always used to say “right tool for the job”.  This is a thing across all industries, but for those who know a little about computers the entirety of my IT career there was the “Mac vs. Windows” battle that went on.  Windows people are Windows people, but Mac people could tend to be quite… fanatic…. about Macs.  And it was a frustrating thing at times because there were cases where it was obvious that a Windows based machine was the right tool for a particular job, but because a person loved their Macs they would refuse to switch over, causing all sorts of support and technical issues.  And in some cases, what they wanted to do just was not possible on their Mac.

What do computers have to do with complementary health?  Well as a Naturopath I am trained in a variety of modalities including diet and lifestyle, nutritional supplements, herbal medicines, homeopathy etc.  And I tend to take a similar approach when working out treatment plans for my clients – the right tool for the job. 

Being more specific, when working with herbal medicines there are a variety of options available to us – teas, tablets, powdered capsules, liquid extracts, essential oils, and (most importantly in my view) the whole fresh plant.  It’s not just about choosing which herbs are appropriate, but also what form to prescribe them.  All forms have their benefits.

If you are reading this, then I’m going to assume you have a keen interest in natural or complementary health options – and that’s awesome.  I think its great that more and more people are becoming aware of other options that are available to them in the form of preventative health care and complementary remedies.

Something that is becoming quite popular is the topic of essential oils  – and this is where I come to the core of why I’m writing this post.  Essential oils are fantastic.  They are really helpful for many people to ease a variety of symptoms they may be experiencing.  But like the Mac vs. Windows example I detailed above, I find that there are some people out there who promote their particular brand of essential oil as “THE ONLY” oil that anyone should use.  The issue around this is that in some cases, essential oils are being promoted and sold by people who have no formal herbal medicine or aromatherapy training.   What’s more, some of the advice given by untrained people can be dangerous for others  (such as ingesting the oils on a daily basis).  Let me be clear - I’m not saying that every person who sells or promotes essential oils does this.  But it’s a thing that keeps coming up, and of course those with the loudest voices are the ones we hear.

There are a few areas that I’d like to discuss in more detail regarding essential oils and herbal medicine in general:

There is no perfect brand.  There are many great brands available – some are available to practitioners, some in health food stores, and some are sold via direct selling or multi level marketing.  I like to try different brands, do research on them, and find brands and blends that work well for me and my family.  If you are figuring out which brand to buy based on quality, please remember to look beyond what the company says on their website or what their direct sellers say.  Make sure that if a company is touting its product as “pure” or “therapeutic grade” dig a little deeper to find out whether that is due to independent testing, or whether that’s just a phrase specific to that company with no comparison across the industry.  There are many great Facebook groups that discuss different brands and offer information around testing and results to base you choices from.  Consider that there are local companies who do great oils too.  Look at who the industry leaders are and who is providing the unbiased research and testing if you are interested in going into that much depth.

When we do our training in herbal medicine, we are trained in the herbs that we use but more importantly we are trained in CONTRAINDICATIONS.  When we consult with a client, we take a detailed health history to find out what conditions they have and what medications they may be on to then prescribe accordingly.  Joe Bloggs of XYZ EO MLM company with no formal training may not take any of that into consideration when recommending you ingest A, B, C oils for condition X (or for general health and wellbeing) on a daily basis.   Many trained aromatherapists do not recommend ingesting oil on a daily basis – but may prescribe over a short term as needed (depending on where they were trained).  I hear over and over again about how “essential oils are natural so they MUST be safe!”.  But anyone with any understanding of botany knows this is not true – there are many poisonous (natural) plants.  And even for some that are, there’s the saying “the dose makes the poison”.  Ingesting an essential oil is very different to eating the whole plant.

Some articles for further reading on the topic can be found here: https://www.planttherapy.com/blog/2014/01/14/can-essential-oils-be-ingested/  and here: https://healdove.com/alternative-medicine/Essential-Oil-Safety-Documented-Side-Effects-Injuries-and-Deaths-from-Essential-Oil-Ingestion

It’s important to remember that an essential oil is NOT just a concentrated version of the whole plant.  I hear people who promote essential oils say this, and it’s just not true.  Yes, it is a concentrated form of SOME of the constituents of the plant, but it’s not the same as the whole herb. 

I also read and hear a lot about using essential oils to flavor food – and while I can see the application in things like raw desserts or other snacks that can do with a punch of flavor, more and more I’m seeing people use it in regular cooking.  In my point of view, it’s an expensive way to cook, and what is the outcome you are after?  If you want to move towards more natural remedies – why not plant herbs in your garden and use them fresh?  The whole plant has so many more therapeutic constituents that you may be missing out on. 

As an example, if we look at the main constituents of Zingiber officinalis (Ginger) essential oil -  zingiberene and b-bisaboline – they have antioxidant, analgesic and rubefacient properties. However the gingeroles found in the fresh plant also have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antiseptic and cardiotonic properties. (1)

There’s also that holistic component of nurturing your herbs from the garden to your plate.  If you don’t have that much of a green thumb, maybe find out where the best place is to buy herbs that have been grown locally instead.

In conclusion….
I love that people are wanting to incorporate natural or complementary therapies into their lives to help with their healthcare.   If you learn about essential oils and love them – fantastic!  They have so many great benefits and are a great addition to the home.  But please don’t get caught down the rabbit hole of “essential oils for everything”….  remember that teas work well, tinctures work very well and of course never forget the whole herb!  And if you are unsure about what to use, then that’s what Herbalists and us Naturopaths are here for.  If you find that you are loving using essential oils and feel like it’s something you want to share with others, then why not think about doing some formal Aromatherapy or Herbal Medicine training so that you have a foundation on which to recommend or prescribe them.

1.         Dr. Marciano M. The Naturopathic Herbalist - Botanical Medicine for the Medical Student 2015 [updated 25 September 2015. Available from: http://thenaturopathicherbalist.com/.

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