An Essential Oil is “…the unique combination of the plant’s chemical constituents that determine both its synergy of therapeutic effects and its aroma. These can not be imitated by a chemical mixture that is produced in the laboratory.” Gabriel Mojay Each essential oil has its own unique composition of molecules and chemical components.
Aromatherapy can be defined as the art and science of using volatile plant materials (essential oils) to support the overall health of the body, mind and spirit. The term was originally coined by Rene Maurice Gattefosse in 1928.
Recently, essential oils and aromatherapy have been getting a lot of attention. Many are wondering if there is validity to the therapeutic claims or if it is a marketing ploy to capitalize on the swing toward ‘green’ and ‘sustainability.’
Marketing and sales strategies directed at our culture, bombard us with so many product choices – skincare, food, cleaners, prescriptions, etc. – and assume since they are readily available, well stocked at our favorite stores or recommended by a professional, they must be good for us. At the very least, they are not bad for us.
In the last few decades, many essential oils and their chemical components (or constituents) have been studied to learn more about their therapeutic applications. Despite the recent pharmacological advances, we are faced with many drug-resistant (or ‘super bugs’) bacterial and fungal infections as well as facing severe side-effects, toxicity and negative impacts on our environment.
Hundreds of essential oils have been found in plants around the globe. These essential oils were used first and foremost by the plants that created them to protect the plant from pests, other invasive plants, disease, fungi, to heal it and/or to attract pollinators. Small sacs of essential oil are undetectable to the naked eye and are found in all types of plant material (each plant is different) including leaves, flowers, grasses, roots, rhizomes, resins and trunks.
Nature in its infinite wisdom provides many solutions to our ailments and maladies. Incorporating or using essential oils for their therapeutic properties and emotional support is an example of this amazing balance. Healthful food options is another, but that (while related) is a separate topic.
With modern medicine and science, we are now validating many traditional remedies and ingredients. Current technology now allows us a look at the chemical structures, and offers an opportunity to test (in vitro or in situ) with random samples and controlling outside variables.
Today, we are fortunate that time honored, traditional knowledge is blending with science and research to broaden and in some cases introduce the world of essential oils and aromatherapy.
Want to know more about where essential oils come from?
Hundreds of essential oils have been found in plants around the globe. These essential oils were used first and foremost by the plants that created them to protect the plant from pests, other invasive plants, disease, fungi, to heal it and/or to attract pollinators.
Small sacs of essential oil are undetectable to the naked eye and are found in all types of plant material (each plant is different) including leaves, flowers, grasses, roots, rhizomes, resins and trunks. The key is extracting these volatile sacs.
The most common method is called ‘Steam Distillation’ – think of the last vegetables that you steamed or a 1920’s Probation era still.
You need a heat source to heat the water, then your plant material is suspended above the water.
The steam rises and carries with it the tiny essential oil sacs.
The steam is captured in a coil off to the side and it cools as it travels through the coil and is collected in a bottle at the end.
The essential oil will separate to the top of the ‘water’ also known as hydrolat or hydrosol.
Essential Oils – A Bit of History
Understanding the history or background gives us a clearer picture of now.
Humans learned thousands of years ago that we too can benefit from the therapeutic and/or medicinal qualities of plants and their essential oils. Through a process called steam distillation, most essential oils are extracted or separated from their plant materials.
While the term aromatherapy was coined recently, using plants for their healing properties can be traced through fossils to the early days of human kind1. It appears even early humans sought out specific plants to heal wounds and treat illness. Research does not prove how or why they knew to use these plant. Early humans may have learned from watching animals and/or taking note that certain plants had the ability to repair themselves.
References and evidence of medicinal or therapeutic use are found through out history.
As early as 7000-4000 B.C., it is thought that Neolithic ointments were made by combining fatty oils like olive oil and sesame oil with healing or fragrant plants. These same people learned that certain plants could be combined with their food to flavor and preserve it2.
As time passed, methods were refined and the uses evolved. A rich history and evidence of essential oil use dates back to the Ancient Egypt. It is thought that the Egyptians were the first to extract the essential oils from the plant material using an early still.
Aromatic plants and their oils were used for health, beauty and worship. Frankincense, myrrh, galbanum, cinnamon, cedarwood, juniper berry and spikenard are all known to have been used at some stage to preserve the bodies of Egyptian royalty in preparation of the after-life. Thousands of years later, these well preserved bodies have been discovered and a faint lingering scent of the oils used still evident.
Besides the numerous Biblical references to essential oils, Patricia Davis in her book, Aromatherapy an A-Z, also discusses some of the plants documented by Pedanius Dioscorides. Dioscerides was a Greek physician, pharmacologist and botanist who lived less than a handful of decades after Jesus. He traveled through out the Mediterranean with Roman troops and documented many healing herbs and plants, such as:
Hysop Hysopus officinalis used for respiratory infections, as a laxative and for purification,
Marjoram Origanum marjorana used for rheumatic pains, to ease grief and for toothaches,
Peppermint Mentha used to soothe digestive upsets, to cool and to heal infections,
Frankincense Boswellia carterii healing oil was used (and is) to sooth the nervous and endocrine systems,
Myrrh Commiphora myrrha used to heal gum and skin infections as well as to stimulate the immune system
Essential oil use has a rich history that crosses cultures and spans the entire globe. Information was passed from culture to culture-e.g. Egyptians to Greeks. Chinese, Indians, Middle East & Europeans all adapted, improved and learned something about the distillation and use of essential oils.
More than a millennia later, finds another important link between healing, health and essential oils. The Dark Ages ,early Middle Ages, were marked by disease, death and decay primarily caused by the Bubonic Plague also known as Black Death. Towards the end of the 13th century into the 14th century upwards of 200 million, half of the European continent’s population, died.
Doctors used a beaklike mask with essential oils to protect them from the disease. Later, there is documentation that those involved with the perfume and tanning industries were spared due to the antibacterial properties of the oils they used in their trade/products. As the center of the European Lavender market, the town of Bucklersbury, England was spared from the ravages of disease2.
With the birth of modern pharmacology in the 20th century, essential oils remain at the center. Scientists have used knowledge of the chemical constituents of various essential oils as well as the ability to separate them and study them to synthesize and chemically replicate individual components. Bringing us to the medications that we purchase over the counter or from the local pharmacy.
- Davis, Patricia. Aromatherapy an A-Z. 3rd. London, UK: Vermilion, 2005. Print.
- Keville, Kathi, and Mindy Green. Aromatherapy: A Complete Guide to the Healing Art. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Random House, 2009. Print.