Dear Mr. Tisserand,
I have been a student of essential oils for the last 15 years or so. I have what seems to be a defeating question. I’ve looked for the answer from some people in aromatherapy and tried also to find the answer online.
Is there any kind of research on essential oils and healing the brain, whether it be strokes or epilepsy?
I am particularly interested in essential oils on healing stroke victims.
I am not in the medical field. I would like to do a research paper on this but have hit a dead end.
My husband had a stroke 6 years ago. I asked a very knowledgeable aromatherapist what
oils would heal a stroke. He said there were none.
I asked my brother who has been in the medical field for 20 years, what can heal the brain from a stroke. He said there is nothing.
I do not accept these answers. I am a firm believer that the human body has the power to heal anything. If essential oils can pass the blood/brain barrier, why wouldn’t there be an essential oil that could heal the brain? For every ailment, there is a plant.
I did do a little experiment after my husband’s stroke. It was about a week after it happened and he went into rehabilitation. The first night I used bergamot essential oil and put a few drops on his pillow before he went to sleep. The next morning the nurses were bragging how alert he was that day trying to get up and walk. That night, I put a couple of drops of lavender on his pillow before he went to sleep. The nurses the next day said he was awful. They said he wouldn’t try to get up. He wouldn’t try to eat. That night I used bergamot again. The next day the nurses said he was up, more alert, using a walker to try and gain strength back. After that night, I continued to use bergamot until he got out for that hospital.
I would really appreciate any information you can give me. Thank you so much for your time.
Thank you for your detailed message, and I applaud your efforts to help your husband.
As far as I know, there is no clinical research that shows a benefit for stroke victims from essential oils. However, there is good clinical research showing that inhalation of an essential oil constituent (perillyl alcohol) has been successful in treating brain cancer in some patients. This, and other research, demonstrates that the molecules of inhaled essential oils do enter the brain, and that this route has potential for healing in some neurological diseases.
In one rat study, bergamot essential oil inhibited the damage caused by “focal ischemia” (the same type of damage caused by stroke) . The oil was injected, not inhaled. This suggests that bergamot might be helpful if used at about the same time as a stroke occurred, but it does not necessarily suggest a curative effect after the fact. However, if anything is likely to be helpful, bergamot would be a good candidate, and your own observations support this conclusion.
I am writing this in response to a recent discussion on various facebook pages about tea tree oil (TTO), and whether a TTO with 51% terpinen-4-ol would be better than one with 41%, or whether 51% suggested adultration. Most TTO is produced in Australia and China, and this article is about the quality of Australian TTO, since the Chinese oils generally do not conform to the Australian standards, and there is no quality standard for Chinese TTO. The major constituent of TTO is terpinen-4-ol (T-4-ol). Most essential oils contain a single major constituent, and yet the main point of natural medicine is that we don’t isolate “active ingredients” and use them instead of the whole natural product.
Harvesting tea tree in Port Macquarie, courtesy of ATTIA
Once we do that, we call it a drug. And, once we do that there is no longer any possibility for synergistic action. Synergy is the interplay, or interaction between constituents of plant-based medicines, that often give them effects that cannot be obtained by using a single, isolated substance. The action of TTO owes a great deal to its content of T-4-ol, and there may be instances when T-4-ol alone is more effective. But there are certainly situations in which the whole oil is more effective. So the question here is this: What is the ideal amount of T-4-ol, and is more always better?
There is an industry standard for TTO, and the most recent version was published in 2004. Standards for essential oils are set by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). The actual ISO standard is copyrighted and is not in the public domain, but for the purposes of this discussion all we need to know is that the standard for T-4-ol in TTO is 30-48%. This means that any genuine, natural, unadulterated TTO should contain a minimum of 30% and a maximum of 48% T-4-ol. (For anyone who wants to better understand the way a standard can help identify if TTO is genuine there is a document on the ATTIA (Australian Tea Tree Industry Association) website: How ISO & AS Standards help identify fraudulent material.) I asked Tony Larkman, spokesperson for ATTIA, whether a TTO with more than 48% T-4-ol was a good thing or a bad thing. This is his response:
They put a ceiling on the T-4-ol to stop the bush cutters (who were distilling wild harvested material in wood fired pot stills) from cheating – it is easy to use the wrong source plant material “by mistake”; back then it was all done by smelling the product and paying cash based on the buyers skill at detecting the cheats followed by CG analysis when they got back to base some weeks later. One sample had 47% so they made the standard inclusive at 48%. The 30% minimum was put there to stop them cheating the other way by diluting with some of the eucalyptus and other oils (including turpentine form the hardware store!).
I spoke to the technician from the Australian Government’s Department of Primary Industry (DPI) essential oil testing facility at Wollongbar, NSW last week asking him what the highest level of T-4-ol he had ever seen in his 15+ years experience as an analytical chemist in a sample of pure Australian TTO. His response: Under a proper distillation regime 42% T-4-ol result is very high and rarely does one see 43% T-4-ol. It is extremely rare to see 45%. I once had a 47% T-4-ol result only to find after a double check from another sample from the same batch that it was a fault in the calibration of the GC unit.
