Who ran to help me when I fell,
And would some pretty story tell,
Or kiss the place to make it well?
Moms are amazing healers, aren’t they?! To whisk away pain through gentle words, soothing touch, and sometimes an appropriately-placed kiss is remarkable! I can remember my own childhood when a scraped knee could be virtually forgotten if Mom was there to comfort me. When I awoke with an ear infection, confirmed by the doctor later with a bottle of pink antibiotic to go with the diagnosis, Mom ran me a warm chamomile bath and wrapped my head in warm towels followed by an herbal oil massage of the neck and jaw. Bliss. All of these years later, the moment I’ve got the sniffles I wish my Mom was in the room to wrap me in warm blankets, feed me one of her delicious soups, and bring me cup after cup of tea.
Many Moms are drawn to the increasing trend of using essential oils here in the United States, and like many of us, jump straight in without taking a class or consulting with a qualified aromatherapist. My goal is to offer you information that you may not be aware of so that you can make an informed decision about how essential oils will play a role in your family’s wellness plan.
Nature, the Healer
“The art of healing comes from nature, not from the physician. Therefore the physician must start from nature, with an open mind.” ~ Paracelsus
“The best friend on earth of man is the tree: When we use the tree respectfully and economically, we have one of the greatest resources of the earth.” ~ Frank Lloyd Wright
Healing ourselves with nature is as old as our species. Herbal medicine has been practiced in every ancient culture in every corner of the planet. Modern herbal medicine benefits greatly from scientific research that can prove, or dispel, the folk uses of different plants our ancestors used. Some turn into wives tales while others have been recreated in labs as synthetic pharmaceuticals.
Plants have the capacity to nourish, soothe, and promote our innate healing abilities. Plants also have the capacity to poison, drug, and kill.
Progression of Plant Medicine
One of my incredibly wise instructors, Peter Holmes, an accomplished acupuncturist, medical herbalist, and clinical aromatherapist, shared with me that essential oils lie half-way between herbs and drugs. I’ve created a helpful progression chart here to demonstrate, for those of us who are visual learners!, the hierarchy of plant medicine concentrations:
– Food: the foundation of plant medicine are plants that serve us as food. This is the first, and many will argue the most important, step in health and wellness — eating healthful, locally-sourced, nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables create a foundation for young bodies to grow and develop, and adult bodies to move through the day with stamina, fight off infections and disease, and age gracefully.
– Nutritional Herbs: just up from plant foods are nutritional herbs such as stinging nettles, alfalfa, oatstraw, and red clover. Steeped in hot water overnight, these herbs give us accessible forms of macro and trace minerals naturally drawn out of the ground during the growing process. Adult bodies can gain a lot in nutritional herbs with enhanced resilience to stressors, essential minerals for maintaining health of the musculo-skeletal systems, and improvements to digestive health through mucilaginous herbs.
– Medicinal Plants: these plants are more concentrated than the nutritional herbs, but not as concentrated as essential oils. Herbalists, and herb labs take bulk plant materials in this category and tincture them in alcohols, grind them into powders and encapsulate them, or infuse into vegetable glycerin. Herbal bitters help adult bodies to improve digestion, tinctures nudge the body to balance or bolster the immune system in times of infection. Many child-friendly herbs exist in this category such as the popular elderberry syrup for cold and flu season, chamomile for soothing fussy babies and easing body aches of older children, witch hazel hydrosol for cleansing and drying pubescent faces and irritated bottoms.
– Essential Oils: distillers take massive amounts of aromatic plant materials and extract essential oils from them using hydrodistillation and cold expression equipment. Generally 100x concentrate of the original plant materials, essential oils do not contain many of the whole plant components such as the nutritional benefits of vitamins and minerals, antioxidants, and buffers to ease into the body. These super-concentrated extracts enhance mood, have a wide range of cosmetic applications, can change pain perceptions, can have powerful anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial actions, and are used in energetic medicine to affect qi, prana, and spirit.
– Drugs: many drugs have roots in plant medicine, even if they’re synthesized in a lab. Birch is a common example of a plant medicine that transcends several of these categories – the herbal form of birch is a very diverse plant medicine tool, the essential oil though is so concentrated it is not recommended for home-use without the guidance of an aromatherapist, while the synthesized form is a drug known as Aspirin. The essential oil carries many toxicity risks that the aspirin does but is used in acute pain management by clinical aromatherapists.
Dosage Makes All the Difference
When we look at this progression it is easier to grasp the difference between the cooking herbs in Mom’s chicken noodle soup and the pounds of herbs that go into a teaspoon of essential oil. As we move into higher concentrations we must be aware of the risks, as well as the benefits that come with the increased strength.
