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  • Colleen O'Flaherty-Hilder

DEBUNKING THE MYTHS SURROUNDING NATURAL MEDICINE - CLINICAL AROMATHERAPY

The UK is still reeling from the effects of Covid-19, the virus that has outfoxed and baffled the best international scientific minds and I am sure that the ramifications of both the disease and lockdown will be an on-going challenge for the foreseeable future. We have to acknowledge that pathogens will not go away, in fact viruses and bacteria are becoming stronger and more resilient to scientific intervention. I believe the reason for this is two-fold: the powerful survival instinct that is deeply embedded in all of nature, gives pathogens the ability to mutate rapidly when they are under threat; and our immune systems have become weakened by modern day lifestyles - pollutants, pharmaceuticals, poor nutrition, and stress to name but a few, all of which makes us vulnerable to disease.


So the challenge we now face is to consider how best to help our bodies deal with the effects and symptoms of disease, as well as supporting and regenerating our immune systems - indeed all the systems of the body. Whilst in the past we have focused on strengthening the immune system, Covid-19 has introduced another dimension to consider: this disease over stimulates the immune system where it attacks the tissue of the lungs. The objective, therefore, is not to stimulate the immune system; it is to support it in a balanced way so as not to prompt an inflammatory response.


It is therefore glaringly obvious to me that we need to find tools to support all aspects of physical health and emotional wellbeing in an integrated way, with the emphasis most definitely on prevention. Unlike pharmaceuticals that target the disease or the symptoms, natural therapies when practiced professionally, are well placed to support, regenerate and balance all the systems of the body, including emotional wellness, at the same time as directly addressing symptoms. This is a perfect strategy to maintain the health of the population, which in my opinion cannot be achieved with pharmaceuticals alone.  


I designed Alchemical Transformation Programmes to incorporate specific natural remedies that have been produced alchemically, into a system that embraces and integrates all levels of health - physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. Clinical Aromatherapy is one of the therapies I use in my practice. However, unlike other more enlightened countries in Europe, there is a shortage of professional information and knowledge available to the general public in the UK that expresses the true therapeutic benefits of essential oils. The emphasis has veered towards fragrance rather than therapeutic. In the last ten years aromatherapy has become more associated with beauty and pampering treatments or products with which to fragrance your home. I am a practitioner of natural therapies with nearly 40 years experience, and I feel that I now need to debunk some myths that have evolved over the decades, to set the record straight, and put Clinical Aromatherapy back onto the professional platform it deserves. 

In the 80s and 90s, Clinical Aromatherapy was accepted by the UK medical profession: the International Federation of Aromatherapists pioneered the use of essential oils within the NHS; I worked with oncologists at the Mount Vernon Cancer unit - the first cancer unit to incorporate Clinical Aromatherapy in the country, and I pioneered a project with social workers, using Clinical Aromatherapy to raise the self-esteem of young mothers from deprived backgrounds. In those early days when professional aromatherapists interacted with the medical profession or the media, we spoke with a unified professional voice. Unfortunately, that is not the case today where there are many voices contributing to the aromatherapy conversation but not all of them are knowledgeable. In the last twenty years a great deal of knowledge and wisdom about the benefits of Clinical Aromatherapy has been either ignored, misconstrued or lost and I believe there are several reasons for this: 


The first factor is education. Initially the only courses available were conducted by the first generation of teachers who, not only had a solid background in natural therapies, they were trained according to the original French system of Clinical Aromatherapy. But as aromatherapy increased in popularity, the number of training courses mushroomed birthing a new brand of aromatherapy which lacked sufficient content to produce professional Clinical Aromatherapists.


The second factor is the media. The media coverage on aromatherapy increased with its popularity and many column inches were devoted to the benefits of essential oils. Unfortunately, the information that was referenced was not always from an unbiased professional source, sometimes coming from the PR department of a commercial brand rather than from a professional organisation. This resulted in articles promoting the use of a shopping list of essential oils to treat various conditions and symptoms, ranging from acne to cancer. There was scant information on the many contra-indications (situations and conditions where the use of specific oils can be dangerous). Essential oils, whilst natural, are composed of organic chemicals that can still be dangerous if used without knowledge. There are specific conditions where you must never use essential oils or they must only be used in an extremely diluted blend i.e. babies, children, pregnancy, the elderly and the emotionally vulnerable.