Distillation, June 2012, courtesy of The Australian Tea Tree Industry Association
I have never seen a T-4-ol level in pure TTO to exceed 45%, neither has the analyst from the DPI. When I see the T-4-ol level over 42% I immediately submit it for a chiral test on the assumption that it has been adulterated with T-4-ol which is a waste product from factories that ‘correct’ eucalyptus, sandalwood, tarragon, pine, fennel and aniseed oils. It is also found in turpentine. I would personally like to see the max level dropped to 45%.
It is a myth that higher levels of T-4-ol make TTO more effective. All studies on the efficacy, safety and usage of pure Australian TTO have been conducted using a T-4-ol content of about 40–42%, the level at which it most commonly occurs in plantation sourced oils which have been bred to yield at this level. Australian TTO is a complex mixture of 113+ compounds and it is the synergistic effect of all of these compounds that makes TTO such an effective antibacterial, antifungal and anti-inflammatory product.
Since the mid 1980s there have been many discussions about the optimal levels of T-4-ol and 1,8-cineole in TTO. The fact is that increasing T-4-ol levels above 40% makes no difference to the safety and most importantly the efficacy of Australian TTO. The current demand for T-4-ol levels at around 40% ensures that a sustainable quality of pure, natural TTO can be made available. Demanding T-4-ol levels in excess of 42% will in no way increase the efficacy and safety of TTO; in fact it increases the likelihood of being supplied with an adulterated product contaminated with industrial waste and by-products from other industries where there is no quality assurance, likely resulting in contamination with unknown and untested substances.
I know that some people don’t like standards for natural products, but I believe standardization is a mostly good thing, and certainly for TTO we can see the benefits of ‘fingerprinting” as the analysis and comparison process is sometimes known. I will be publishing a lengthy interview with Tony Larkman in the coming weeks.
Essential oils are happiest when cold.
If you keep them refrigerated they will last twice as long, especially if you live in a warm climate. Essential oils are expensive, so you want them to stay active as long as possible!
Cold good, oxidation bad
With time, most essential oil constituents oxidize, and heat promotes oxidation. Once oxidation starts it’s difficult to stop, though it is a very slow process – it takes months. So if you accidentally leave your oils in a hot car for a few hours, don’t worry – they will still be fine. And, changing temperature either way does not bother them, so long as they are cool most of the time.
Citrus fruit oils are high in limonene, and limonene is especially prone to oxidation. As it oxidizes, the percentage of pure limonene in your lemon oil decreases significantly, because it is being oxidized into other substances. There are two consequences of this:
* Because your lemon oil no longer contains as much limonene, it no longer does what it’s supposed to do! As the limonene oxidizes, the therapeutic potential of the oil decreases.
* The chemicals formed – mostly oxides and peroxides of limonene – are not very pleasant, not very therapeutic, and they increase the risk of skin sensitization from the lemon oil. The risk is still small, but it’s no longer negligible.
The limonene content of lemon oil decreased from 67.1% to 30.7% in 12 months when the oil was stored at 77°F (25°C) with the cap removed for three minutes every day. However storage at 41°F 5°C, with the cap removed for three minutes only once a month, resulted in minimal degradation (Sawamura et al 2004). When lemongrass oil was intentionally oxidized, it lost almost all of its antibacterial activity (Orafidiya 1993) .
Courtesy of Stillpoint Aromatics
The ideal temperature
35-38 degrees, the temperature of most refrigerators, is great for essential oils. If you fancy keeping them in your freezer that’s OK too, but the additional cooling won’t bring much added benefit. A couple of things to watch out for:
* If you put essential oil bottles into a fridge with food, some of that food may start to taste of essential oil. So keep them in a container: wooden box, plastic box or zip-up bag (see pic below). If you have a large collection of oils, or plan to, buy a dedicated fridge – they come in all sizes.
* Essential oils become progressively more viscous as they cool. This won’t noticeably affect most oils, but some may be slow to pour, and rose otto will go solid. (If it’s undiluted rose otto and it doesn’t go solid in your fridge, then it’s not a genuine otto.) If you do need to slightly warm up an essential oil, hold the bottle in your hand for a minute. But most will be fine.
How to tell if an essential oil has oxidized
* It will not smell as fresh as it did. You may not notice, as the change is very slow, but when you buy a new oil you may see the difference.
* Citrus oils sometimes go cloudy. Watch out for this. If it happens, let the sediment settle to the bottom of the bottle. This will take several hours. Then use a clean pipette to transfer the good oil into another bottle, and toss the one with the sediment.
Don’t rely on tester oils in stores as a guide to what a fresh oil should smell like. These testers are constantly being opened and exposed to the air, so many of them are probably well on the road to being oxidized. (But, the oils for sale are still good, because they are sealed!)
Courtesy of Jenni Davenport
How long will my essential oils keep?
It depends when you start the clock. If you time it from the moment of distillation, you have to know when that was, and most of the time we don’t know that. And, an essential oil in a full, unused bottle will stay fresh for a long time. So – start the clock when you first open the bottle, and use the following guideline for essential oils that are refrigerated:
Citrus fruit, neroli, lemongrass, frankincense, tea tree, pine and spruce oils
Virtually every other essential oil
Sandalwood, vetiver, patchouli
For non-refrigerated oils, halve these numbers, especially in warm climates. Keep it simple: keep them in a fridge! If you haven’t kept your essential oils refrigerated up to now, it’s not too late to start.
