Using essential oils and plants
Although I give warnings about particular oils throughout the book, it is appropriate to repeat here that one should always be very careful when using essential oils. This is particularly important in the case of pregnant women and children. Any treatment offered to a child should be used in half strength or less.
Before using any oil in any remedy, first do a skin test.
Everyone is individual and has a different way of reacting to different oils. Age, size and sex all make a difference too.
In addition, when choosing which oil to use – for many have the same properties – for preference choose one from a plant which grows in approximately the same geographical area as that in which you live. If you are British, try lavender as a calmant before you try frankincense, for instance. And don’t be surprised to see that many oils have apparently conflicting properties – i.e. stimulant and relaxant – depending on the proportions used. Lavender, for example, has stimulating properties when used in larger quantities, but in smaller amounts it is a relaxant. The concept can be likened to taking a drink of wine – one glass may act as a stimulant, whereas three or more might send you to sleep.
I do not advocate anyone to carry out continued use of essential oils, but to use them only when there is a problem requiring a remedy. Remember that they are a type of drug and just as you would not take an aspirin every day unless medically prescribed, so you should not use essential oils for prolonged periods of time without a reason or without first checking with your doctor or aromatherapist. Respect them and use them when they are genuinely needed.
You can, however, keep aromatherapy in your daily life in other ways, by using the plants rather than the essential oils, whether in decoctions, tisanes, cooking or other ideas suggested throughout this book.
Everyone should carry out a skin test before using essential oils, but it is particularly important if you suffer from hayfever or allergies of any kind, and should always be done before using the oils in treatments for children and the elderly.
Put one drop of the oil on a cotton bud and use it to just touch the inside of the elbow, the back of the wrist or under the arm. Cover the area with a plaster and leave unwashed for 24 hours. If there is itching, redness or any other type of reaction, don’t use that oil on that person.
BASE OR CARRIER OILS
Few essential oils are used neat, but are mixed into a fixed plant oil base like almond, Soya or Wheatgerm. (Fixed oils do not evaporate quickly on exposure to the air like essential or volatile ones.) These base or carrier oils contain certain benefits themselves, not least their contents of iodine and vitamin E. They also act as a balancing and stabilizing agent. A carrier or base oil should be pure, and preferably cold pressed when it retains its essential vitamin content better. It should have little or no smell of its own, and it should be penetrative. The quantities of essential oils to base oil will vary a little from oil to oil, but unless otherwise stated you should use 2-3 drops essential oil to 5 ml (1 tsp) base oil for use on the body, and 1 drop essential oil to 5ml (1 tsp) base oil for the face.
The plant: The almond tree (Prunus amygdalus, Rosaceae) is a native of the eastern Mediterranean, but is now established in other warm countries. It was introduced to Britain during Roman times, and its nuts were a common ingredient in medieval cooking.
The oil: The fixed oils of almond are extracted from two types of almond tree, the bitter almond (P. amygdalus var. amara) and the sweet almond (P. amygdalus var. dulcis). Only the latter is used in therapy. The nuts contain about 50 – 60 per cent oil, which is also used in baking and confectionery.
The oil is a lovely clear pale yellow, more or less odourless with a slight nutty note. Olein is its principal constituent, with a tiny proportion of glyceride and linoleic acid. It has a definite action on the skin as a softening agent, being a good lubricant, nourishing and revitalizing. Shop-bought oils are often adulterated, so beware.
Its uses: An almond remedy is wonderful for dry, wrinkled hands, but is also very beneficial for eczema and skin irritations of any kind. Warm some almond oil gently in a bain-marie then dissolve in it the same amount of cocoa butter. Remove from the heat, mix until paste-like and apply to the hands. Put on some cotton gloves and allow the oil to penetrate for at least an hour (or overnight).
The plant: Castor oil comes from a tall, quick-growing, perennial woody shrub or small tree (Ricinus communis, Euphorbiaceae) native to India, but is now seen in many warm countries. It is often grown as an ornamental, but it is also of value as a windbreak and a shade tree. It bears seed profusely and it is these that are pressed for the oil. This was known to the Greeks and Romans as a purgative or laxative, which is still a major role of the oil today; lots of common laxatives contain a proportion of castor oil.
