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Essential Oils: A Short Note on a Very Long History



Imagine Adam and Eve in their garden paradise: the peace, the tranquility…until Adam stumbles upon a patch of Poison Ivy in his bare feet. Confronted with the possibility of what could be a very long night full of thrashing and scratching, Eve sets off in frantic search of something to relieve itchy rash and possible sleep aid for herself. Being in one of the only geographical locations on the globe without a Walmart, Eve is forced to make do with what is readily available in her own neighborhood: the plants.

Eve would have used a simple method of treating Adams’ rash (and her own need for a good night’s sleep) by grinding the leaves and flowers of the chamomile plant, for instance, and rubbing them directly onto the itchy spots before settling herself down in the guest bedroom with a spot of tea made with the leftovers. So began the use of the healing “essence” of plants.

Essential Oils Through the Age

Chinese and Egyptian cultures, Indian, African, and indigenous tribal healers all over the world have used the healing benefits of plant oils for thousands of years. A Stone Age man in Iraq was found buried with healing herbs strategically placed on his body. In 2735 B.C., the Chinese emperor Shen Nong wrote extensively on the healing properties of herbs; his findings are still in use today. Egyptians used oils from native plants in embalming and ceremonial oils. Speaking of oils, cultures in India introduced the use of castor oil and simultaneously proved the old adage “the cure is worse than the disease” to be true.

Throughout the Middle Ages, home-grown botanicals were the only medicines readily available, and for centuries, no self-respecting household would be without a carefully tended herb garden—the local pharmacy, if you will. For the most part, herbal healing lore was passed from generation to generation by word of mouth and grave (no pun intended) warning. Some experiments just did not go as planned and frankly, there was no need to repeat the sad occasion when the lovely little Lobelia rendered its sleep-deprived user comatose and then…dead. Perhaps it’s best left in a window box.

By the early 1700s, the use of plants and plant oils were evolving from the traditional folk-lore based diagnosis and application to become more scientific and specialized. Most towns had an apothecary, chemist, or herbalist who prepared distilled oils, powders, and pastes and dispensed them to the upper-class population. The field of medicine became academically more popular as education branched out into non-religious studies.

Essential Oils in the Modern World

Modern medicine continued the study of the healing properties found in the essential plant oils and began to identify and isolate the specific elements that produced beneficial results. Once scientific methods were developed to extract and synthesize the active ingredients, pharmaceutical laboratories took over from providers of medicinal herbs as the producers of drugs. The use of herbs, which for most of history had been the mainstream medical practice, began to be considered unscientific, or at least unconventional, and to fall into relative obscurity. Well, it is hard to argue the benefits of grinding willow bark into your crow’s feet versus a creamy synthetic wrinkle cream.

Still, you cannot argue the value of plant-based healing. Many drugs commonly used today are of herbal origin. In fact, about 25% of the prescription drugs dispensed pharmacies across the United States contain at least one active ingredient derived from plant oils or materials. Some drugs are made from plant extracts; others are synthesized to mimic a natural plant compound.

Growth and Improvement

With a renewed interest in holistic and nature-based healing, essential oils are making a remarkable come-back. Gone is the notion of merely treating symptoms; the health care trend continues to swing back to whole-body healing and wellness. The essential oil business has exploded back on the scene. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 4 billion people, 80% of the world population, currently use herbal medicine for some aspect of primary health care. Essential oils lead the way in providing the most direct as well as the purest form of delivery for maximum healing benefits without many of the side effects of chemical counterparts. And that can lead to a healthier body, greater peace of mind, and a good night’s sleep. Eve would be proud.