Some other tips
Use your deceased oils in household cleaning products, especially citrus fruit oils. Or trash them.
- For long-term storage, undiluted essential oils should be kept in colored glass containers.
- Keep bottles capped when not using.
- Essential oils are inflammable – never leave naked flame burners unattended.
- Always keep essential oils where small children cannot get to them. Accidents have occurred from toddlers ingesting essential oils.
Orafidiya LO 1993 The effect of autoxidation of lemongrass oil on its antibacterial activity. Phytotherapy Research 7:269-271
Sawamura M, Son U-S, Choi H-S et al 2004 Compositional changes in commercial lemon essential oil for aromatherapy. The International Journal of Aromatherapy 14:27-36
It now appears that the world would have warmed more than it has were it not for the aromatic cocktail of chemicals emitted by plants. It turns out that this can change the weather – and anything that changes the weather day after day and year after year changes the climate too. While this mechanism is nowhere near strong enough to save us from global warming, it may have been stronger in the past when the air was cleaner. So could it be that Gaia is not powerless after all? Stephen Battersby
It has long been suspected that the envelope of essential oil vapor around an aromatic plant helps protect it from extremes of temperature, especially heat. It makes sense that higher temps lead to greater essential oil evaporation, and this in turn has a cooling effect on the plant (evaporation from a surface is always cooling). Until recently, no one imagined that there might be a cooling phenomenon taking place on a much larger scale.
There is always invisible water in the ambient air. There are also tiny particles floating in the air, such as salt and dust; these are called aerosols. The water vapor and aerosols are constantly bumping into each other. When the air is cooled, some of the water vapor sticks to the aerosols when they collide – this is condensation. Eventually, bigger water droplets form around the aerosol particles, and these clump together with other droplets, forming clouds.
The Gaia hypothesis
The Gaia hypothesis is James Lovelock’s idea that the planet as a whole is capable of environmental self-regulation (Lovelock & Margulis 1974). In 1987, Lovelock and others proposed a feedback mechanism that could counterbalance global warming involving the oceans. Called the CLAW (after its authors) hypothesis, this proposed that algae in the sea emit a gas called dimethyl sulfoxide, which can react with air to form sulfuric acid vapor and condense into aerosols (Charleson et al 1987). Warmer weather causes greater algal growth, and the aerosols could feasibly cool the planet by reflecting sun directly, and also indirectly by making clouds whiter. However, water droplets do not form and grow unless they are at least 100 nanometers in size, and models of the CLAW hypothesis later showed that particles would not reach even close to this size. In addition not enough dimethyl sulfoxide is released to make a difference.
In 2004, scientists at the University of Helsinki proposed an alternative model involving pine trees instead of algae (Kulmala et al 2004). They hypothesized that increased temperatures and atmospheric CO2 would lead to increased photosynthesis and forest growth, leading to an increase in pine oil emissions. Pine oil is mostly composed of monoterpenes such as limonene and pinene. These terpenes rise above the trees, and combine with sulphur dioxide and other aerosols to form especially large cloud droplets. Clouds with larger droplets are whiter, reflecting more sunlight back into space, cooling the land below, and thus counteracting the effects of global warming. (More trees also means more CO2 absorption, so there is a double benefit.) Even if forest growth did not increase, in warmer weather, pine trees emit significantly more essential oil (Fuentes et al 2000).
Global warming offset
This hypothesis now looks like a reality – not so much in terms of increased forest growth, but warmer temperatures do result in greater pine oil emissions, which do cause whiter and larger clouds. A research team at Manchester University has demonstrated that, as aerosols and water accumulate, the presence of terpenes changes the chemistry of the drops, allowing them to attract more water, and this can substantially increase the number of droplets (Topping et al 2013). A cloud with a greater concentration of droplets is a whiter, fluffier cloud.
The clincher comes from a study involving 11 weather stations around the planet. A team including Markku Kulmala and Paul Paasonen, also at Helsinki, sampled the air at these stations, counting the number of aerosols of 100 nanometeres or larger, and also the level of terpenes. They found a clear pattern (Paasonen et al 2013). The effect is strongest in places such as eastern Siberia and Finland, where the air is clean. “But in more polluted areas, the feedback is not significant” says Paasonen.
The extent of the effect is not known, but it may not be very big. It could offset global warming by as much as 10%, or it might be less than 1%. And, where there is significant atmospheric pollution, pine oil evaporation makes no difference. But it’s one reason to preserve existing pine forests, and also applies to spruce, larch and similar species. Russia, Scandinavia and Canada take note. In theory, it will also apply to any large plantation of aromatic plants, but in reality pine forests may be the only significant contributor because of their mass.
The terpenes are only able to contribute to cloud formation because, once in the atmosphere, they are oxidized by ozone and other gases into slightly larger particles, and this is an important step in the process. So more ozone could also lead to whiter, larger clouds, again supporting the Gaia hypothesis. This is somewhat ironic because high ozone at ground level also oxidizes these terpenes, which of course come from essential oils too, and inhaling the resulting oxidation products can cause respiratory problems. So what is good for the planet above tree level is not so good for people with respiratory problems below. Fortunately, this only happens where there are high ozone levels.