The oil: It has a very viscid consistency, is colourless, has a slight fragrance, and is disagreeable to taste. The major constituents are palmatic and other fatty acids, ricinoleic acid and glycerine.
Its uses: The Ancient Egyptians called the oil kiki, using it as an unguent for skin rashes, and in embalming. It is still useful for numerous skin complaints, ranging from eczema to dryness of the skin. For very dry eczema, mix 30 ml (2 tbsp) of castor oil with 15 ml (1 tbsp) of almond oil and 2 drops of wheatgerm oil, and apply gently to the affected part because the oil is so viscid, it is a good idea to mix it with another carrier oil to help its penetration.
When in India I drove past field upon field of the plant. My skin was so dry from the heat and dust that I asked the driver to stop so I could rub my hands and face with the leaves and berries of the plant. Indian women also do this to keep their skin young looking and supple.
The oil: Grape seeds contain between 6 and 20 per cent oil. The oil is pale greeny yellow in colour and is very pure, high in polyunsaturates, and extremely light – it is almost as thin as water. This means that it is easily absorbed by the skin, which is very useful in aromatherapy because the essentials can penetrate very quickly.
Its uses: The seeds and leaves of grapes are rather astringent, so I tend to use the oil for conditions like acne.
The plant: This comes from the soy or Soya bean plant (Glycine hispida or soja, Leguminosae), an erect annual sometimes reaching 1- 1.75 m (4-6 ft) in height, which is native to China and Japan. Although used in the East for the last 4,000 years, it did not appear in Europe until the end of the seventeenth century, nor in Britain until the beginning of the twentieth century. It is high in polyunsaturates, and one of the most popular of cooking oils. The bean itself is one of the world’s major and most nourishing foodstuffs (it is the only plant source containing complete protein).
The oil: There is approximately 12 – 25 per cent oil in the beans, and this contains many acids (oleic, linoleic, stearic, palmitic, etc) and traces of chlorophyll. It is a very nourishing oil of a very pale colour with a tinge of yellow; it is a good carrier oil as it is quickly absorbed when applied to the skin. It must be of the best quality, though. I use it a lot in preparations for acne.
Its uses: The French value Soya oil for its medicinal properties: the linoleic acid content helps lower cholesterol levels. Take some every day in your salad dressings, on top of freshly cooked vegetables, or with rice dishes.
Wheat germ oil
The plant: Wheatgerm, the germ of the wheat grain, is a highly nutritious food, rich in proteins (one of the few plant sources which provide near complete proteins), and vitamins Band E.
The oil: Wheatgerm oil contains a very high proportion of vitamin E, which is said to be the skin vitamin.
Its uses: Because of its high proportion of vitamin E, it is very effective in contributing to the treatment of skin problems when used as a carrier oil.
Another benefit of using wheatgerm oil is that as it is an antioxidant it stabilizes essential oils and makes them last longer. Add a drop or two of wheatgerm oil to any remedy.
That essential oils can pass through the skin is indisputable. After all, the skin eliminates, so it can just as easily absorb. Modern scientific research has shown that many more substances pass through the skin than was previously thought possible, and some of the best scientific units in the world are investigating the medical potential of this. It is known, for example, that steroid creams held in place underneath occlusive dressings can contribute to a dangerous build-up of steroids in the body as they are passing through the skin. A simple test for the sceptical is to rub the soles of the feet with a cut garlic clove; in a few hours the smell of the garlic will be detected on the breath.
One effective way to treat ailments with essential oils is by massage. This could be as professional or as perfunctory as you like, but the rubbing action will activate the nerve endings and stimulate the circulation of blood to the surface of the skin – and thereby ease the entry of the oils.
Even if correctly applied, essential oils will only be taken up by the skin for a period of about seven to ten minutes, and will not be absorbed well if applied when the body is eliminating – when sweating through anxiety or heat, for instance, or after exercise. And their efficiency in penetrating the skin and reaching the other organs also depends very much on the individual. A large amount of subcutaneous fat will impede their passage, as will water retention and poor circulation.