Every Mom Needs to Know that Essential Oils…
- Are not user-ready straight out of the bottle – like anything at 100x concentration, essential oils have to be diluted before they are skin-safe for adults and children. Likewise, if you’re planning on diffusing them in a vaporizer the amount and length of time need to be accounted for. This is known as dosing and is dependent entirely upon the age, health history, constitution, and intervention for the individual involved. Essential oils are like the super-concentrated extracts you find in baking — a teaspoon of vanilla will flavor your entire cake and 2 drops of food coloring will color an entire bowl of icing. If you don’t know how to dilute for specific ages and health considerations, ask an aromatherapist!
- Require a basic understanding of aromatic chemistry – it is the chemistry of an essential oil that will determine its therapeutic actions, drug interactions, organ toxicity, and give us safety guidelines for things like age-appropriateness, length of use, type of applications, and dosage. Aromatherapists around the country offer Aroma101 type classes and courses that cover this necessary foundation to using essential oils safely at home. For those expert self-study type moms who can pick up where their organic chemistry professors left off in graduate or nursing school, E. Joy Bowles “Chemistry of Aromatherapeutic Oils” will be a helpful guide. Be wary of sales pitches marketed as classes and books published simply to sell products to you!
- Carry very real risks for infants and children – thousands of distraught parents and caregivers place calls to poison control centers across the United States about pediatric poisonings every year. Deaths, while rare, do occur when children consume essential oils by mouth. Hospitalizations for hepatotoxicity, neurotoxicity, loss of breathing, and loss of consciousness are happening at an increasing rate – likely due to the increasing popularity of essential oils in the last decade. Some essential oils (Peppermint, Eucalyptus, Ho Leaf, Rosemary ct. camphor) act on the cold receptors of a child’s lungs and cause him to stop breathing as the lungs cannot fill with his next breath. Each essential oil has specific safety guidelines set forth by national and international organizations that any qualified aromatherapist can point you to.
- Are not water-soluble – essential oils and water do not mix, they need a dispersant before they’re added to the bath (I like almond milk and honey), and should never be added to drinking water.
- Should not be your first plant-medicine choice for children – most children do not need such a concentrated plant intervention such as essential oils. For example, a baby with a diaper rash needs to be assessed for diet, switched to cloth diapers, and gentler remedies such as arrowroot powder and baby-safe herbal spritzers or diluted baby-safe hydrosols should be turned to first. In the event that diet, routines, baby-safe herbs or hydrosols are not addressing the issue then bring in a baby-safe essential oil in a baby-safe dilution. One need not put out a candle flame with a fire hydrant!
- Do not replace drugs in your medicine cabinet – while this is a trendy way to market essential oils right now it is very deceptive and the FDA is threatening federal imprisonment and fines because of these illegal marketing tactics. Essential oils are ethically and safely used in holistic treatment plans across the country by aromatherapists with specific training in aromatic chemistry, anatomy and physiology, and the science-art of aromatherapy. When essential oils are used to treat symptoms and not address root imbalances things can go quite awry at home. Take the mother that used peppermint essential oil on her young child to bring down a fever which instead contributed to an upsetting seizure incident which landed the young child in the intensive care unit for days. Would this baby have been spared such a horrific incident if the mother had known the herb is child-safe while the essential oil is a powerful neurotoxin to developing nervous systems under the age of ten?
Holistic Practitioners Are Your Wellness Allies
Raising healthy children is no small feat! But, you certainly are not alone in your quest to balance safety and efficacy of wellness routines while running from soccer practice to ballet to yoga. Choose your family’s wellness team from highly-qualified practitioners in your community that fit your family’s philosophy of health and wellness. For some families this team might look like: pediatrician, homeopath, acupuncturist. For other families it might look like: pediatric naturopath or osteopath, aromatherapist, reflexologist. Interview local practitioners that specialize in working with children, even better if they work with whole families so kids and parents can get comprehensive wellness care!
Aromatherapists must meet the minimum of 200 hours of aromatherapy-only education which includes training specific to the childbearing year and pediatrics. Safety protocols are updated regularly as new information comes from rigorous testing of essential oils and hydrosols by researchers in labs around the globe. As a clinically-trained Aromatherapist I love helping families find ways to enhance their wellness routines with aromatherapy. Some examples of ways I work with families:
– Treatment plans for seasonal wellness
– Treatment plans for constitutional imbalances
– Treatment plans for special needs children
– Treatment plans to reinforce learning patterns in school-aged children
– Treatment plans for moon days, growth phases, and transitions that honor and support the transition into puberty and adulthood
When I work with families I am keenly aware of the intuition of the parent/caregiver on the child(ren) he/she is entrusted with. This is a role I feel deeply honored to participate in as we work together, as a team, to draw up plans that nurture, inspire, and encourage balance. Learn more about my process and information on scheduling an appointment at either of my Austin, Texas clinics or via phone/Skype.