I recently attended a very interesting workshop entitled “Essential Oils: molecules, electrical impulses and energy“, organised by Jane Lawson of The Natural Approach in Cheltenham and lead by Cathy Skipper.
I’ve been interested in essential oils for some time, since my Mum trained as an aromatherapist years ago, and I use a few staples at home, including lavender and tea tree, but recently I’ve been keen to learn more. I have attended other workshops of Jane’s and they are always very informative, so I knew this one would not disappoint.
Cathy started by explaining exactly what essential oils are: they are the volatile, light, aromatic fraction of the plant, extracted by steam distillation. (Citrus oils are the exception in that they are mechanically extracted, ie they are cold pressed, and are therefore still true ‘essences’ – products that exist within the untreated plant which are altered by the heat of the steam distillation process).
Essential oils are the secondary metabolites of the plant and form part of its immune / defence system. They actually aren’t oils in themselves, but are lipophilic – that is they blend more easily with oils than with water. This makes them easily absorbed by the skin.
We also looked briefly at hydrosols, another product of the distillation process. These are not merely a diluted form of an essential oil; they are the hydrophilic (‘water loving’) part of the distilled product, which collects at the bottom, under the less dense oil. They will contain some oil molecules in suspension and also the water will hold a ‘memory’ of the oil. They are a gentler form which can be used without the caution necessary with the stronger oils but still with the beneficial effects.
Three aspects of essential oils have been studied:
- their chemical constituents – the molecules they contain
- analysed using gas chromatography
- this relates to their use in air diffusion
- this use has its own protocol
- oils can be incredibly effective, even at minute dilutions
- this relates to light diffraction off the molecules
- even one sniff can have a profound impact
*One important point to note is that essential oils are highly concentrated and for this reason it is very important to use organic oils. If oils are produced from non-organic plants the chemicals these contain would contaminate the oils, and in a higher concentration than in the raw plant material.
The effects of a particular essential oil depend on its chemical constituents and we looked at a few of these, including monoterpenes, sesquiterpenes and diterpenes. Monoterpenes are the lightest of the compounds and appear first in the distillation process. (The weight of the molecules is determined by the number of carbon atoms they contain.) In industrial distillation the process is sometimes stopped before the later, heavier molecules have been extracted. It makes the process simpler and cheaper however it means that some of the plant essences, and therefore the beneficial synergy of the composition, is lost.
We also had the opportunity to sample some of the oils and explore our responses to them. It was interesting to see the variety among the group ranging from extreme dislike, through neutral to wanting to sit and sniff the oil all day! Some people even experienced emotional reactions to some of the oils.
On the second day we looked at chemotypes. The chemical composition of oils can vary depending on the soil in which they are grown, the climate and time of harvest. This can affect how the oils work and even the level of caution that needs to be used with them.
Take for example rosemary (Rosmarinus officionalis). This can come in the following chemotypes:
- 8 cineol
The chemotype shows the predominant chemical constituent of the oil. Which one you choose will depend on what you want to work on, how you want to use it, and the acceptable level of the stronger, more irritating or even toxic, compounds.
Lavender (Lavandula augustifolia) comes in the following forms:
- stoechas – mucolytic (ie it promotes the production of mucus in the body)
- spicata – good for burns
- lavendin – a hybrid form of lavender which contains a lot of keytones. These are neurotoxic and must be used with care.
Lavender can also be classified according to the altitude at which it is grown. The higher the altitude, the more esters the oil will contain.
From this you can see why it is so important to know the chemotype of any oil you intend to use.
Oils are classified according to the properties of their constituents. Some are drying (or apolar) while others have an ability to bind with water (polar). Some are cooling (more yin in nature) whereas others are more stimulating. When choosing which oils to use, you need to consider the issue being treated, the characteristics of the person in question, the general properties of the oil and its particular chemotype.
This workshop has given me a deeper understanding of, and respect for, essential oils. I already knew that some need to be used with caution and even some of the basic oils can be unsuitable for some people. Did you know that lavender oil should be used with caution if someone has low blood pressure as the oil can cause it to drop further and that clary sage can cause night terrors if taken within 12-24 hours of alcohol?
We also learnt that essential oils could play a much bigger role in health care in the future as bacteria and viruses struggle to develop immunity to them. This is due to the large number of chemical compounds which they contain which makes it difficult for pathogens to adapt to them.
I would highly recommend taking a look at the workshops offered by The Natural Approach. This was an amazing 2 days and great fun as we sampled oils, learnt about their uses and even got to do some blending.
Click here to find out more and learn how to use these amazing oils safely and effectively for greater health and wellbeing.