The oils can be massaged into the face, back, chest, top of the hands, sales of the feet – or relevant part of the body in the case of rheumatic pain, say – and this in itself is relaxing. Even if you don’t have time for a proper massage, apply an appropriate essential oils mix on the top of your hands, back of the neck, temples, the third eye (between the eyes), under the nose, and behind the ears; this activates the circulation, and the relevant oil will help you regain vitality. The hands are particularly useful because the skin on top is very thin, and there are many visible main veins.
On the scalp
This is particularly good for tiredness, loss of hair and ageing. Start at the back of the head, on the dip at the back of the neck, and work upwards towards the crown of the head. Press from the left towards the centre of the neck with the thumb of your left hand, all round the back of the neck, then the same from the other side using the other hand. Then friction up over the back of the head, and all over the cranium using the fingers of both hands as if giving yourself a very vigorous shampoo. Feel the skin becoming loose.
On the solar plexus and stomach
The solar plexus lies between the ribs, and you should simply press the oiled palm of one hand against it and rub in a clockwise direction (it doesn’t seem to work in the opposite direction). Do the same with the stomach. The heat of your hands will help the absorption of the oils. Avoid this massage in pregnancy.
In the Bath
Another effective way of treating with essential oils is to use them in the bath. Recent scientific research using radio-active isotopes has provided proof that essential oils added to bath water are absorbed through the skin. So when Hippocrates recommended an aromatic bath every day, he was near the truth.
Mix 3 drops (unless otherwise stated) with a capful of very mild shampoo and pour under running water. This will help the oils disperse in the water rather than sit in a film on the top. Make sure the room is warm, and that the door and windows are closed to keep in the vapours. Immerse your body completely for at least ten minutes, relax and breathe deeply. A certain quantity of odoriferous molecules will penetrate the skin, while others will stimulate the nerve endings of the olfactory organ in the nose in the same way as they do when inhaled as a vapour.
For deep-cleansing the skin, have a facial sauna once or twice a week. Have ready a bowl, the chosen oil(s), and a towel. Boil a kettle of water and wait until it has cooled to hand-hot temperature (about 38C or 100F 3/8), not scalding. Put in a few drops (or as many drops as specified) of essential oils. Put the towel over your head and lean over the bowl so that the towel encloses both head and bowl. Do not get much closer than about 30 cm (12 in).
The essential oils in the steam will get to work on the skin. The effect is twofold as the essences in vapour form are absorbed through the delicate membranes of the nasal passages as well. Their action is thus internal as well as external.
Inhalation, which is most obviously useful for congestive ailments like catarrh and colds, uses the same principle as a facial sauna. It also operates on the same principle as traditional home or chemist-shop remedies for the blocked noses of colds and ‘flu: these involve a simple towel-over-head inhalation of friar’s balsam (derived from benzoin essential oil), or eucalyptus or wintergreen (essential oils of Australian and North American trees respectively).
You can buy inhalers from specialist chemists, or use your own ‘built-in’ inhaler: put 1 drop of the chosen oil on your hands, rub together to warm, then cup together over your nose, making sure the hands are firmly closed. Inhale deeply several times, and the benefits of the oils will be very quickly absorbed.
Poultices are an age-old way of drawing impurities out through the skin to soothe irritation, or to relieve congestion or pain. Their history goes back many thousands of years, indeed, they were among the first forms of medicine developed by man. What they consist of is a raw or mashed herb, which is sometimes applied in this state directly to the body, or is moistened first before its application (see individual plant descriptions). Sometimes, too, the contents of the poultice are left exposed to the air; otherwise the ingredients are wrapped in a cloth and then applied.
Traditionally the poultices in most frequent use were made of linseed or mustard; they were particularly popular when dealing with chest complaints and skin ailments – and still are.
