Did you know… almost ALL pain medications and anti-anxiety medications are derived from plants or are synthetic replications of plant structures?
I was recently hospitalized for a traumatic and complex fracture in my lower leg bone (tibia) sustained in an auto accident. The top of the bone at the knee joint was basically crushed into 4-5 pieces. The pain was so intense that I was nauseous and sweating and my blood pressure was 190 over 89 at one point. I even found it hard to breathe normally through the pain.
I sat in the ER for nearly two hours before I was given any medication for pain after repeatedly being told, “The doctor hasn’t ordered anything yet.” Meanwhile, my right knee and lower leg were three times the size of my left, and I could not move the leg at all. Something was obviously terribly wrong.
However, my saving grace was in my purse! I had a bottle of both lavender and rosemary essential oils on hand which I generally carry most of the time. I began applying both oils to my hands, the base of my neck and earlobes, and I inhaled the oils as well. The anti-inflammatory properties and calming properties of these oils helped me manage the constant, acute pain in the ER as well as the continued chronic pain through my four-day hospitalization and surgery.
I faithfully applied the oils every 2-3 hours as part of my pain/anxiety management plan. As you can imagine, my room smelled amazing, and the staff were so happy to walk in at all hours of the day and benefit from the amazing, calming effects these oils were providing through aromatherapy.
What are essential oils?
Essential oils are the scented liquid extracted by steam or pressure from certain plants and contain the natural chemicals that give the plant its “essence.” A plant’s essence comes from the specialized cells that are often under the surface of leaves, bark, or peel, using energy from the sun and elements (water, soil and air). When essences are extracted from plants in natural ways, they become essential oils. They may be distilled with steam and/or water or mechanically pressed.
Oils that are made with chemical processes are not considered true essential oils for obvious reasons.
Essential oils are very concentrated and evaporate quickly when exposed to air. They are highly effective in fighting pain by reducing inflammation, anxiety and stress. These oils take action between 30 seconds and 2 minutes from the time they are applied or inhaled. They by-pass the digestive system and become absorbed directly into the blood stream via pores and capillaries in our skin or via inhalation directly into our respiratory system.
Each type of essential oil has a different chemical composition that affects how it smells, how it is absorbed and how it affects us physiologically. There are different attributes to each oil that can make it helpful to use in addressing whole body wellness. Each of these attributes is a part of the chemical makeup (which pharmaceutical companies attempt to replicate to produce synthetic medications). While not every oil will have all attributes, it is a good bet that many of them have at least 2-3 of these attributes within their chemical makeup.
The history of essential oils
The history of essential oils being used for therapeutic, spiritual, hygienic and ritualistic purposes goes back to a number of ancient civilizations such as Chinese, Indian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman who used them in drugs or medications, cosmetics and perfumes.
The earliest evidence of human knowledge of the healing properties of plants was found in Lascaux, France. Cave paintings here suggest the use of medicinal plants in every day life that have been carbon dated as far back as 18,000 BC.
Greek physician Hippocrates (The Father of Medicine) documented the effects of some 300 plants including thyme, saffron, marjoram, cumin and peppermint. He wrote, “Above all, the purpose of a doctor is to awaken the natural healing energies within the body.” So many plants and the essential oils extracted from them do this for our bodies! Hippocrates also wrote, “A perfumed bath and a scented massage everyday is the way to good health.”
Another physician, Galen, wrote a great deal on the theory of plant medicine and divided plants into various medicinal categories that are still known as “Galenic” classification today. Galen became known for being the only physician to the gladiators whose men in his care never had a death. Soldiers often carried mixtures of lavender and myrrh oils to put on scrapes and knife injuries to prevent infection.
French chemist Rene-Maurice-Gattefosse’ discovered the healing properties of lavender after his hand was burned in a fire in his lab. He immersed his hand in a dish of cool lavender oil and had quick healing with no infection or scarring.
Essential oils were widely used during the Bubonic Plague of the 14th century (especially frankincense).
How to use essential oils
Essential oils are composed of very small molecules that can penetrate deeply and quickly into cells. Many also have natural anti-bacterial, anti-viral and anti-inflammatory properties that make them especially effective in fighting off disease and promoting healing.
