How (and Why You Should) Incorporate Essential Oils Into Your Herbalism Practice and Vice Versa (And More Reflections on Herbs vs. Essential Oils)
I recently wrote an article about which is best to use? Herbs? Or essential oils? I've been thinking a lot about that question recently because it actually came up in a discussion. I've personally been using and loving both herbs and essential oils together for years.
They are both extremely healing and useful and both herbs and essential oils should have a place in your home apothecary. Can they even be separated into a competition about which is better? I guess some would think so, but I disagree.
That's why, if somebody tells you that one way of using plant medicine is better than the other, you really should take that person's experience into account and perhaps exercise some skepticism. Are they educated about both the herbal and the aromatic? Do they have years of active experience with both?
In fact--I think that using both herbs and essential oils is actually the best practice, if you are able to do this. There is a time to use herbs. And there is a time to use essential oils. And sometimes you should use them together. Both are wonderful natural healing options depending on the situation.
I've been discussing this with others who use herbs and essential oils, and I've come to some conclusions about having an herbalism practice that includes essential oils. Is it possible? Is it a good idea? Here are five more thoughts about using essential oils in your herbal health practices.
You can read my first article, Which are Better? Herbs or Essential Oils, here. This article was written in response to a comment someone made, and I felt I needed to put my own experiences with each practice out there.
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5 More Important Thoughts About Herbs vs. Essential Oils and How to Use Both Together
1) Aromatherapy is Part of Herbalism
Here's the deal: Every time an herbalist is working medicinally with an aromatic plant, like peppermint, rosemary, and many, many others...well, that herbalist is involving essential oils that the plant contains. These oils within the plant contain many of the healing powers of that plant. So when an herbalist uses peppermint leaves in a tea, for example? Those aromatic oils are coming into play.
I believe herbalists (and people who don't identify as herbalists) use aromatherapy far more than they realize. Aromatherapy is very much a part of herbalism, and when you drink a fragrant tea for medicinal purposes---you are involving your body with the volatile oils of the plant.
Aromatherapy is far more than just little brown bottles of the volatile oils from the plant.
2) Aromatherapy Has a Long History, as Does Herbalism
We know using plants as medicine dates back many thousands of years. Traditional herbal preparations are found in all cultures all over the world. Aromatherapy also has quite a long history of use.
Many herbalists dating back before 1500 B.C. also used aromatherapy in medicinal practices. The Vedic texts state that aromas from plants strengthen the senses and were (and still are) used for inhalation and massage that promote health.
Traditional Chinese medicine is another ancient natural healing system that groups plants into aromatic categories for both food and medicine. According to ancient practices, aromatic plants are especially helpful for relieving pain, increasing energy, and improving the rate of absorption of certain herbs.
As far back as the 13th century, German herbalist Hildegard von Bingen wrote about using aromatics to impact the emotions. In fact, she wrote specifically and accurately about using fennel to make a person feel happiness and lavender to help one relax and sleep.
While purposeful aromatherapy doesn't have quite as long a history that using actual plants in herbal preparations has, the practice of using plants with volatile oils that affect the body via scent still dates back over a thousand years that we know of.
3) Using Only Essential Oils Has Limited Benefits
Essential oils have some similarities in their chemistry, and that is they are simply the volatile oils from the plant and lack the rest of the plant constituents. These plant constituents that are left out of the equation provide a great deal of the medicinal qualities of the plant. Without them, essential oils are limited in their scope.
Let's take the heart muscle as an example. There are herbs that actively strengthen and improve the function of the heart muscle. In my article, Eight Herbs to Use for Your Heart, motherwort and hawthorne are just a couple I mention that can play an active and helpful role in heart health.
Essential oils won't have actions that strengthen the heart muscle itself, at least not that I'm aware. However, certain essential oils such as rosemary and black pepper can be useful in supporting circulation, both through inhalation and topical use. Depending on the conditions being supported, both herbs and essential oils could play a strong role in heart health.
Although helpful, by themselves, essential oils have limited actions on the physical body, as this example shows.
4) Can Aromatherapy be used Alone in a Health Practice Like Herbs Can?
