Over the last three years, I’ve been getting more and more gifts of essential oils, usually packaged in tiny spray vials. This year, I got one particular product from three different people, with the package proclaiming it could prevent 17 medical conditions from arthritis and asthma to cough, dyspepsia, hypertension and, in the largest and boldest letters: STRESS.
Essential oils are promoted mainly as part of aromatherapy, which I’ll be explaining shortly, but I thought I might as well talk about the wider context, and potentials, of using essential oils.
Before the explanations though, let me explain my own interest in essential oils. It goes back more than 40 years ago when, as a fresh college graduate, I was assigned to Mindanao to look into the communities’ uses of medicinal plants.
There’s a long story behind how I ended up with that work, but all I’ll say is I knew practically nothing about medicinal plants, which was an advantage because I had to listen intently to albularyo (herbalists) and mothers and grandmothers as they took me around their backyards and identified plants and their uses.
I noticed there was a lot of overlap in the uses of many of the plants — mainly for stomach aches, headaches, body pains, coughs and colds. I would try the plants and go, “Wow, they do work!” But I wanted to be scientific about it.
Fortunately, a friend told me about a workshop on phytochemistry (plant chemicals) that was being conducted by the UST Research Center. I joined the workshop, which became a crash course on learning about all kinds of plant chemicals and, in particular, essential oils, which are complex mixtures of chemicals responsible for the aromatic qualities of plants. These chemicals are the plants’ natural defenses, keeping away predators. But, attracted by their strong scents, humans discovered these aromatic plants had many uses, from food flavorings to perfumes to medicines.
For example, the essential oils, also known as volatile oils, stimulate the respiratory system to produce phlegm, which explains the plants’ use for coughs and colds. Now you know how Vicks Vaporub, Valda Pastilles and other throat lozenges work.
Other volatile oils have analgesic qualities, especially when rubbed on the painful body part. People laughed when our Mindanao communities first produced BLS oil for body pains — BLS standing for bawang (garlic), luya (ginger) and sili (chili pepper), which made patients smell like lechon. But then we buy similar stuff in drugstores like Salonpas, Capsicum plaster, Efficascent Oil, Tiger Balm, White Flower oil and many more.
Plants that help with stomach aches have volatile oils that stimulate intestinal movements. Remember Aceite Manzanilla? That’s actually chamomile, rich in volatile oils. It has declined in popularity, but I still used it with my kids when they had colic or gas pains.
I could go on and on, including the disinfectant qualities of some oils (e.g., tea tree oil), but I need to connect now to aromatherapy.
In Filipino traditional medicine, the aromatic plants are taken mainly as teas, boiled in water. But more volatile oils are extracted if the plants are prepared as tinctures (soaked in alcohol) or through laboratory distillation to produce concentrated oil.
It’s these concentrated oils that are becoming popular now, tapping essential oils’ specific physiological effects. In addition, smells do stimulate the body’s release of endorphins and other chemicals that can relieve pain and reduce stress. That’s what aromatherapy is all about.
Remember again, we’re talking about mixtures of chemicals in these products so they can have multiple effects, including the psychological. Note how essential oils are used for application on the skin, such as for massage. It’s not surprising that Vicks was promoted with the line “haplos ng ina,” the gentle touch of mothers. Essential oils work through a combination of scent and touch, converging to prove Florence Nightingale right: “The cure is in the caring.”
I have to warn that the market is now flooded with so many aromatherapy products that use artificial scents, or that are adulterated. I can usually spot a fake product with a whiff, or by looking at the watery consistency.
I also need to warn against overdoing things. We now have five-star hotels that fill their lobbies with aromatic scents out of electric humidifiers. Like loud karaoke music, these scents can be assaulting rather than soothing.
Also be careful about using essential oils on pets; cats are especially prone to adverse effects from the oils.
Among Asian countries, we are the least developed when it comes to the essential oils industry. And it would be a shame if, as with so many of our medicinal plant fads, people are attracted by the hyped marketing, only to find the products useless or even harmful.
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