Battersby S 2013 Call in the Clouds. New Scientist issue 2923: 32-35 http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21829231.900
Charlson RJ, Lovelock JE, Andreae MO, Warren G 1987 Oceanic phytoplankton, atmospheric sulphur, cloud albedo and climate. Nature 326 (6114): 655–661 doi:10.1038/326655a0
Fuentes JD, Lerdau M, Atkinson R et al 2000 Biogenic hydrocarbons in the atmospheric boundary layer: a review. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 81: 1537-1575 http://nature.berkeley.edu/biometlab/espm228/Fuentes%20et%20al%20BAMS%202000.pdf
Kulmala M, Suni T, Lehtinen KR et al 2004 A new feedback mechanism linking forests, aerosols, and climate. Atmospheric Chemistry & Physics 4: 557-562 http://hal.archives-ouvertes.fr/docs/00/29/54/16/PDF/acp-4-557-2004.pdf
Lovelock JE, Margulis, L 1974 Atmospheric homeostasis by and for the biosphere: the Gaia hypothesis. Tellus Series A 26: 2–10 http://www.gps.caltech.edu/classes/ge148c/pdf%20files/lovelock.pdf
Paasonen P, Asmi A, Petaja T et al 2013 Warming-induced increase in aerosol number concentration likely to moderate climate change. Nature Geoscience 6: 438-442 http://www.nature.com/ngeo/journal/v6/n6/full/ngeo1800.html
Topping D, Connolly P, McFiggans G 2013 Cloud droplet number enhanced by co-condensation of organic vapours. Nature Geoscience 6: 443-446 http://www.nature.com/ngeo/journal/v6/n6/full/ngeo1809.html
Question: Antioxidant, anti-acne, antiaging, antimutagenic, anti-inflammatory – what do these properties have in common in regard to the skin?
Answer: All of them require transdermal absorption, because they are effects that take place either within the epidermis or dermis. Essential oils such as lavender, coriander and rose demonstrate some of these effects, and there is good research underpinning such claims. Since many essential oil constituents are transdermally absorbed, the concept of cosmeceutical effects is scientifically sound. And, since essential oils also provide benefit through fragrance, a “functional fragrance” adds significant benefit, especially when combined with other types of active ingredient.
To find out more about essential oils in skin care, join me in New York City on August 24/25!
Published 8-April-2013 by Jenny Hope at dailymail.co.uk
Useful and attractive: Research has found the essential oil from rosemary helps long-term memory and alertness
Why a whiff of rosemary DOES help you remember: Sniffing the herb can increase memory by 75%
• The Tudors believed rosemary had powers to enhance memory
• In Hamlet, Ophelia says ‘There’s rosemary that’s for remembrance’
• Researchers have found the oil helps alertness and arithmetic
Shakespeare was right in saying rosemary can improve your memory.
Researchers have found for the first time that essential oil from the herb when sniffed in advance enables people to remember to do things.
It could help patients take their medication on time, it is claimed, or even help the forgetful to post a birthday card.
In a series of tests rosemary essential oil from the herb increased the chances of remembering to do things in the future, by 60-75 per cent compared with people who had not been exposed to the oil.
Other studies have shown the oil increases alertness and enhances long-term memory.
Rosemary has been long been linked to memory, with the most famous literary reference found in Hamlet when Ophelia declares: ‘There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance: pray, love, remember.’ It is used in modern-day herbal medicine as a mild painkiller and for migraines and digestive problems.
A team of psychologists at Northumbria University, Newcastle, tested the effects of essential oils from rosemary.
Dr Mark Moss, who will present the findings today at the British Psychology Society conference in Harrogate, said the benefit of aromas was becoming clear through scientific investigation.
He said ‘We wanted to build on our previous research that indicated rosemary aroma improved long-term memory and mental arithmetic.
‘In this study we focused on prospective memory, which involves the ability to remember events that will occur in the future and to remember to complete tasks at particular times. This is critical for everyday functioning, for example when someone needs to remember to post a birthday card or to take medication at a particular time.’
Rosemary essential oil was diffused in to a testing room by placing four drops on an aroma stream fan diffuser and switching this on five minutes before people entered the room.
Altogether 66 people took part in the study and were randomly allocated to either the rosemary-scented room or another room with no scent.
In each room participants completed a test designed to assess their prospective memory functions.
Herb lore: William Shakespeare referred to rosemary’s power to enhance the memory in Ophelia¿s line in Hamlet
This included tasks such as hiding objects and asking participants to find them at the end of the test and instructing them to pass a specified object to the researcher at a particular time.
All the tasks had to be done with no prompting but if the task was not performed then different degrees of prompting were used.
The more prompting that was used the lower the score.
The volunteers, all healthy adults, also completed questionnaires assessing their mood.
Blood was taken from volunteers and analysed to see if performance levels and changes in mood following exposure to the rosemary aroma were related to concentrations of a compound known as 1,8-cineole present in the blood.
The compound is also found in the essential oil of rosemary and has previously been shown to act on the biochemical systems that underpin memory.
