The Role of Essential Oils in the Herbalist’s Toolbox
with Cathy Skipper
The days of a strict dividing line between the Anglo-Saxon’s well-being based approach and the French clinical approach to aromatherapy are now behind us. There may still be some instances where, through lack of knowledge or openness to one or other of these angles, people prefer to waste energy fighting or arguing the matter rather than understanding each other but as a general rule, a healthy balance between the two seems to be developing.
Having been trained in herbalism in France with essential oil use as an integral part of that training while also having a strong belief that energetics are an important part of the ‘holistic’ healing process, I see these two dynamics as different aspects of the same thing. The multifaceted, diverse possibility of aromatic molecules in practice makes them one of the backbones of my herbal toolbox…both clinically and energetically!
So this gets me on to the next bridge that has begun to be built and just needs some more bricks and mortar lovingly constructed to make it strong enough to walk on and this is the bridge between essential oil use and herbalism.
I am not suggesting that there aren’t any herbalists out there using essential oils in their practice as I know there are but we are, however, few and far between.
Why, you may ask? One of the reasons may be that as mentioned above, the well-being aspect of essential oil use in the States and UK meant that they were not considered n the clinical solutions to illness sector but more in a context of massage and reflexology for example. Another reason, I have heard herbalists explaining is that due to the amount of plant matter needed to produce them, they do not feel they are ecologically ‘sound’ as a plant medicine…this I believe is a huge subject that not only takes into account correct sourcing of essential oils but also their correct use, I have talked about this in the conversation with Ann Ambrecht for the Numen blog (http://www.numenfilm.com/blog/essential-oils/).
Another possibility is that herbalists cannot make essential oils themselves and thus do not make the same connection with the essential oil and the plant that they would do with a plant medicine they can prepare themselves.
Whatever the reason, I have noticed that more and more of my herbal colleagues are taking an interest in the subject. Last year I enjoyed some lovely times with Rosalee de la Foret and while sharing her amazing medicine making skills with me, I added some essential oils to the recipes. It was so enjoyable working together blending the different tools and our different skills together. Jim McDonald has been showing an interest, wanting to understand the safety issues and the role essential oils may play for herbalists and last month in the Drome, the course I taught with 7Song was a definite blending of herbalism and aromatherapy and the boundaries felt more or less non existent.
Below I have tried to outline a few examples of different ways essential oils may be integrated into an herbal treatment;
Depending on the situation in hand, I choose the preparation or blend of preparations that I feel suits best. Essential oils are often the first to come to hand when there is infection, viruses, bacterial or fungal problems. I make sure that I always have a couple of different phenol and monoterpenol rich oils to hand, such as Thymus vulgaris CT thymol, Thymus vulgaris CT linalol, Satureja montana, Oreganum vulgaris, myrtus communis… Alongside being remarkable anti-infectious agents with a large sphere of action, both phenols and montoterpenols also have immune stimulating properties. The reason why I would choose the essential oil in preference to a tincture of the same plant for the onset of one of the problems mentioned above is because the concentration of aromatic molecules is huge and therefore action tends to be extremely rapid. Its activity is also both direct and indirect. Direct action is lethal to the pathogen by provocation of irreversible lesions on the cell membranes whilst indirect action inhibits bacterial growth through alteration of the environment, these hydroxyl molecules have an acidic pH and germs develop in an alkaline environment. It is for these reasons that I would also think of these essential oils as a preference when needing to either react to the first sign of infection or as a preventative measure.
At the same time, I would probably use a tincture or herbal tea blend to help relieve any of the symptoms triggered by the infection, for example for a bronchial infection with a phlegmy cough I may use a herbal tea blend of stimulating expectorants such as Marrubium vulgar, which funnily enough is used for its aromatic molecules (lactones) which have a fluidifying and expectorating action; Mullein (Verbascum Thapsus) for its mucilage but also its saponosides and their expectorating action; and Plantago lanceolata also for its gentle expectorating action. To link the essential oils and the herbal tea, as well as helping with patient compliance, I could add some dried thyme (for taste) or Pine bud (Pinus sylvestris) syrup to sweeten it.