The seeds are those of the plant Linum usitatissimum (Linaceae), which also yields the fibre flax. Linseed oil is used occasionally as a base oil in aromatherapy, but its main commercial value is in paints and varnishes (and in conditioning the willow of cricket bats). The seeds contain 30 – 40 per cent fixed oil, which is viscid and yellow, containing linolene and palmotine. The oil is reputedly good for constipation; in Switzerland they sell it to mix with muesli.
The seeds form a good base for a poultice as they crush easily, swell up in liquid, and hold heat for a long time; they are also very lubricant because of the oil content of the seeds.
Depending on the area to be covered, use from 3 tablespoons up to about 100 g (4 oz) seeds. Crush them in a mortar or a coffee mill. Place in a saucepan and pour in enough boiling water to make a smooth paste. Add the essential oil – from 2 to 5 drops, depending on the amount of linseed used (see also individual recommendations) – and mix. Spread on an appropriately sized piece of gauze or muslin, and cover with a second piece. Fold the ends over and apply while still hot (but not scalding). Leave for at least ten minutes, or until cool.
Apply an oil afterwards to reinforce the action of the poultice and lubricate the skin (see individual recommendations). If used on the face, the poultice can leave the skin feeling a bit sticky (although it gives a wonderful glow and an amazingly supple feeling). Use a flower water, like rose, orange or witch hazel, to remove this stickiness.
A poultice of mustard should not be used on the face: it is most effective, though, on the chest and back for a number of ailments.
You can either use crushed seeds (use a mortar or coffee mill, but wash them well afterwards!) or mustard powder. A mustard seed poultice is made in the same way as a linseed poultice, using boiling purified water (available from chemists) or still mineral water; but as the seeds are less bulky than linseed, add some linseed as well. If using mustard powder, add it to linseed or oatmeal.
Apply the poultice warm, not hot. A mustard seed poultice will make the skin red and hot (a sign it is having the desired reaction) so after removing apply talcum powder, to absorb the heat, and wash your hands. Do not leave for longer than ten minutes as it can make the skin swell.
Mustard poultices can be bought ready-made in France.
Like linseed, organic oats swell up, retain heat and are easy to spread on gauze. Oatmeal contains a significant amount of vitamin E too. Use as for linseed, but these poultices are a little too sticky to be used on the face.
In Clay Masks
Some clay is included as a base in many commercial mask formulas as it helps absorb excess oil from greasy skin, and lifts dirt out of the pores. Clay masks should not be used on a dry or sensitive skin. Powdered clay (green especially) is available in selected chemists. Mix with just enough purified water (or still mineral water or chamomile or rose water) to make a paste, then add the relevant essential oil. Apply to the face and leave to dry. Wash off with water or a flower infusion like chamomile.
These are used externally on the eyes in particular, and are either hot or cold depending on the effect required.
To make compresses soak pieces of lint (or thin pieces of real cotton wool) in an appropriate infusion, decoction or maceration and hold over the affected area (or bandage in place). When a cold compress warms through contact with the skin, replace with another cold one; when a hot compress becomes cold, replace that as well.
Pour boiling water on to fresh bruised herbs or dried herbs, and leave for six to ten minutes. Strain. To bruise herbs use a mortar and pestle. For large quantities roll the herbs in a clean tea-towel and walk on them.
Used for harder stems, roots and seeds. Bruise the plant material using a hammer, then bring to the boil in water for one to two minutes. Cover, and leave to infuse for 15 minutes. Strain.
Bring the material to the boil in water, remove from the heat and leave to infuse, covered, for several hours. This becomes very potent and has a strong effect. Strain.
None of these preparations lasts very long, so store them in a fridge and use within two days.
A sensible diet is vital for maintaining body health, and this I have emphasised in almost every entry in Part Three, the ailment section. A sensible diet should include plants – vegetables, fruit, herbs and spices – many of which actually contain oils which are extracted for use in aromatherapy.
That the principles of aromatherapy have a natural place in the kitchen is easily understandable, not least because one of the major properties of many plant oils is digestive: the smell of a food reaches the nose, nerve stimuli are sent to the brain, and this in turn triggers the secretion of saliva and gastric juices. This means the digestive process can start before any food is actually placed in the mouth. And this, along with the oils in the food, will naturally help facilitate complete digestion once the food is actually in the body. To use aromatic plants in cooking is virtually to be a do-it-yourself doctor!