The third factor is the emergence of multi-level marketing companies. In an effort to increase sales, these organisations make exaggerated claims, for example stating that specific oils cure Covid-19, which is misleading - these claims are currently under investigation by the FDA. They also recommend practices that are inappropriate or extremely dangerous, i.e. using neat essential oils directly on the skin, and their endorsement of putting neat essential oils in water to drink - probably the most dangerous of their recommendations that should never be followed. Essential oils do not disperse in water, which means their molecules sit on top of the water when they are ingested in that form, and they can burn the tissue of the mouth, throat and oesophagus in addition to being toxic to the liver or nervous system.


The final factor is the impressive amount of commercial 'aromatherapy products' available today. Some of these products, for example candles, room fresheners, bath products and cosmetics, do not always contain genuine therapeutic grade essential oils, they are sometimes replaced or combined with synthetic fragrances. Synthetic fragrances, whilst they produce a scent, cannot be therapeutic.


For those of you who are new to the world of Natural Medicine I outline below, the main features of Clinical Aromatherapy.


WHAT ARE ESSENTIAL OILS?

Essential oils are the concentrated therapeutic essences of plants. The chemical composition of the oil provides both its aroma and therapeutic qualities. They are not extracted from the whole plant but from different parts of the plant i.e. flower, seed, bark, leaf, and root. There are approximately 800,000 known plants on the planet and only 10% are suitable for essential oil extraction.


There are several methods used to extract the essential oil from the plant. Distillation is the most common, and I will briefly describe the simplest form of distillation to provide an understanding of the complexity of production. As an example, to produce one litre of organic essential oil of rose, approximately 1,500,000 rose petals are required. Only perfect and fresh rose petals are chosen - they cannot have any sign of deterioration. The petals are placed in water in a container and heated slowly to produce steam; the steam then travels through a condenser which cools the steam, transforming it into small droplets of liquid; this liquid is collected in a separate container where the essential oil molecules eventually rise and settle on the top; it is then collected and bottled ready for sale. This is an exacting process that takes time and skill so it is not surprising that the approximate cost of 5mls of organic essential rose oil can cost upward of £100.


Having given an indication of the amount of plant material needed to produce essential oils, it is important to mention that several plants from which we obtain essential oils are endangered i.e. sandalwood and rosewood. Our plant world is suffering, and it is therefore so important to remember that these precious oils need to be used sparingly, wisely and with respect.


HOW DO THEY WORK?

There are approximately 100 documented and researched therapeutic qualities of various essential oils. Some examples of these qualities are:

  • Anti-viral, Anti bacterial, Anti fungal, Anti-microbial, Antiseptic, which are self-explanatory.

  • Emmenagogue - regulates menstrual flow.

  • Analgesic - pain relief.

  • Antitussive - soothes coughs.

  • Anti-oxidant - removes dangerous free radicals that cause inflammation in the body that can lead to degeneration and disease.

The most important point to remember is that these properties will only work if the relevant essential oil contains the correct chemical profile - the chemical composition of an oil. However, during the growing and harvesting of the plant, the manufacture, storage and distribution process, there are many factors that can affect the chemical profile detrimentally. Every stage has to be conducted with knowledge and expertise - skills that are sometimes handed down from generation to generation. One final issue is that of adulteration. As I have mentioned, the oils are expensive to produce but some unscrupulous companies adulterate expensive oils with cheaper oils that have a similar aroma, e.g. essential oil of rose is sometimes adulterated with geranium or rosewood. This practise is designed to increase the profit margin and, to the untrained ‘nose’, it is often not detected. Professional practitioners are trained to recognise good quality oils and will only use producers and wholesalers who can provide the necessary certification required to guarantee therapeutic quality.


There are several routes by which essential oils enter the body:


SKIN:

MASSAGE - Essential oils are diluted in a vegetable oil and massaged into the skin.

COMPRESSES - Essential oils are diluted and soaked in a cloth that is placed on specific areas of the body to treat conditions such as headaches, migraines, painful periods, inflamed joints and muscles.  

CREAMS, LOTIONS AND GELS - Essential oils are dispersed in these mediums to help conditions like eczema, acne, psoriasis, ulcers and wound healing.

BATHS - Essential oils are diluted in a dispersant and added to bath water - to balance many physical and emotional conditions.


INHALATION AND DIFFUSION:

With the aid of a nasal inhaler, smelling strip or a room diffuser, the molecules of essential oil make their way via the nose and mouth through the respiratory system - ideal for colds, flus, and nasal congestion.