The results showed that participants in the rosemary-scented room performed better on the prospective memory tasks than the participants in the room with no scent.
This was the case for remembering events, remembering to complete tasks at particular times, and the speed of recall.
The results from the blood analysis found that significantly greater amounts of 1,8-cineole were present in the plasma of those in the rosemary scented room, suggesting that sniffing the aroma led to higher concentrations.
Power of herbs: Rosemary is also used as a painkiller and for migraines and digestion
Previous research suggests volatile molecules from essential oils can be absorbed into the bloodstream through the nose.
The chemicals also stimulate the olfactory nerve in the nose directly, which could have effects on brain functioning.
Researcher Jemma McCready said ‘The difference between the two groups was 60-75 per cent, for example one group would remember to do seven things compared with four tasks completed by those who did not smell the oil, and they were quicker.
‘We deliberately set them a lot of tasks, so it’s possible that people who multi-task could function better after sniffing rosemary oil.’ Miss McCready said ‘There was no link between the participants’ mood and memory. This suggests performance is not influenced as a consequence of changes in alertness or arousal.
‘These findings may have implications for treating individuals with memory impairments.
‘It supports our previous research indicating that the aroma of rosemary essential oil can enhance cognitive functioning in healthy adults, here extending to the ability to remember events and to complete tasks in the future.
‘Remembering when and where to go and for what reasons underpins everything we do, and we all suffer minor failings that can be frustrating and sometimes dangerous. ‘Further research is needed to investigate if this treatment is useful for older adults who have experienced memory decline’ she added.
Florian Birkmayer, M.D., founded the Birkmayer Institute in 2009 to offer holistic person-centered psychiatry and addiction medicine as well as seminars and workshops on a wide range of holistic topics to facilitate self-transformation and continued self-development. This approach has been inspired by C.G. Jung’s ideas about Individuation, which is the journey of the limited ego to the Higher Self. His emphasis in holistic psychiatry is on Equine-assisted therapy, person-centered psychotherapy and holistic medication management including aromatherapy.
I met Dr. Birkmayer in February 2013, when he attended a weekend seminar I gave at the College of Botanical Healing Arts in Santa Cruz. The Birkmayer Institute is located in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Robert: Not many psychiatrists use essential oils in their practice, in fact I can’t think of any others. What have been your main reference points for how to proceed using essential oils?
Dr. Birkmayer: You are correct that not many psychiatrists use essential oils and I feel like any pioneer in that I’ve had to proceed carefully. My main reference points for using essential oils have been holistic providers, many of whom recognize the interactions between emotional and physical symptoms. Also I have learned a lot from my clients, who are really the experts on their own well-being. Essential oils fit nicely into a client-centered and self-empowering approach. Sylla Sheppard-Hanger’s book The Aromatic Mind has been a very useful guide, as well as Salvatore Battaglia’s Complete Guide to Aromatherapy. There are also several books about the safety, including your Essential Oil Safety, that are very valuable. Unlike many psychiatrists, my clients are generally very interested and willing to try essential oils and report benefits and that is what has kept me going.
Are there different rationales for essential oil use in psychiatry?
I see several rationales: First and foremost, many medications and the approach of many psychiatrists is disempowering to clients, and essential oils restore a client’s sense that there’s something they can do, that empowers them to change their emotional state and cope better. Also, many clients that seek me out have experienced serious side effects and limited benefit from their psychiatric medications and are seeking gentler approaches. However I don’t want to ‘throw the baby out with the bath water,’ and for many clients we use a combination of medications and essential oils. I use the oils both to alleviate symptoms and enhance well-being and coping, but also to counteract side effects of medications.
Are you looking for specific effects from specific oils, or is it all basically ‘feel-good’, or do you use fragrance to anchor feelings?
I use essential oils for specific effects, such as enhancing mood or alleviating anxiety or insomnia as well as to counteract certain side effects of medications. What you refer to as ‘feel-good’ I see as the enhanced sense of well-being that clients get from regaining a sense of resilience and improved coping skills with regards to their symptoms and life stressors. This also allows clients to shift from being symptom-focused to being ‘strengths based’ or ‘recovery oriented.’ In many cases, I tell clients to think of an intention or positive thought when they apply the essential oils, so in addition to the specific effects, the oils can thereby anchor feelings and intentions, or, more broadly, an enhanced sense of self-efficacy.
What type of complaints do you see most?
The most common complaints I see are related to traumic experiences, as well as anxiety, depression, insomnia and side-effects from medications.
Do you mostly use single oils or blends? Why?
I use both single oils as well as blends of up to four or five oils. In my psychiatric practice I’ve met many clients that are on multiple medications, which increases the chance of drug interactions and side effects and one of my core approaches is to simplify medication regimens as much as possible. Similarly when I use oils I try to use a minimum number – it’s more elegant and it’s gentler on the client’s brain.
Do you allow some clients to pick their own oil or blend?
Most of the oils and blends I offer are customized for the individual client with input from them. During a visit, I select a few oils that I feel might be helpful and let the clients smell them and choose the oils that agree with them. The olfactory nerves go directly to the limbic system, which is the part of the brain that processes emotions, and thus how a client reacts to a smell to me is an indication of what their limbic system may need at that time.
What do you hope for in terms of the effects of the oils?