The body requires many basic nutrients, proteins, fats, carbohydrates, fibre, vitamins, minerals, trace elements and fluid – and to utilize as much as possible of these it is best to eat the food raw for many nutrients are destroyed by heat. Salads, for instance, are delicious, filling, and can contain very many healthy ingredients. Some people, however, cannot digest raw food, such as cucumber and green pepper, properly which is why digestive herbs should be taken in combination with them. Very many herbs, leaves and flowers, can be scattered into salads, for their digestive properties. Lemon juice, too, because of its antiseptic effect, is good in dressings for salads.
Even with cooked food, aromatherapeutic principles can still apply.
The orange in the traditional sauce for duck helps the body assimilate the fat content of the bird’s flesh; savoury and other herbs help the digestion of difficult foods such as pulses. The time to add herbs and spices (even salt and pepper) to food is at the last moment.
To dress your salads and to cook with, use pure cold-pressed oils such as olive, sunflower and Soya. If cold-pressed, they retain more of their own essential nutrients. Or make your own herbal oils and use these.
A healthy liquid intake is an equally important part of a balanced diet.
Man can survive for many days without food but only a few without water, which has a vital role in the proper functioning of the kidneys. The liquid drunk should preferably be mineral water and for complete health, tea, coffee and alcohol should be drunk in moderation, or replaced with herbal teas and tisanes.
Herbal Teas and Tisanes
These are the aromatherapeutic answer to the liquid requirements of the diet. Everyone could benefit from drinking tisanes. A rosehip tea with some honey is popular with children and it is rich in vitamin C. A herb tea could replace tea or coffee at home or in the office. All you need to do is make room in your kitchen for a range of herbs and spices. You can buy herbs in teabag form in health food shops, or you can grow and dry your own. When buying spices, buy whole rather than ground.
To use herbal teabags, infuse in boiling water in a cup covered with a saucer for 3 – 5 minutes. For herbs, use a dessertspoon of chopped fresh herbs or lf2 dessertspoon dried herbs per person, in a warmed teapot. Add boiling water and infuse for about 7 minutes. Spices may need longer to infuse in boiling water, and you will want to experiment with quantities to suit your taste. To all, add a little honey to sweeten if preferred. Drink throughout the day – gradually replacing tea or coffee completely – and taking a last calming cup at night is a lovely way to finish the day.
MAKING YOUR OWN PLANT OILS AND VINEGARS
Making your own plant oils and vinegars is one way to be certain of the quality, especially if you use homegrown or organic plants. The oils will not be as strong as bought essential oils but they will still be effective, while being safer to use. What is more they won’t need diluting in a carrier oil so they are actually easier to use. They can also be used in cooking and make delicious marinades and salad dressings. Good herbs to try are lavender flowers, thyme, marjoram,rosemary, sage or chamomile, but it’s fun to experiment with your own favourite herbs.
You will need 250g (8 oz) fresh herbs or 100g (4 oz) dried to every 600 ml (1 pint) grape seed or soya oil.
First wash and dry the fresh herbs quickly and carefully. Place the fresh or dried herbs in a clear glass bottle. Cover completely with the oil, seal and stand on a sunny windowsill for two to three weeks. Remove the herbs from the oil and decant into dark bottles. The oil is now ready for using.
Use 250 g (8 oz) fresh herbs or 100 g (4 oz) dried for every 600 ml (1 pint) cider vinegar. Quickly wash and dry the fresh herbs before using. Place the fresh or dried herbs in dark glass bottles and place the bottles in the dark. Shake them every two or three days. The herbs should be left in the vinegar for at least 10 days, after which time the vinegar is ready for using.
Mint and raspberry vinegar skin freshener.
This is a wonderful skin freshener to cool the skin in summer, or to use as a daily rinse after cleansing. Use 50 g (2 oz) fresh mint and 100 – 200g (4-7 oz) fresh raspberries to 600 ml (1 pint) cider vinegar and make as above.