These oils can help alter our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing by triggering and strengthening our body’s own natural processes. Their tiny molecules can deliver healing properties to the systems within our body and nervous system that control our physiologic state.
In my experience, the best way to absorb the therapeutic components of essential oils is a combination of inhalation via our nose (olfactory system) and absorption through the surface of the skin. I always instruct my clients to put the oil in your hands and first, apply it to preferred pulse points, and then inhale the oil while it is fresh in your hands. Pulse points are areas of the body where blood vessels are closest to the skin’s surface and allow for quicker absorption so they work faster. These areas are the back of the neck, wrist and temples.
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Used topically, oils quickly penetrate our skin and absorb into the blood stream (generally within 2-4 minutes) by pores and hair follicles. Once in the blood stream, they naturally disperse to specific organs and systems on which they work.
When oils are inhaled, they are absorbed into our limbic system (via our olfactory system or nose). This system is linked to emotions, heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, memory, stress response and hormone balance. Oils that are inhaled can take effect in our body in as quickly as 30 seconds! THIS is why it is one of my favorite ways to use and dose oils.
The combination of both topical application and inhalation give maximum benefit of the healing and calming properties of these oils. It is important to remember when using oils therapeutically to dose them or apply/inhale every 2-4 hours, as you need them for continued benefit. Most clients make the mistake of only using one or two drops of oil once a day and expect lasting effects. These are natural products that our body utilizes quickly and efficiently. They must be re-introduced to produce the desired effect over a period of time.
The practice of using essential oils for healing is called “aromatherapy” and can be a complementary therapy or an alternate form of treatment instead of or in combination with conventional medical treatments. There are numerous studies and good medical evidence that aromatherapy used via topical, inhaled and massage can help prevent and cure many disorders as well as help reduce post-op and post-chemotherapy nausea and vomiting.
I have used essential oils as part of my and my family’s wellness routine for decades. I have also recommended essential oils as a first line of treatment to my clients throughout my career as they are not only safer than medications and 100% natural, they also provide so many added benefits to our body’s systems with each application. It is my experience and observation in my own life and in my practice that the effects of essential oils for managing pain and anxiety are INVALUABLE. I recommend them to my clients on a daily basis and I also use them in my practice daily.
Essential oils have become quite popular in the last decade, and there are thousands of brands and choices readily available to consumers at their fingertips! A large variety of oils is available with a wide range in price and quality.
Tips for choosing essential oils
Here are a few tips to keep in mind when selecting a good quality, therapeutic grade oil.
- Purity – Pure oils will list the plant’s botanical name (such as Lavandula officinalis) and not “essential oil of lavender.” This should be the ONLY ingredient.
- Quality – True and pure essential oils are changed the least by the extraction process. Choose chemical-free oil that uses distillation or mechanical cold pressing to extract the oils.
- Reputation – Purchase only brands with a reputation for producing high-quality products.
Always use caution when using essential oils on children, the elderly, those who are immune-compromised and pets. They will all absorb very differently than the average adult; therefore, dosing will be much smaller. If you are using an essential oil that is new to you, I suggest looking up its properties and how it works and/or seek guidance from your professional natural health practitioner. In reading about the oil, you will better understand how it can help you as well as any precautions to take and the best dosing for your needs. Many oils can cause skin sensitivity or burning if they are not used with oil such as coconut oil as a carrier or buffer.
Essential oils are also wonderful to use mixed in with bath salts and lotions daily to manage chronic pain, anxiety and the headaches that often accompany chronic pain disorders.
Some of my favorite (inexpensive) oils to keep around the house especially for pain and anxiety include lavender, lemon, lemongrass, peppermint, clove and rosemary!
Lisa Adams is a Certified Flowtrition Practitioner, nurse and health and wellness educator who has combined over 24 years of experience as a registered nurse with training in Flowtrition as well as therapeutic massage and bodywork to provide her clients with the most comprehensive and holistic approach to preventive healthcare. Lisa believes that wellness starts from within and that if we have trust in our body’s ability to heal as it is designed, amazing things happen. She also believes that optimal health is achieved in a multi-system approach that includes body, mind and spirit. Lisa’s passion to increase awareness in individuals about the way their body functions.