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Essential Oils in Modern Medicine

In the U.S. we were taught in school that Columbus set out on a mission to find a new trade route to India in 1492 when he “discovered” the New World. As young students, we were told that the mission of finding a shorter trade route to India was to have better access to the “spices of the Orient.” I wondered why that was so important. Was it so imperative to obtain them just to flavor food? But spices like black pepper, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg were such important commodities 500 years ago that nations mobilized substantial resources to sail across vast oceans to find new routes to the spice-rich Orient and avoid paying Middle Eastern and North African middlemen, who became extremely wealthy by closely controlling access to them. Spices were important for flavoring food, but also for such tasks as making medications, making perfume, embalming the dead and especially, preserving meat. The essential oils in black pepper and cayenne are powerful antioxidants that literally turn death into life by preserving raw meat to make sausages, which were rich in probiotics like Lactobacillus plantarum and became even richer as they aged. The essential oils in these spices literally turn death into life making meat from a dead animal, which spoils quickly, into healthy food.

Essential oils have been used for healing for millennia. Essential oils are also called aromaticplant essences, from which the word “aromatherapy” is derived. In ancient times essential oils were used in religious rituals and for individual spiritual practices. Their use as disinfectants and for other healing purposes was known to the ancient Egyptians and later the Greeks and Hebrews. There are 188 references to essential oils in the Bible, the most famous reference being the gifts of frankincense and myrrh brought by the Three Wise Men at their visit to the baby Jesus.

An interesting essential oils legend relates to a concoction known as “Marseilles Vinegar” or “Four Thieves Vinegar.” A band of thieves in Toulouse who were robbing the bodies of Bubonic Plague victims at funeral pyres were arrested and condemned to death. Given the virulence and deadliness of the Plague, the judges were astonished by the indifference of the thieves to contagion. But they were offered their freedom if they could explain the reason they felt no fear having direct contact with the decaying corpses. The thieves claimed to have a secret formula that they could take to prevent them from contracting the disease.

A variety of recipes for the thieves’ formula have been suggested. One recalled by Scientific American magazine in 1910 included dried rosemary tops, dried sage flowers, fresh rue, camphor, “spirit*,” garlic cloves and vinegar, which was to steep for 7 or 8 days “with occasional agitation.” It was said that this “medicated vinegar was invented by four thieves of Marseilles who successfully employed it as a prophylactic during a visitation of pestilence.”

Treatment of the Black Plague conjures images of physicians wearing dark robes, wide-brimmed hats, and masks with long beaks. These long beaks contained dried herbs, spices and essential oils that the physician inhaled during his time of exposure to infected patients. In the Middle Ages traveling healers known as “mountebanks” carried pouches of aromatic herbs to inhale from when they were visiting sick patients.

In recent years, clinicians in Europe have prescribed essential oils for patients to be taken internally, orally and rectally for a variety of conditions. Along with their powerful disinfectant properties, essential oils have powerful effects on the nervous system and endocrine system. Their disinfectant properties have been known to conventional medical science for well over 100 years, but they were never considered to be the scientific breakthrough that fungal antibiotics like penicillin represented.

Several hundred medical doctors just in France alone use essential oils internally for a variety of diseases. They are usually blended with tinctures or other types of botanical medicine preparations in pharmacies. Pathogenic microbes, including bacteria, viruses and fungi, are unable to adapt to essential oils sothere is no phenomenon of acquired resistance of the microorganisms to essential oils. For a given microbe at any given time, an essential oil will retain all of its efficacy.

The Father of Aromatherapy in modern times was a French surgeon stationed in Viet Nam in the early 1950s. Dr. Jean Valnet, a surgeon and Chief Physician of the Gulf of Tonkin Hospital in Viet Nam was impressed with the effect of essential oils in treating infections from battle wounds. Dr. Valnet used essential oils for the serious life-threatening medical problems of military combat victims such as disinfecting amputation wounds, shrapnel wounds, various types of tropical infections and even gangrene. He found the essential oils to be effective far beyond expectation. Antibiotics were in short supply and they quickly lost their effectiveness, but the essential oils did not.

Research from China has confirmed the value of spices for health and longevity.

A study at China Kadoorie Biobank followed 487,375 subjects, aged 30-79,from 10 geographically diverse areas across China that were enrolled between 2004 and 2008. The study found that participants who consumed spicy foods 6 or 7 days a week showed a 14% reduction in relative risk for total mortality including deaths due to cancer, respiratory diseases, and ischemic heart diseases, compared to those who ate spicy foods less than once per week. The beneficial effect of spicy foods was stronger in non-drinkers.

One of the most versatile essential oils is oil of lavender. It has disinfectant properties against a variety of bacteria, but it is an excellent sedative and complements other medications favorably for calming the nervous system. The oils most effective for respiratory infections are thyme, eucalyptus, niaouli, cajeput, ravensare, hyssop and sometimes lavender and rosemary. These are all good anti-virals. Ravensare and thyme are especially good for various types of herpes. An essential oil with significant hormone-like properties is oil of clary sage. It is excellent for night sweats and estrogen replacement.

Essential oils are increasingly used in veterinary medicine in the U.S. They are not used as much as they are in Europe for treating human patients but they hold great promise for meeting the challenge of antibiotic resistance. Oil of oregano in gelcaps for oral use has become a popular item for treating a wide variety of infections. It is available in natural food stores and natural pharmacies. As its popularity grows, and as scientific research continues to accumulate using these powerful plant-based medications will become more accepted in medical practice.

*Probably ethyl alcohol



Dan Kenner, Ph.D., L.Ac.

Dan Kenner, Ph.D., L.Ac.
Acupuncture and Integrative Medical College (AIMC Berkeley)

DAN KENNER, Ph.D., L.Ac graduated in 1979 from the Meiji College of Oriental Medicine in Japan, passed the Japanese National Licensing Examination and then trained in Internships at Osaka Medical University Pain Clinic and Kinki University Medical Teaching Hospital. He is licensed to practice Oriental Medicine both in the U.S. and in Japan. He also has a Ph.D. in Naturopathic Medical Science from the First National University of Naturopathic Medical Sciences. Dr. Kenner is on the Board of Directors of the Acupuncture and Integrative Medicine College in Berkeley, California and the National Health Federation. He is author of The Whole-Body Workbook for Cancer and other titles. Since 1983, he has endeavored to integrate the Naturopathic Medical Traditions of North America and Europe with the Traditional Medicine of East Asia.

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