There are many specific effects related to sleep, anxiety, mood, but above all I hope to restore a client’s sense of self-efficacy, so they can cope better with their lives and that the oils become ‘tools in their toolbox of coping skills.’
What are some of your favorites, and what do you mostly use them for?
I have many favorites, but recently I’ve been particularly fond of a simple combination of melissa (lemon balm) and palo santo essential oils which I have given several clients with anxiety and trauma-related issues and it appears to allow people to center themselves and let go of feeling overwhelmed.
Can you describe one or two of your cases where essential oils have played a major role in mental health improvement?
I have a simple blend that I call Sleep Oil that I developed and started using for myself and then shared with colleagues and then with clients – insomnia is a very common problem – and the response has been overwhelming. People are always asking me for more Sleep Oil, giving it to relatives and raving about it. One of the cool things about using this is that it’s applied to the skin. Many people are used to having to ingest something, a medication or a supplement, to get help with insomnia, so when they use Sleep Oil, they unlearn that they need to ingest something to sleep and that goes a long way towards restoring a natural sleep pattern.
Another example: As you may know, some psychiatric medications cause sexual side effects, which can be very distressing. I’ve had success with several clients in overcoming these side effects by using ylang-ylang diluted in a carrier oil and topically applied.
So how exactly are your essential oils used – does it always involve topical application? To skin?
I’ve been using topical application, which I tell clients to think of as anointing themselves as well as sprays which I tell clients to consider their ‘signature scent’.
Apart from treating clients, what are some of your other activities?
One of the goals of The Birkmayer Institute is to offer seminars on a wide range of holistic topics, including aromatherapy. I’ve been teaching a monthly seminar on C.G. Jung’s Red Book for the past year, which has been a remarkable journey. Apart from essential oils and Jung, my greatest passion is equine assisted therapy and I have been blessed that my relationship to horses has gotten deeper and more profound through providing equine assisted therapy and experiencing the healing power of horses. Several times a year, I host a retreat for healers called ‘Horses Healing Healers.’
Do you see any signs that conventional medicine is becoming any more open to the use of unconventional therapy, especially essential oils? Could aromatherapy transform psychiatry?
The clients are very eager for new, more gentle and transformative approaches. However, the field of psychiatry acts reserved and skeptical, even more than providers in other medical specialties, at least on the surface. In private I’ve had several colleagues, especially nurses but also a few physicians, express great interest. My dream is to organize a conference on holistic – especially aromatic – psychiatry in the next couple years, as I suspect there’s a lot of hunger for knowledge.
Dr. Birkmayer received his B.A. from Princeton University and his M.D. from the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University. He completed his psychiatry residency at the University of New Mexico. He has previously served as the director of the Dual Diagnosis Clinic at University of New Mexico Psychiatric Center and as the director of the Substance Use Disorders program at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Albuquerque, NM. He was invited to be a full member of the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry. He has a long-standing commitment to working with the underserved, e.g. working with Na’anizhozhi Center Inc., a Navajo-tradition based detox and rehab center in Gallup, NM and providing tele-psychiatry to underserved areas. He views himself as a bridge-builder between different medical worlds and works closely and respectfully with a wide range of healers.
There has been much social media discussion recently (February 2012) about the wisdom or otherwise of putting essential oils into your eyes to treat eye problems. This arose from two webpages, here and here. One of these, on the Livestrong website, states: “More and more people are choosing to use alternative medicines to treat minor illnesses rather than taking a prescription. Putting essential oils in or near the eyes isn’t something that is widely known about, but there are several that can aid in the treatment of eye problems. Before using essential oils for your eyes, always contact your doctor.
Clary sage is the essential oil that is most widely used to treat vision problems. It is placed in the eye, so advice from an optometrist is important before use. Clary sage is used as a cleanser for the eyes. It can also be used to clear eye sight due to foggy vision or an injury to the eyes. Clary sage can also be used to brighten the eyes and improve vision. Finally, it can have beneficial results for people with eye issues related to aging” (Eliza Martinez).
Damage to the cornea after inadvertent adminstration of Olbas Oil. Courtesy of Nature Publishing Group
This actually dates from May 2010, but judging from the related comments, has only recently been noticed. The statement that “Clary sage is the essential oil that is most widely used to treat vision problems” is not true, since there are no essential oils commonly used to treat vision problems. The only evidence for any essential oil treating any eye problem relates to tea tree oil and eyelash mites (see below). The reference to clary sage probably derives from 17th century European herbalists, but this refers to using clary sage seeds, or mucilage made from them, and not to clary sage essential oil: “The seed put into the eyes clears them from motes and such like things gotten within the lids to offend them, and it also clears them from any white and red spots which may be on them” (Culpeper 1652). Another common name for clary sage (Salvia sclarea) was “clear eye” because of this common use of the seeds, which probably pre-dated Culpeper by many years. “Clary” may derive from “clear-eye.”
Not only is there no evidence that any essential oil can help with vision problems, age-related or otherwise, but placing any essential oil “in the eye” is extremely dangerous advice. Almost any undiluted essential oil coming into contact with the ocular membranes will be corrosive, possibly causing scarring of the cornea, and certainly causing significant pain.
