Sukham Blog – A monthly column focused on South Asian health and wellbeing.
Essential oils have been used in India, China, Egypt, Greece, and Persia for therapy, beauty, and aroma dating back to 3000 BC. Oils derived from herbs and plants are regularly used in Ayurveda. 4000-year-old records describe vaidyas (ayurvedic physicians) administering oils of cinnamon, ginger, myrrh, coriander, spikenard, and sandalwood to their patients. The Vedas list more than 700 herbs and aromatics for religious and therapeutic use. Hindus regard Tulsi (known as Holy Basil in the West) as a sacred plant, and worship it to obtain the energy of love and devotion, and strengthen their faith, compassion, and clarity. Also known as Vrinda, Tulsi is believed to be a manifestation of Goddess Lakshmi on earth. Modern-day scientific studies have established its beneficial effects, and its ability to address physical, chemical, metabolic, and psychological stress through a unique combination of pharmacological actions. Professor Marc Cohen, one of Australia’s pioneers of integrative and holistic medicine, says “the use of tulsi in daily rituals is a testament to Ayurvedic wisdom and provides an example of ancient knowledge offering solutions to a modern problem.”
Extracts and essences of medicinal plants have similarly, long been used for beauty, aromatic and spiritual enhancement, medicine, and therapy. Egyptians have used essential oils for medicinal benefits, beauty care, and spiritual enhancement since 2000 BC. Hippocrates documented the medicinal influence of more than 300 plants and advocated the use of oils, aromatics, and herbs as remedies for ailments and as preventive medicine in ancient Greece. Essential oils have been a part of traditional Chinese medicine dating back to 2700 BC. The famous Chinese emperor Huangdi described important uses of essential oils in Huangdi Neijing, a treatise on health and disease, around 2600 BC. His book is still a reference work for practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine, and its translation The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine is available today.
Essential oils are aromatic, volatile liquids extracted from select plants by steam distillation, expression (cold pressing), solvent extraction, or carbon dioxide extraction. These complex compounds are volatile under normal conditions, with 20 to 400 identifiable constituents that combine to give each oil a unique fragrance and specific beneficial, therapeutic properties. They are the essence of the plant, and responsible for its unique scent and chemical constitution. Aromatic plants contain anywhere from 0.005 to 10% essential oil. Extracting high-quality oil from these plants is a specialized task and can be expensive. It takes 600 pounds of rose petals and 250,000 jasmine blossoms to make an ounce each of rose and jasmine essential oils. These highly concentrated oils have high potency; just a couple of drops can be very effective, so they are normally diluted with carrier oils – less volatile and stable vegetable oils, with little-to-no scent, such as fractionated coconut oil, sesame, sweet almond, olive, grapeseed, flaxseed, mustard or jojoba oils.
Essential oils are used as natural remedies in different ways: application to the skin by massage or compresses, direct inhalation, diffusing (passive inhalation) and application with heat (applying the oils before a hot shower, or adding them to a hot bath.) Aromatherapy is a popular way to obtain their therapeutic effects and the benefits of Ayurvedic Abhyangam or massage are widely recognized.
The therapeutic and beneficial properties of various essential oils are well documented. In Ayurveda, they are used to balance the three doshas and are classified and used based on their effect on body temperature and how that affects the doshas. Hot and warm essential oils are more suitable for cold constitutions – the Vata and Kapha doshas, while cold oils are more suitable for Pitta doshas. Based on an assessment of an individual’s constitution, dosha, and current condition, combinations of different oils are used to bring the doshas into balance. Oils of camphor, cinnamon, bergamot, and cypress are warm and energizing, sandalwood, jasmine, and rose oils are stabilizing and calming. Vanilla, lavender, lemongrass, lemon, ginger, and ylang-ylang oils have cleansing, digestive and detoxing properties. Dry oils like saffron, St. John’s Wort, and white yarrow can help to strengthen the tissues, improve the condition of the skin, treat small wounds, and prevent the loss of liquids. Oils of parsley, dill, cinnamon, coriander, and lemongrass help to strengthen the body while cardamom, coriander, chamomile, juniper, sage, and eucalyptus help to combat pathogens and speed up the process of removing excess fluids and toxins.
Among the most widely used oils in the West are basil, bergamot, chamomile, clove bud, eucalyptus, geranium, lavender, lemon, peppermint, rosemary, sandalwood, tea tree, and thyme. Essential oils “have the ability to invigorate, refresh, calm, cleanse, cool, warm, boost immunity, relieve congestion, stimulate cognitive function, kill pathogenic microorganisms, reduce inflammation, increase circulation, act as a diuretic, relieve pain, and minimize scar tissue formation – and that’s only a partial listing,” says author and herbalist, Stephanie Tourles, whose Beginner’s Guide provides detailed oil profiles and recipes for 25 of the most common essential oils, including properties, benefits, utilization, and safety information.
The Cleveland Clinic describes the power of essential oils and advocates their use in complementary or alternative medicine. They cite studies that show essential oils may help boost mood, improve job performance through reduced stress and increased attentiveness, improve sleep, kill bacteria, funguses, and viruses; reduce anxiety, pain, inflammation, and nausea; and relieve headaches.
Safety and quality should be watchwords in the use of essential oils. They are generally not safe to consume and can cause significant poisoning even if small amounts are ingested. Use pure, high-quality, natural, organic oils that are sourced from reliable vendors. They should be stored as directed in order to maintain their efficacy, and used as prescribed, under proper guidance, while following all safety measures. Special precautions must be taken for children and infants.
As one of the oldest known forms of natural medicine, essential oils have the ability to heal your body, calm your mind and soothe your spirit. Whether it’s self-care, a visit to a spa, or an Ayurvedic abhyangam treatment, if you haven’t experienced essential oils, maybe it’s time to give them a try!
Mukund Acharya is a regular columnist for India Currents. He is also President and a co-founder of Sukham, an all-volunteer non-profit organization in the Bay Area that advocates for healthy aging within the South Asian community. Sukham provides curated information and resources on health and well-being, aging, and life’s transitions, including serious illness, palliative and hospice care, death, and bereavement. Contact the author at email@example.com
Featured image under Creative Commons License. With sincere thanks to Lisa Hobbs at Unsplash for the use of her photographs.