OLFACTION:

When essential oils are inhaled, their molecules reach the olfactory bulb inside the top of the nose where exposed nerve endings transmit the information from the molecules of the oils to the limbic system, the part of the brain that stores emotions and memories. The oils have a direct effect on the nervous and hormonal systems: scientific research has demonstrated that certain essential oils balance brain chemistry and can be used as a sedative, mood stabiliser, and antidepressant.


Whilst I was Chair of the International Federation of Aromatherapists, I had the privilege of meeting recipients of the IFA Aromacare diploma. This training course provides aromatherapy training - utilising olfaction and limited massage - for carers of both children with emotional and educational challenges, and elderly people with dementia. In both areas remarkable results have been achieved with local authorities, nursing homes and certain sectors of the NHS choosing to train some of their carers in this discipline. Carers want to find ways in which they can improve communication with their clients in a respectful and dignified way and aromatherapy ticks all the boxes, often being effective when everything else has failed.


It has been established that negative and positive experiences can be associated with fragrances and stored in the unconscious, and that association - good or bad - can be triggered whenever the fragrance is introduced. Research has further established that the same memory trigger can be genetically transferred for several generations. This fact is very important in demonstrating how essential oils can stimulate deep-seated memories and it is therefore crucially important that a practitioner knows how to deal with this effectively to avoid a client becoming emotionally vulnerable.


There is a branch of Clinical Aromatherapy in France, Olfactotherapy, which uses olfaction specifically to address and re-programme negative emotions or trauma. Olfactotherapy works on the principle that certain essential oils have the ability to release specific negative memories in any individual. I have used this method for decades in my practice and have achieved excellent results, even when the client detests the fragrance of the oil, which I think is evidence that it is not a requirement for the client to like the aroma of an essential oil for it to work therapeutically. Essential oils work on many levels and the sense of smell is just one. When dealing with emotions, a practitioner often has to confront resistance in a client and this is where essential oils can help release blockages and barriers - a useful tool for counsellors and psychotherapists. Olfaction, therefore, can initiate a connection in an individual with their history and demonstrates how the symptoms of the present can be influenced by inherited negative memories. (This is a complex subject that I will cover in a future Podcast). But I want to illustrate how important experience and knowledge is when using essential oils. When addressing emotions, the practitioner must be able to guide the individual to process whatever is released emotionally, safely, holistically and in the correct context - this is one of the most important considerations to be aware of when using essential oils.


INGESTION

This is a form of Clinical Aromatherapy where the essential oils are administered either orally like a medicine. It is a practice more common in Europe and nearly always administered by a medical doctor. The essential oils are dispersed in an appropriate medium and the dosage and blend is specifically tailored to the individual. This method is sometimes referred to as medical aromatherapy and requires appropriate training. It is not to be confused with the dangerous practice of drinking essential oils in water that I mentioned earlier.


RESEARCH

Research is the gold standard by which the medical and scientific communities measure everything to do with health. However, when medical practitioners in the UK consider natural therapies, there is nearly always the automatic response, ‘there is insufficient evidence’. Unfortunately the UK medical and scientific communities do not consider research that is conducted outside of this island. There is a significant amount of research conducted in countries that have the same academic standards as the UK, like France, Germany, Italy, Russia, China, Japan and South Korea, as well as a great deal of anecdotal experience attesting to the benefits of essential oils which is being completely ignored in the UK.

HISTORY

We are not talking about a therapy that has only been practised in modern times. The history of the therapeutic use of essential oils has been documented in one form or another throughout antiquity - and can be traced from Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, through to the 12th Century with St Hildegard of Bingen, the celebrated herbalist, naturopath, alchemist, and mystic, to Paracelsus who revolutionised medicine during the Renaissance. The pioneers in modern times were French, and date from the 1880s when essential oils were discovered to heal tuberculosis. But it was Rene-Maurice Gattefossé, a French chemist, in 1910 who discovered the healing properties of essential oils when his hand was severely burnt after an explosion in his laboratory to which he applied essential oil of lavender. He went on to successfully use essential oils on seriously wounded soldiers during the First World War and famously coined the word “Aromatherapie” in 1937 in an attempt to distinguish the therapeutic practice from perfumery. Since then French doctors, chemists and pharmacists have been able to identify the specific monographs of each essential oil (the detailed information of the oil - the botany, origins, chemical composition, history and traditional uses, pharmacological and clinical studies, actions, indications, and safety) and have contributed to the large body of research and documented experiences available today, which has been supported and supplemented by leading figures in the industry in the UK and Australia.