Many herbalists use only herbs. And that works just fine. Many clinical herbalists use only herbs and leave essential oils completely out of the equation.
So the next question is, "Can essential oils be used alone in a health or even a clinical practice?"
I do think essential oils can be used all by themselves in a health practice, and there are plenty of certified aromatherapists out there who do a great job.
But do you know what I think is best of all?
Using both herbs and essential oils to support each other in the health and healing processes of the body. If you have knowledge, experience, and skill, you can use them both to synergistically affect the body in some extremely positive ways.
5) Using Herbs and Essential Oils Together with Wisdom is Best
And this segues well into my next point: Using them artfully and wisely together is the best way (in my opinion) to use herbs and essential oils.
Although I do not ever recommend ingesting essential oils, they are truly wonderful for topical use and inhalation. One of my favorite ways to use both herbs and essential oils is in herbal preparations that combine herbal infused oils, tinctures, water, or vinegars with essential oils that support the actions of the herbs used.
Here is an example: A simple pain soothing salve.
My recipe calls for the herbs Cayenne, St. John's, Arnica, and Ginger to be infused in oil, as well as essential oils that support the herbal actions, like Wintergreen and Peppermint. Here's the recipe for this excellent salve, if you'd like to try it out. And here is how to infuse herbs in oils.
That salve would not be nearly as effective if I had only used the herbs or only used the essential oils. I love combining and using both herbs and essential oils in appropriate and safe ways.
Let's look at one more example: Relaxing for sleep. Many people these days suffer from some type of condition or other that affects their ability to get a restful night's sleep. Well, you can use herbs. Or you can use essential oils. But I think it's best to use both if you can.
You can create a wonderful relaxation tea with herbs such as lemon balm, chamomile, skullcap, and passion flower, that work directly on the physical body to relax and calm. You can also use essential oils aromatically to evoke a soothing of the mind and emotions. Lavender, cedarwood, and vetiver are a few of the first essential oils that come to mind.
Do you see how the herbal action and the action of the essential oils are slightly different in these examples?
So why not use them together? Diffuse your essential oils as you drift off to sleep after having a delicious cup of relaxing tea!
Final Thoughts on Herbs vs. Essential Oils: More Reflections
If you are an herbalist, you are already using aromatic oils, I'd bet. They are kind of hard to escape. And if you are an aromatherapist, perhaps you should do some branching out into the world of herbal medicine to support your aromatherapy practice. Just a suggestion.
It's kind of difficult for a person who uses plant medicine to decry using either herbs or essential oils. They go so well hand in hand, don't you think?
The bottom line is having an open mind, and obtaining education, personal experience, and knowledge. You need all of these on an ongoing basis, to be the best herbalist or aromatherapist or both that you can be. Here are some herbal and essential oil books I own and love to help you get started.
For herbalism: Rosemary Gladstar's Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner's Guide; Richo Cech's Plant Medicine; The Fragrant Mind by Valerie Worwood; and the Complete Book of Aromatherapy and Essential Oils, also by Worwood.
What do you think? I kind of feel like I'm beating this topic into the ground, but I feel very strongly about not putting herbs and essential oils into some kind of competition. And this is because they are quite different, albeit inextricably related.
I love them both. I use them both in my plant medicine practices.
You might also enjoy these related articles:
And there are lots more over on the blog!
Hey, I'd love your thoughts on this subject, so please leave a comment in the comments section! :-)
Also, if you are interested in learning more about using plant medicine in your own health and the health of your family, you should take a look at my favorite online herbal school, The Herbal Academy of New England. They have something there for every level and interest!
Hugs, Health, and Self-Reliance,
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Disclaimer: I am not a medical doctor or professional. In no manner, stated or implied, is any verbiage in this article or elsewhere in my work, meant to treat, cure, prevent, or diagnose any disease or emotional issue. Please seek advice from your medical professional if you have questions and before using any essential oils or herbs. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA.
Keville, Kathi. Thoughts on Incorporating Aromatherapy into the Herbal Clinic. Journal of the American Herbalists Guild. Volume 13, Number 1. Spring 2015
Bellebuono, Holly. Women Healers of the World. Copyright, 2014. Helios Press.