I could find no reports in the literature of ocular accidents involving single essential oils, but there are several for Olbas oil. This is a mixture of essential oils and menthol:
35.45% Eucalyptus oil
35.45% Dementholized mint oil
18.5% Cajuput oil
3.7% Wintergreen oil
2.7% Juniper berry oil
0.1% Clove oil
A 2009 report from an ophthalmologist in Bristol UK, describes partial loss of corneal tissue (ie erosion) when a 73-year-old man dripped Olbas Oil into his left eye (he had no right eye) because he thought he was using eye drops (see picture above). He was “considerably incapacitated”, but recovered after a week of treatment with “topical antibiotics and lubricants”. On checking, the author found that just his hospital, in the previous 18 months, had seen 12 patients who had mistakenly dripped Olbas Oil into one eye. He describes the result as a chemical burn, though he found that Olbas Oil in tears was pH neutral (most chemical burns are caused by substances that are strongly acid or alkaline). All “Olbas Oil patients” recovered fully within one week following intensive treatment (Adams et al 2009).
Olbas Oil may cause problems even when not applied directly to the eyes. The mother of a 4-month-old boy placed several drops of Olbas Oil in his right nostril in an attempt to help his respiratory infection, not realizing that the product warns against use in infants. The child immediately showed signs of respiratory distress, and was taken to the emergency room. Two hours after admission his eyes became inflamed, and examination revealed bilateral superficial corneal scarring. He also had conjunctivitis, and could not open his eyes. They were flushed with saline over four days, and he recovered with no residual scarring (Wyllie and Alexander 1994).
More than 65,000 work-related eye injuries and illnesses are reported annually in the USA, a “significant percentage” of these being ocular chemical burns. They require rapid treatment, and severe burns have a poor prognosis. The standard treatment is copious irrigation with saline solution for 1-2 hours. Contact lenses should not be removed initially (Peate 2007). With essential oils, fatty oil has been suggested as an appropriate first aid treatment though the advantage of saline is that the eyes can be continually flushed, and this is less easy with fatty oil.
What about diluted essential oils?
The second article describes using essential oils diluted to (by my estimation) about 3%. It includes the following advice:
“Here is a truly natural solution, which has been shown to benefit your eye health and the only one I will use. Gary Young has used this recipe for his patients at the Ecuador Clinic for macular degeneration, health issues, cataracts, and improving sight. I’ve been using it for a couple of years and love it! I started using this recipe before I had to have a vision exam in order to purchase new contacts. And I knew my vision had deteriorated from my last exam. So I put the drops in my eyes every night for about 6 months prior to the exam and my prescription had not changed according to their records, but I know what I was not seeing and I know what I was seeing as a result of using these drops – clearly my vision had improved! The recipe is as follows:
7-10 drops of Frankincense
7-10 drops of Rosemary
7-10 drops of Cypress
2 Tbsp of V-6
Put oils in a glass dropper bottle with a lid on it. My experience has been that I can see much more clearly just after putting the drops in my eye so I am also going to experiment with putting a drop in my eyes in the morning” (Diana Ewald).
“V-6” is a proprietary blend of vegetable oils. The above implies that using these oils on a daily basis is likely to have a healing effect in cases of cataract, macular degeneration or failing eyesight. Although the article continues to describe various effects of the essential oils, none of them have any relationship with any of these conditions. So the question arises – how to weigh potential benefits against potential risks?
The word “experiment” in the above seems appropriate. Eyesight problems are difficult to treat, and once damage has occurred, recovery is not always simple. A 3% dilution may not be sufficient to cause corneal erosion, but on the other hand there is no evidence of any benefit. One concern is that the wrong dilution may be used, and the risk of this is substantial. For example, it would be easy to confuse “tbsp” with tsp”, resulting in a dilution of about 10% instead of 3%.
In a Chinese study, an ointment containing 5% tea tree oil was used by patients whose eyelash follicles were infested with “eyelash mites” (Demodex folliculorum). The ointment was applied to the lid margins with eyes closed, daily for 4 weeks after washing the face, and resulted in considerably less itching and fewer mites. Two of the 24 patients experienced slight irritation from the ointment. The 5% concentration was arrived at after preliminary testing using various dilutions on rabbit eyes (Gao et al 2012).
* Undiluted essential oils should not be applied to the eyes.
* It is rash to suggest that essential oils are commonly used to treat eye problems
* Eye injuries and diseases are medical conditions, and any product claiming to treat them is a medicine, subject to drug legislation.
* There is currently no evidence that applying dilutions of essential oil to the eyes will be beneficial in any condition.
* Diluted (5%) tea tree oil may help eradicate eyelash mites, but it should not be placed into the eyes.
Adams MK, Sparrow JM, Jim S et al 2009 Inadvertent administration of Olbas oil into the eye: a surprisingly frequent presentation. Eye (London) 23:244
Culpeper N 1652 The English Physitian, or an Astro-physical discourse of the vulgar herbs of this nation. Being a compleat method of physick, whereby a man may preserve his body in health; or cure himself, being sick. Thomas Kelly, London
Gao YY, Xu DL, Huang IJ et al 2012 Treatment of ocular itching associated with ocular demodicosis by 5% tea tree oil ointment. Cornea 31:14-17
Peate WF 2007 Work-related eye injuries and illnesses. American Family Physician 75:1017-1022
Wyllie JP, Alexander FW 1994 Nasal instillation of ‘Olbas Oil’ in an infant. Archives of Disease in Childhood 70:357-358
This article also appears in the International Journal of Professional Holistic Aromatherapy, Vol. 1 Issue 4
I would really appreciate it if you could tell me what type of vitamin E to use to slow the oxidation of essential oils, as in cream. Is it just tocopherol? Or some other type?