Having described the importance of the quality of essential oils and how they work therapeutically, I want to now look at what makes them special, what gives them the ability to work intelligently and why they deserve a serious place in health regimes, particularly in the prevention arena. To do this, we have to look closer at their history. As I have mentioned, we can trace the use of essential oils or aromatic plants through the history of many civilisations but it is the story of how the plants were used as remedies that is important. Those ancient practitioners were often part of wisdom traditions, and as each century progressed the practitioners discovered more and more benefits and applications, which they passed on to the next generation. The teachers handed down this knowledge to their pupils, who were not allowed to use the plant remedies unless they had a thorough understanding of the plant and its therapeutic applications, which ensured that the knowledge was not lost or downgraded.


Clinical Aromatherapy is a branch of herbal medicine, but unlike herbal medicine where the whole plant is used, essential oils are produced alchemically (distillation) a process whereby all the healing information of the plant is concentrated. The information I refer to is the plant’s intelligence which allows the essential oils to work on every level of health - physical, mental, emotional and spiritual in synergy - enabling the oils to adapt to the needs of the body. Most importantly, essential oils can work directly on viruses or bacteria, and also indirectly by making the body inhospitable to pathogens.


THE IMPORTANCE OF WELL-TRAINED PRACTITIONERS   

Another important factor to consider is the quality of the practitioner, as they have to match the therapeutic quality of the oils they use. This has to start with education. Yes, a practitioner must learn the relevant academic subjects thoroughly - organic chemistry, botany, anatomy and physiology, blending and applying the oils and much more - but when we are working with plants, we have to consider the plant intelligence - the plant wisdom. There are two points to consider here: plants have been used traditionally for centuries and carry an extensive history of the important role they play in maintaining the health of our body and mind; and that wealth of experience has to be handed down and incorporated in any therapeutic study. As I have already said, this is not just an academic subject, knowledge must be included that gives a thorough understanding of the potential and limitations of the essential oils in their relationship with both client and therapist. There are not enough books on the planet to describe this, as each person is unique. Academic knowledge alone is not sufficient nor does academic knowledge equal wisdom. It is for this reason that wisdom-based knowledge is so important when it comes to using natural remedies because it provides the ability to recognise the subtle and unique differences of an individual, the critical information for creating personalised programmes. Personalised, preventative health programmes are the way forward - one size does not fit all when it comes to health.


To understand this more, I will refer to the wisdom traditions of the past. The original natural practitioners who used plant remedies, did not just treat physical health, they also treated emotional imbalance and, where appropriate, initiated spiritual development. Their knowledge was only accessed by completing levels of initiation to align them with the intelligence of plant remedies that they worked with. The plant kingdom has achieved lasting harmonious perfection, which is not yet present in humans - we are still very far from practising the natural laws of the plant kingdom as evidenced by how we treat the planet.  It is a privilege to work with powerful plant remedies such as essential oils but we must earn that privilege by understanding, respecting and honouring their full healing capabilities.  


I hope this explanation of the many levels of understanding needed to work with plant remedies, leads you to concur that it is the teachers of natural therapies who are the cornerstones of the future professionalism of the industry and they must be able to impart wisdom-based knowledge to ensure that the therapy is not diluted and eventually lost through inadequate or incomplete information.


Essential oils have consistently demonstrated that they can play an important role in the future health of the population, which is the reason why many medical practitioners in France and other countries of the world use them. I am not suggesting that we reject science and the pharmaceutical remedies, I am proposing that the integration of modern day science with natural therapies, practiced by professionals, with a strong focus on personalised preventative programmes, could provide a much more comprehensive health system. By addressing the early signs of degeneration and reinforcing the individual's background condition, it will help the population to take responsibility for their health. In the short term this would take the pressure off the NHS and in the long term would ensure that fewer people will require expensive and invasive healthcare in the future.


In conclusion, the intention of this blog was to demonstrate that the use of essential oils - Clinical Aromatherapy - is a valid natural therapy, capable of dealing with every level of health - physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. We are at a pivotal point in our history in relation to the future health of the population. What has been practised thus far has not prepared us for the onslaught that modern day pathogens are presenting. 'Personalised, Preventative Natural Medicine' is the absolute key to maintaining the health and wellbeing of the nation.




I hope you found this article interesting and if you wish to know more, please email me:

oligotherapy@gmail.com


For further information about essential oils, books, research and training:

https://ifaroma.org



Colleen O'Flaherty-Hilder


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