Beyond the Scent
If you've ever used scented bath salts or a diffuser, you know at least one of the benefits essential oils can offer. But it is so much more than just making the house smell nice or relaxing after a hard day's work. Essential oils have been used for centuries. They are used in Aromatherapy, which is part of a larger field called Phytotherapy (plant therapy). To get the full effects of essential oils, source, bioactivity, and a skilled practitioner are just some of the things you want to ensure for a truly therapeutic experience.
I took some time this week to talk with Emilie Berger, Roots & Space's Ayurvedic health counselor & yoga teacher, to find out what the deal is with essential oils that goes way beyond how they smell.
Marcia: What are essential oils?
Emilie: The chemical essence of the plant, pure oils that are extracted through steam distillation using a big contraption, often made of copper. You put a ton of plants into a huge vat and they go through the distiller using water & steam, and the oil drips out a little bit at a time as it is extracted. You're extracting the pure essence chemical components of the plants. That's why it comes in such little bottles and why it's so expensive...it takes a whole lot of plants to produce a small amount of pure oil.
Marcia: How many plants does it take?
Emilie: It depends on the plant or fruit or flower and the extraction process for each. Most plants can be distilled, but flowers are much more delicate, and can't be distilled. Those have to be foraged by hand and then laid flat on a special surface and extracted with a solvent or other components. So, any kind of flower you will need much more than you would for something like citrus which you can get much more oil from as it's much easier. When you just rub a citrus peel, you are already tapping into the essential oil from it. There is a different machine for that which actually scratches the peel and that's how you get the essential oil. Rosemary and other herbs like that are also easier to extract and don't take as much plant material as flowers, but the ratio of plant to oil is still very high for anything you want to use. All the methods for extraction, including the machinery are ancient and have been around for a very, very long time. There are more modern machines that are used in big factories but otherwise the traditional ways are still commonly used.
Marcia: What is Aromatherapy?
Emilie: Before getting into aromatherapy, you can use essential oils just because you like the smell. Sense of smell is one of our basic senses that links us to childhood and safety, so without getting into the chemical reactions and all of that, you can just use them because you like the way you feel when you smell certain oils and you don't have to worry about it.
Like putting it in a diffuser in your home or something like that?
Yeah, and depending on the quality, it's not necessarily going to have the therapeutic effect, but you can just enjoy the smell. If you want to scent your home in a natural way, that could be one way to do it. And then with aromatherapy, you're looking for a therapeutic effect, meaning it can be physical or emotional, but you're looking for the chemicals of the plant to help you heal in some way. They're used a lot for a body issue, like a cut, infection, or inflammation. On the emotional level you would use it to kind of manage your mood, so you're really looking for that therapeutic effect.
Marcia: So, there's a chemical reaction from the chemical of the essential oil with your body that affects your emotions?
Emilie: Yes, and when you're looking for that therapeutic effect and not just using it for the smell, you need a really good quality oil.
Marcia: Can you say more about why the quality of oil is important?
Emilie: Just like anything that's being harvested, sustainability is an important factor, so you want to make sure that you're leaving enough plant life wherever you're harvesting from, which is usually wild harvested. Some plants you can grow, but something like sandalwood or palo santo these are often not harvested safely. That's a little bit of tangent (maybe for another time), but the harvesting is important. You want to make sure that first of all, you're harvesting the right plant. Depending on what you're harvesting, you want to make sure you're using what needs to be used and then you want to make sure that you're not adding any other material, which seems obvious but if you think of the big scale oils that are made, there is going to be all kinds of stuff in there like twigs and leaves and other plant material and other stuff that you don't want in there. By harvesting properly, you're already starting out with good quality.
Marcia: So, sourcing, harvesting and growing is a really important part of the process and really where the quality of the oil begins.
Emilie: Yes, and with the growing you want to make sure there aren't any pesticides or chemicals on the plant. Again, that's a whole other topic we could get into.
Marcia: When you were talking about the orange, I was thinking about that. You can easily grab an orange and see the essential oils on it, but most will probably have a whole bunch of pesticides on there. Can you say a little bit more about when it's as pure as it can be?
Emilie: You want to make sure the sourcing is right. You want to make sure it's harvested properly. And then you want to make sure it's distilled properly. If you're a company that wants to get a big yield fast, you're going to try to speed things up and by doing that, you're not following the proper timing for extraction, which is just as important as all the other parts of the process. You also want to make sure that when it gets put in the bottle, the oil isn't mixed with anything else. Surprisingly, oils are very often adulterated with things like another oil that is cheaper, something that is going to enhance the smell, and all kinds of other things. So, how do you know you're getting good quality? Don't buy the cheap stuff! If you see a bottle of orange oil (one of the cheapest) for $5 and another for $15, get the $15 bottle. Again, if you just want your house to smell nice, it's ok, get the $5 bottle. If you want the real therapeutic properties of orange, and what it's going to do for your body or your mind, you have to spend that extra money. One of the mistakes that is also often made is to want to buy the bigger bottles. Buy the small bottles because by the time you finish the big bottle it will lose it's therapeutic properties. You don't want to keep them for longer than a year max. If it's a good quality brand and smaller is $10, larger is $15, buy the smaller one.
Another way to choose them is to look for companies that are engaged in doing the right thing. You won't find those companies in the big super markets.
So, you have to do your research. Do you have some suggestions for us as a place to start?