Thank you for your time.
PS. I enjoyed your webinar very much!
There are four principal isomers (chemical subtypes) of tocopherol:
There are also sub-types of each one.
You can use ‘mixed’ tocopherols: all four in various proportions. But my preference for essential oils is to use alpha-tocopherol, specifically d-alpha tocopherol. Here is a supplier that sells small quantities, as well as large.
Because it is very viscous, you may want to mix it 50/50 with a fatty oil or essential oil before adding to your product. You don’t need much – the tocopherol should be added at 0.1% by weight of the total product. Putting more in won’t be more effective.
Although ‘tocopherol’ and ‘vitamin E’ are often used synonymously, vitamin E is actually even broader, because the term encompasses both tocopherols and tocotrienols.
Hello there. I am in hopes you can please help me. I currently use the doTERRA line of essential oils and I also have used them to help my 18month old daughter. I have recently used ylang-ylang, roman chamomile, lavender and sandalwood to reduce stress and attempt to balance my hormones that have been out of wack since my pregnancy. Unfortunately, my husband is extremely skeptical as to the healing properties of EO’s as well as the safety of their use. He is concerned about the oils coming through my breast milk and causing issues for our daughter and recently he attributes my use of Lavender and Roman Chamomile on our daughter’s severe diaper rash as exacerbating the rash. I tried to explain that her reaction to anything on her rash when it was this raw would have made her scream and cry, but unfortunately, he attributes it only to my use of the oils. I also tried to explain the healing properties of those two oils specifically for diaper rash, but he says that he saw me “burn her” with the 2 oils based on her screaming response to the diaper change.
Would you mind please responding by addressing my husband’s concerns as well as pointing him in a direction where he can read scientific evidence of the healing properties and explain the safety of the use of oils with regard to our baby, pregnancy and breast feeding? Are there any specific oils not to use during pregnancy or breast feeding? And lastly, do you have an opinion on the doTERRA brand of oils and that they claim to be Certified Pure Therapeutic Grade?
Thank you so much for helping to educate my husband, so that I may continue to help my family in a natural, alternative way. I am not a fan of antibiotics (unless absolutely necessary) or synthetic and chemical treatments or remedies. I am very concerned with a lot of these questionable ingredients in our western over the counter and prescribed medicines.
As far as the oils I listed as having used on myself, I use 1 neat drop rubbed on the back of my neck or collar bone or wrist once to twice a day. The lavender & Roman Chamomile used on my daughter has been applied 2 drops of each in my hands patted on her dry, clean bottom. This is how I did it 2 days ago and she did not get upset and it seemed to help alleviate her itching, but since then, her rash has gotten worse from more acidic urine and feces and the rash now appears more raw and is weeping. Today, I did the same type of application & then let her be without a diaper for an hour while she laid on top of me & rested, and the redness has already subsided substantially. There is still the raw spot though.
The information I seek as being most important is in regards to the possibility of exacerbation of the rash by use of the oils, the possibility of oils harming our daughter through topical and/or aromatic applications to our daughter, the possibility of oils harming our daughter by way of my breast milk, if there are specific oils not to use while pregnant and or breastfeeding and any scientific studies and/or evidence showing the healing properties of the oils that my husband can reference.
Also, if you wouldn’t mind touching on your opinion of doTERRA’S line and in your professional opinion sharing with me if you think it is a credible product.
Once again, thank you very much for trying to answer my questions! I truly appreciate your efforts!
Thank you and in health,
In my opinion, your use of 1 or 2 drops a day on yourself will have no effect in regard to breastfeeding. Of that amount, at least 95% evaporates or rubs off on clothes, and only a very small percentage of what you do absorb will reach breast milk (or fetus). You would probably absorb just as much essential oil from eating a couple of oranges or a bowl of strawberries.
Most essential oils, including lavender & Roman chamomile, have a drying effect if used undiluted on the skin, for the same reason that alcohol is drying – rapid evaporation. It does not sound as if your use of these oils has made things worse, but I would caution you against using the oils in this way because it does increase the risk of irritation or allergic reaction, especially for a baby, which has relatively thin skin.
Do use the oils, but mix into a vegetable oil, gel or cream base before use, for a baby at no more than 1%, or one part in 100. Barrier creams for babies are made to form a literal barrier over the skin, to protect it from the urine, feces etc. Essential oils, if anything, have the opposite effect – helping other substances to penetrate the dermal layers.
In my opinion, DoTerra essential oils are good quality though over-priced. I have written about ‘therapeutic grade’ claims here. I don’t have an easy-to-reference list of oils to avoid in pregnancy, but the most important would be fennel and anise. Here is a link to research on lavender oil.
I hope this is helpful.