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The Herbarium

Concentration is not Always Wise -
or Essential Oils - Warnings for the Super-Sensitive

Concentration is not Always Wise - Essential Oils - Warnings for the Super-Sensitive - Warnings and Interactions - Willow Firesong's On-line Herbal

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Willow Firesong's On-line Herbal

Herbs

Warnings and Interactions

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Concentration is not Always Wise -
or Essential Oils - Warnings for the Super-Sensitive

Concentrating active substances makes them more likely to irritate

Many medicinal substances, natural and otherwise, have a limited dosage range in which they have beneficial effects. Too much, or too little, and they won't do the job, and may even have negative effects, or make an existing problem worse.

Natural medicines are traditionally administered as teas, poultices, or other dosage forms which are no stronger than the herb itself, and may be much weaker, or much more dilute. These dosage forms may require the patient to drink a full cup of bitter, unpleasant-tasting tea, and it is not surprising that the recent increase in availability of other dosage forms has seen many people turn to gel-caps, concentrated extracts, essential oils, and other stronger dosage forms which do not require the user to swallow much more than a little flavourless gelatine.

However, this change does not come without certain risks, and problems, in addition to its benefits. First of all, many herbs release more of their active properties in their traditional dosage forms (when steeped or boiled in hot water, or extracted using oil or alcohol) than they do when taken directly as a powdered herb in a gel-cap. Secondly, many people make the mistake of thinking that if some is good, more must be better, and it is much easier to overdose on the more concentrated dosage forms than the weaker infusions that were often the traditional dosage form for the stronger herbs. Third, the more concentrated extractions and distillations are much more likely to cause irritation or allergy, especially in susceptible or sensitive individuals.

Essential oils are a commonly overlooked culprit in causing these reactions; many sensitive individuals, particularly individuals with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, turn to essential oils for scenting, cleaning, and medicinal use, often without properly researching and testing these oils for safety.

Each of us can have unsuspected allergies, or develop them later in life, and this is particularly common for persons suffering from conditions which predispose them to develop allergies and sensitivities on overexposure, such as Leaky Gut (intestinal permeability). Using more concentrated extracts of any potentially irritating herbal could speed up that sensitization process, or result in the development of an allergy which might otherwise have been avoided.

In my own case, it was only after this proved true, first with essential oil of rosemary, and then with essential oil of bergamot, that I read up on the risks of irritation from essential oils. Some are much more likely than others to irritate, and with many it is a matter of concentration, and they must be diluted before being used in any context where they will come in contact with the skin or mucous membranes (such as using essential oils in natural cleanser applied by mister/sprayer). Cinnamon is a good example of this, as I learned to my scarlet-skinned sorrow when I added a drop of pure essential oil of cinnamon to a hot bath.

It is important to remember that essential oils are NOT oil extracts. They are the pure oils of the individual herb or plant, extracted through a distillation process that does not add any material to the final result. Sine most herbs' active components are oil soluble, that means that the essential oil is, if you'll pardon the pun, essentially that - nothing but the active components. That makes them VERY concentrated, possibly one of the most concentrated forms available.

As may be obvious, this means that if any form of the herb or plant will cause an allergic or sensitivity reaction, the essential oil will. Perhaps less obvious, however, is the fact that if the herb or plant is not organically-grown, any oil-soluble chemicals picked up by the plant will be present in the essential oil distilled from it. In addition to this, my earlier statement that no foreign materials are added during the oil extraction and distillation process was not exactly correct - there can be residue from any agents used during that process. So for sensitive individuals, it can be extremely important that the essential oils used are both organically-grown and organically processed from start to finish, to avoid the introduction of toxic or allergenic substances.

The other group of people particularly at risk from any over-concentrated dosage form, and often overlooked, are children. Children's bodies are smaller than adults, as is obvious - however, less obvious is that their developing systems can be so sensitive that they can tolerate even less of an exposure to any given substance than you would expect based on their size and weight. For this reason, it is best to avoid using any undiluted essential oils in their presence, save perhaps for the most mild, and even then, only in minute amounts. Clear children from the room before spraying with tea tree or eucalyptus oil, and wait for it to clear from the air before allowing them back.

When using essential oils for personal scent, dilute in almond oil or other non-irritating base oil, to a maximum of one drop of essential oil in every 25 drops of base oil.

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Guide to Plants | Harvesting and Storing Herbs | How to Prepare Herbal Medicines | Bibliography
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