Depending on the emotional condition of the patient, I may delve into my herbal toolbox to give them some emotional support with flower essences. I think it is very important no matter what the disease to take the time to listen to the person’s feelings and if needed give them some herbal help for this.
On the subject of the more subtle elements in my toolbox, essential oils can also serve this role enforcing what I was saying at the beginning of this article about their diversity. On one hand, they can come in and act as a powerful, anti-fungal or anti-microbial and on the other hand, with just a drop or a sniff they can transform an emotional blockage. One of the more subtle uses I have found essential oils very helpful with is for grounding, today many people are perpetually ungrounded or momentarily (due to illness, emotional shock etc.) and it is in my opinion an important part of the healing process to help them ‘touch ground’. It is interesting to note that many of the essential oils that are used for grounding were those used in rituals and spiritual practices throughout history, re-enforcing the importance in being well grounded in order to be well connected to one’s soul or spirit.
Sesquiterpenes give what is called a ‘base note’ in aromatherapy and are contained in many roots and woody parts of the plant, they are the essential oil constituent found most commonly in grounding oils.
Nard (Nardus jatamansi) essential oil contains 60% sesquiterpenes and has a very earthy smell of forest floors that brings us right down into our lower bodies liberating at the same time the over stimulated mind. In this grounding action there is also a re-harmonising effect that is felt throughout the organism from the toes up to the head and which transmits warmth, comfort and security. It is interesting to note that Nard belongs to the same botanical family as valerian.
Patchouli (Pogostemon cablin) with 30% sesquiterpenes has a strong relationship with the material world; it conveys stability and grounding as well as stimulating physical and psychological force during periods of chronic tiredness, stress and mental agitation. Patchouli helps us to reconcile with our origins and accept our individuality, giving us the courage to express our emotions calmly. Ideal in massage oil that works on the root chakra and attracts matter (physical force, capacity to concretise ideas etc.)
Cedar (Cedrus atlantica) contains up to 70% sesquitepernes and acts as a link between a solid base foundation that connects to a naturally held spine, neck, shoulders and head. Its action procures the feeling of safety, being well anchored on earth with a solid psyche.
Sandalwood (Santalum album) with up to 50% sesquiterpenes, sandalwood unifies all aspects of the self thus helping to relieve stress, nervousness, mental dispersion and nervous exhaustion. It opens the solar plexus and helps us feel at home, balanced and harmonious within ourselves.
The above examples show just a tiny part that essential oils play in my choice of plant medicines, they are an important part of my toolbox and cover a broad spectrum of roles. It is however vital to stress the importance of obtaining a good educational training by an accredited school or teacher in the use of essential oils in order to use these powerful plant medicines safely.
Are you a herbalist? Cathy Skipper shall be offering a course on Aromatherapy for Herbalists through The School for Aromatic Studies this Autumn. Be sure to sign up for our e-newsletter to stay up to date on this exciting new course with Cathy.
About Cathy Skipper
Cathy Skipper has lived in rural France for the last 25 years. A herbalist, teacher and gardener, she trained at the Ecole Lyonnaise de Plantes Médicinales in Lyon, France, where she now teaches. She participated for four years in an experimental approach to energetic healing called ‘Life cell’ under French Kinesiologist, Caroline Gupta. Her plant training also included a two year course with Claude Lefebvre on Plant Communication, she is currently translating his recent book on the subject into English.
Cathy’s work involves building bridges between aromatic medicine and herbalism as well as recognizing the importance of healing the healer and reconnecting with nature. In her teaching she marries theory, practical work and energetics with an underlying intention of helping students develop an intuitive relationship between themselves, the plant/essential oil and the patient in order to impulse healing.