I trust doTERRA for their ethical practices, environmentally and in terms of paying farmers a fair wage, as well as the distillation process. Reputable brands like Floracopeia or Snow Lotus are also a great place to buy oils. I also like Saje and Enfleurage in NYC. Frankly, I would simply stay away from anything you find in a regular store, and definitely stay away from Amazon, where there are a lot of counterfeit products.
Marcia: When you use oils as aromatherapy, what are some of the benefits that people experience from that, or that you have experienced?
Emilie: It's a wide range. Anything and everything, physically and emotionally. Inflammation, swelling, cuts, colds, congestion, etc. You can diffuse them, but that's going to have less physical effect, and more emotional. If you want to use them for a physical ailment, you can use an application mixed in a carrier oil. You can do a compress, hot or cold. You can do a bath salt mixture, use for massage, etc.
Marcia: If I'm putting something in my bath for sore muscles, it seems that there might be a dual effect, since I'm getting some aroma as well as the effect on my physical ailment so that could be used for emotional and physical at the same time?
Emilie: Yeah. You're going to smell it no matter the application. It depends on your purpose. Are you wanting to deal with swelling on your knee and want to work with that. A lot of people use oils purely for physical benefit, like you have a cold or you're congested, or you have some inflammation in your shoulder. So, you may have some emotional benefit, but it might not be your goal. It all depends on what your goal is.
Marcia: I know in recent years there has been some debate in herbal medicine circles about whether or not to take essential oils internally. Can you shed some light on that?
Emilie: You're right, there is a lot of debate about that going on right now. There are two schools of thought related to essential oils, the French school and the English school. The French school, which developed in the 1930's, is all about internal use (although historical documents show ingestion going all the way back to ancient Egypt). They were more interested in using oils in the same way they were using other medications. The English school was more interested in stepping away from traditional medicine and having a more holistic approach. So, it was less the approach of take it like you would take a pill. So the the English school does not promote internal use. You can take the "do not use internally" approach as a default partly because the quality of most of the oils on the market is crap. If you were to have an excellent quality oil and you were to use it in specific dosage, working with a practitioner then it's a different story.
Marcia: I think the worry is that people are going to take it on their own and that it's so concentrated, it could some how be damaging to you rather than therapeutic.
Emilie: That's what people don't quite realize...you need to use soooo little. If we go back to the method of extraction, you have a huge vat of plant material that is create that small amount of oil. It's not like you're making a tea with some rosemary and thyme in it, it's not the same. You have a huge amount of plant material getting into your body through one small drop of oil. Which can work well, again if it's dosed properly and you're working with a knowledgeable and competent practitioner.
Marcia: You have a Yin & Essential Oils class that you do monthly for Roots & Space and I'm curious about how you came up with that idea or what the inspiration was for that class.
Emilie: I totally stole it from my teacher. I have no original thought for that one.
Marcia: Haha! Well, that's ok. Even though it wasn't your inspired thought, tell us why you decided to do that class.
Emilie: I've been using essential oils for over 20 years, since I was a teenager. I was using them more because I liked the smell and I didn't know about any effects they were having. That continued for a long time and then when I started at the studio I trained at, which was about 4 years ago, I had two teachers (Brandi Ryans and Susan Derwin), and they've been working together forever and they offer this Yin & Oil trainings and classes. One of them is more focused on the oils, one of them is more focused on the Yin. That's when I started to look into it more. Brandy is so knowledgeable, I could listen to her for hours. She has a way to convey things that is just super interesting. So, I started looking into what they actually do because I'd been using them forever and didn't know what was happening. I know my intuition and know what I go towards. So, I started researching and studying and that's when I fell down the rabbit hole. There is so much to learn and know. So, I was experiencing their class that they would teach together. They would put us in a Yin pose where you stay for about 5 minutes and they would go around the room and would either rub their hands, or move a tissue over your nose. They would pair each pose with an oil. And there was always a theme or desire to work with the season or something like that and these class were just the best thing ever. It was amazing to feel so taken care of. As she would go and share the oils, she would also talk a little bit about them. So, when you're there with your eyes and somebody's moving oil around your nose and telling you about it, you can really explore what it does to you. how you relate to it. Some of them you're like, this really speaks to me, and some of them you're like, move on along to the next one. Or what she's saying really resonates with you or not. You can get big breakthroughs. So, I started teaching those classes in person and now I'm offering them online. The Yin class itself is wonderful and with the addition of the oils you get that extra layer of depth.
Marcia: It's such a unique idea and class and I love that we offer it. It makes a lot of sense paired with Yin, like you said, because you're in the pose for a long time, it gives you an opportunity to experience something in a deep way, not just the pose but an extra awareness of yourself.
Emilie: This class is kind of like a special, in depth experience, but you can use a little bit of oil before you start your practice, or you can use a little in Savasana. It doesn't have to be the full on workshop. Again, I see it as an extra layer of depth in whatever kind of class you're doing.
Marcia: I have taken classes that used essential oils while in Savasana and I did like that. I really like how you think of it as that extra layer, that extra depth for a regular practice as well.
If you want to use aromatherapy and essential oils for medicinal purposes, we encourage you to find a practitioner to get some guidance in it's use. Something that might benefit one person might be completely wrong for some else. (Ex: peppermint for headaches, not good for small children). Check out the links that Emilie mentioned above and feel free to email her with any questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you're interested in trying out her workshop, the next one is coming up in September. Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date with all upcoming events and classes at rootsandspace.online.