Aromatic Medicine – integrating essential oils into herbal practice

ImageAromatic Medicine-integrating essential oils into herbal practice

I am  French herbalist, which although this means I do not exist in the eyes of the French government,  like many French herbalists I am very much alive in the eyes of the French public and I manage to make a living, teaching, writing and giving herbal consultations.

Being of English origin and a teacher above all, I have been following a calling to make bridges between the somewhat closed world of French herbalism and the more open eager to learn Anglo-Saxon herbal community.  During this summer teaching about aromatherapy and distilling hydrosols in the States, Ireland and the UK, I have noticed a very different approach and understanding of what safe use of essential oils actually means. This disparity between the two schools of thought  highlights for me the need now for greater understanding and information regarding the subject of essential oil use and an acknowledgment that for an approach to be truly “holistic”, it needs to embody all aspects of the plant matters spectrum and all aspects of a person’s being .

The two very different paths that have been developed in France and in the Anglo-Saxon countries regarding essential oil use only go back to the last century and were developed more or less by chance due to two different people’s life paths and ways of looking at things.

The French doctor and surgeon, Dr Valnet, went against the grain and stared working with medicinal plants and more particularly essential oils in a clinical setting in 1948. He gave the discipline its modern name of “aromatherapy” and due to his work on the field between 1950 and 1953 in Vietnam, followed by his many years using essential oils in clinical practice he became known as the father of modern aromatherapy in France, leading the way in integrating their use in clinical herbal practice.

At the same time, a certain Marguerite Maury was also developing some pioneering work into the use of essential oils but on another level all together. Marguerite had come from Belgium to the Alsace region of France, where she worked as a surgeon’s assistant, during this period she was given a book that changed her life called “Les Grandes Possibilitiès par les Matières Odoriferantes”, written by a certain Dr Chabenes . Her passion was born and she started researching, teaching and writing about using essential oils for well being due to their effect on the nervous system.   She eventually set up aromatherapy clinics in Switzerland, Paris and London and so the Anglo-Saxon path was born – essential oils for well being through massage and pressure points.

The above is a very succinct summary of how things happened and I am sure that many factors came into play but I just wanted to give an idea of how this gap between the two different approaches to essential oils began.

The gap is beginning to close now, thanks to improved communication and knowledge sharing but I still feel there is work to be done.

I personally follow the train of thought that essential oils need to be integrated into a larger spectrum of healing…English reflexology does this using the pressure points on the feet and the use of oils (reflexology in France tends not to use essential oils), French herbalism does this by making essential oils an integral part of the plant forms they use (herbalists in Anglo- Saxon speaking countries are not necessarily taught to integrate essential oils into their prescription possibilities).

I understand the idea of specialising in essential oils and becoming an aromatherapist as I do someone who has specialised in flower essences and becomes a flower essence practioner, I feel however that all these tools are essential elements of the herbalist’s tool box and to isolate them can result in a incomplete healing. The idea of holistic healing is to try and work on all levels of being, the physical, emotional, mental and subtle energies of a person, in my understanding the role of a herbalist is to have all the plant tools to hand and be able to choose the right tool or combination of tools for the patient at a given instant.

Where I am trying to get to with all this is that essential oils are very powerful, concentrated, plant extracts that have not only a preventative role of maintaining well being but a major role in already physically manifested disease and on this level leaving them out of a herbalist’s toolbox is like leaving the blue paint out of a painters palette

I have been out and about in the English speaking world, both physically and virtually through different social networks  a lot more lately and it has been interesting to observe the different attitudes to using essential oils, especially the subject of using them internally. There is often a lot of screaming and shouting on the “Linked in” forums, mainly by American aromatherapists, I must say, about the dangers of using them internally and how you are bound to die if you do (I am exaggerating a bit, but not that much), I can feel the reticence and real fear some of my American colleagues have about wanting to write about their use internally (even if they do so themselves and see understand the benefits)…walking on egg shells, knowing that it is going to stir a violent reaction. Here in the UK during my teaching, I was surprised to hear some herbalists talking about the way they use essential oils, ok not internally but I must say in a very carefree manner, a way in which any properly trained French herbalist would never consider, for example sprinkling them neat into bath water. This made me think and realise what was going on…in fact the idea that many people have about essential oils seems to be,

 ” If we don’t use them internally everything is fine and we can use them as we like without any real protocol”.

This to me is where the work we need to do comes in, France is the leading country in the clinical use of essential oils, where it is quite normal to, when the situation calls, use the right oil internally…in order to choice the right oil, dosage and duration a thorough training and protocol of using essential oils in all their Galencial forms is needed. It is not enough to think that if they are not used internally one can use them without a thorough training, it is knowledge, training and practice that give a certain freedom and a much needed level of security. Any aromatherapists out there, please do not get me wrong, I am sure that you have a very good level of training, I am really trying to get herbalists to understand that essential oils are vital tools and once we know how to use them correctly internally and externally the question of safety will no longer be a question, there will no longer be an issue.

Finally another important point for me is that due to the huge quantities of plant matter needed to make essential oils, ( between 7000 and Kg’s of lemon balm to make a litre of essential oil, a hectare of Damas roses to make a litre, between 150 and 600 Kg’s of lavender off. to make a litre etc.) we have a responsibility to use them carefully and sparingly.  Essential oils definitely have their place in herbal healing and by using a strict protocol, where a few drops is enough and using them only when they can be really effective we are recognising them as the precious plant extracts they really are.

The aim of the book “Aromatic Medicine” that I have collaborated on with Lyon’s herbal school, where I teach is to share with English-speaking herbalists the basic information taught to our students to enable them to start exploring essential oils as part of herbal medicine. It is basically a textbook that herbalists and practitioners can refer to in order to start or continue using essential oils safely and effectively.

The book Aromatic Medicine by Patrice de Bonneval and Cathy Skipper  is available in the States at the NAHA book store  at the Nutricentre bookstore in the Hales clinic, London, UK and from Nikki Darrell in ireland at