Essential Oils – Power Packed in a Plant
By Mike Heath
President, Laramie County Master Gardeners
Although January is nearly over, we’re still in the cold and flu season. Not to mention the Legislature is still in session and with that comes a lot of talking and more than our fair share of laryngitis, especially for them. In some people it may be welcome when they lose their voice, but at the same time, realistically, it’s frustrating for everybody. Not to mention all the other illnesses and ailments that come with this time of year. Aches, pains, sore muscles, etc. If you watch the TV, we don’t have to put up with any of it because there’s a medicine for everything. All you have to do is visit your doctor or go to the pharmacy and pick up the right prescription and you’re in the clear. Oh, really? Who wants to put up with that…filling your body full of more drugs or adding another doodad to the growing litany that we’re besieged with?
There is a better answer. Unleash the power of plants. I’m talking about essential oils. These powerful oils have been around for thousands of years and have been used throughout history. Recently, I was asked why I believed in essential oils. After all, they are just voodoo medicine, aren’t they? Well, no, they’re not. Because they’ve been around for so long and are still being used, I believe that they have value. If they didn’t work, they wouldn’t have been in continuous use for so long. Thing that don’t work are dropped and not used again. Now, the pharmaceutical companies don’t want you to believe they work and will take great pains to lead you down the highway of giant pharma and all the “wonderful” drugs they manufacture. Then we get to watch all the legal commercials enticing us to join the latest class action lawsuit because the drugs caused some injury that hadn’t been disclosed or discovered before it was out on the market. Ouch. Plants have been curing us of disease and illness, even some physical ailments, since the beginning of history. And many even smell good while doing it. Let’s take a look at a few.
Lavender: I always start off any discussion of essential oils with lavender. Primarily because it is the quintessential example of an essential oil. If I could only have one essential oil in my medicine cabinet, lavender is the one I would choose. If you had a long, stressful day and just need to unwind, lavender is the perfect remedy. Put a few drops into a diffuser or just open the bottle and smell it. Lavender is a very calming and antidepressant oil. When stress wants to continue into bedtime, use the diffuser in the bedroom and lavender will help with insomnia. It is also an antibacterial, antimicrobial and anti-infectious agent. Using it constantly around the house during the cold and flu season will help ward off those seasonal ailments. Spike lavender is also antiviral, somewhat different from the other lavender varieties. Lavender can also be used for inflammatory conditions, eczema, itching, burns, muscle spasms, acne, headache and migraines, among many other conditions. For a headache or migraine, put a drop on your finger and rub it into the temples. Don’t dilute it since lavender is one of only two essential oils that are safe to put on the skin undiluted. The other is tea tree oil. For muscle spasms, put 2-3 drops into a carrier oil, such as olive oil, and rub it into the affected area. I use lavender oil quite often when I overdo it in the garden or shop. And did I mention…lavender is also good for cooking.
Stuffy heads and sore throats are common this time of year. All of the evergreen (conifer) oils will help with these ailments. The most common is eucalyptus. Everybody is familiar with this product. For many of us, our Mom would spread it on our chest when we were congested as a child. We knew it then as Vicks VapoRub. Strong smell and it works. Other varieties include: balsam, fir, spruce, juniper berry and cedarwood atlas. All of these products come with a warning though and it is not to be taken lightly. Oils derived from evergreens are very strong and can irritate skin. In fact, change the word “can” to “probably will”. They should always be used in a carrier product of some sort. Even then, test them on a very small patch of skin before using on a large area. If the product starts to burn, rinse it off immediately and wash with soap and water. That includes any blends you may use that has an evergreen product in it. Another very significant precaution is that all of these products should not be used during pregnancy or breast feeding unless directed by a physician. In most cases, these products are mixed with other products to achieve a synergistic effect. In other words, each component serves to enhance the effect of the other components so that, together, they achieve an even stronger result. For example. To soothe a painful throat, use 1-3 drops of eucalyptus, 1 drop of lavender and 1 drop of ravintsara in a facial steamer, shower or personal nebulizer. With facial steamers, always inhale cautiously. Although this is the best way to use this particular blend, the hot steam can be very irritating and even painful. And don’t hold your eyes over the steam. Remember, evergreen products are an irritant and you’ll want to keep it out of your eyes. For use in the shower, you can add one drop of the blend to a washcloth and gently breathe in. This works in the same way as the facial steamer and it has the side benefit of giving you an excuse to use up all the hot water while you enjoy a shower. The personal nebulizer is a bit tricky to use. You only want the aerosol to coat the throat. Avoid breathing it into your lungs. Once again, evergreen oils are an irritant. Good for the throat, bad for the lungs.
Another ailment that affects far too many people at this time of year is depression and mood swings. Mostly this is from the decreased sunlight and the difficulty many people have getting outside. It’s darker, days are shorter, and we just seem to be cooped up indoors when our bodies are really wanting to be outside. Sunlight does a lot to improve our mood. If you can’t get outside at all, fluorescent lights will help, but they still aren’t sunlight. And nobody likes to be cooped up inside for days at a time. That means that we need to find some other way to lighten our mood and make us a little more pleasant to be around. There are a lot of essential oils that fit into this category. All of the citrus oils are invigorating and tend to lift moods (orange, grapefruit, lemon, lime, tangerine, mandarin and bergamot). All are antidepressants and are commonly mixed with lavender, peppermint, geranium and/or roman chamomile to enhance their effect. I use a mixture of lavender hydrosol (floral water) and lime essential oil almost every morning as a wake-me-up. For me, it’s better than coffee. One of my favorite blends is 4 drops of lavender oil, 3 drops of lemon (or other citrus) and 3 drops of bergamot. Since all of the citrus oils are antidepressant, use the one that smells best to you. You could even change them out each day for a different aroma. Anyway, use the ratio in a diffuser and simply let it run all day. When I say use the ratio, I mean that you can change the measurement out to make it easier to mix. I mix mine in milliliters. Another way to mix a larger volume yet keep the same ratio is to multiply each ingredient by the same number. For example, multiplying by 2 will equal 8 drops of lavender and 6 drops each of lemon and bergamot. Since diffusers vary in how much oil to use in them, mixing a higher volume and then taking out what you need is a lot easier. I have one diffuser that take seven drops of oil and another that uses ten drops. Mixing a larger volume makes it easier to measure for the diffusers. These blends are also terrific to use in the workplace. Citrus oils also come with a warning, though. Any place they are used, they will cause the skin to become photosensitive. If you use it on skin, then get out in the sun without covering that area, it will turn a darker brown than the surrounding area. So, if you use a citrus oil on skin, just cover it up for a few days when you’re in sunlight.
That’s just a few of the uses of essential oils for this time of year. Also, just a few of the essential oils. You can blend oils yourself or have a custom blend made just for you. In any event, essential oils are the power of the plants. So long for now. And remember. If you have any questions, ask a Master Gardener. It’s what we do.