Southern Roots

Earth in a Bottle

By Karen Ott Mayer  |  Photography courtesy of medicalnewstoday.com

   Although essential oils date back to biblical times, the modern-day plant-based varieties are gaining popularity as natural alternatives to pharmaceuticals. 

   For as long as humans have pursued health and sought to cure ailments, plants have been an instrumental resource. And plant usage is as varied as plants themselves. One field, the production and usage of essential oils, has gained popular ground although determining exactly what they’re all about, however, remains less clear. Varied claims, pricing confusion, poor information, and even fear add to the cloudy picture.

   What is an essential oil? It’s an oil extracted from a plant and holds specific properties. Everything from stems, leaves, and bark can be used. A distillation process produces the oil, which acts as a carrier for the plant material.

   “Originally, people used two pieces of animal fat wrapped about the plant and put it all over a fire,” says DeeAnna Nagel, a former psychotherapist turned aromatherapist, coach, and teacher located in the Florida Panhandle. Nagel teaches a 50-hour course on Intuitive Aromatherapy, and her book by the same title, is due out in mid-2020.

   Oils can be rubbed, inhaled, diffused, and even ingested. Popular or perhaps more well-recognized oils include peppermint, tea tree, lavender, and eucalyptus but hundreds of oils exist. And beyond just a singular oil, companies and practitioners create oil blends designed to open a physical or mental pathway. Do oils work? That’s the subjective gray area.

   Several key truths serve as a starting point to understand this practice.

   “Essential oils date back to biblical times,” says Nagel. “If you think about frankincense or myrrh, those are oils extracted from resin. One false assumption is oils are part of a New Age movement.”

   Nagel’s practice has shifted to including oils when helping her clients. As she points out, oils can be viewed as a supportive tool for anyone seeking ways to improve health. “I seek to live above the wellness line,” she adds.

   Accessing the idea of essential oils begins with having an open mind. Because oils are used in traditionally non-medical practices like yoga and Reiki, they tend to fuel skepticism because aromatherapy isn’t strictly scientific.

   “We’re not looking for a pathology or diagnosis or a wound to diagnose,” Nagel explains. “We’re looking for emotional and spiritual support to move forward. Oils are a sensory tool to help you heal.”

   Deciding to purchase an oil can be equally confusing. With bottles found everywhere from a drug store counter to Walmart, and pricing ranging from $5 per bottle to $50, a novice may not know how to make that decision. It’s important to understand a few fundamentals before picking up the bottle. Where were the plants sourced or grown? Who or what company is distilling the oil?

   “Is the oil a first yield? With each distillation, the oil loses therapeutic value,” explains Nagel.

   Over time, users tend to gravitate toward one brand or another just like with tennis shoes, cars, or purses. Young Living is the largest seller and distiller in the world while doTERRA is an equally recognizable brand. “When thinking about the quality, consider if the oil is either wildcrafted, sustainably sourced, or organic,” adds Nagel.

   Christe Blackette who works with First Regional Library system in north Mississippi began giving essential oil presentations to the general public in 2019. After living in Oklahoma and Texas for decades, Blackette returned to her hometown of Coldwater, Miss.

   A self-professed amateur enthusiast, Blackette became seriously interested in essential oils four years ago as she searched for more homeopathic and natural alternatives to pharmaceuticals.

   “I make it clear that I don’t sell or distribute oils,” she says. “I am simply educating people.”

   Blackette doesn’t hold any credentials but has acquired all of her knowledge through self-study, reading, and experimentation. A fan of oregano oil, she learned a lesson early on.

   “It’s critical to understand oils are potent and powerful,” Blackette says. “Ingesting oils can be harmful. I thought I could put one small drop of oregano oil in water and drink it. As soon as I did it, my mouth was burning. I learned the hard way you have to know how to use the oils.”

   Blackette also stresses the importance of knowing the type of oil. “I look for therapeutic grade oil.”

   Nagel agrees completely. “If you’re buying a $5 bottle off the counter and it says lavender oil, you’re not buying oil, you’re buying a fragrance.” In fact, it takes thousands of lavender blooms to make one bottle of oil.

   People gravitate toward what works for them. Blackette discovered Blue Malle, which she describes as a stronger version of eucalyptus. She and Nagel encourage people to do one thing initially: Have an open mind.

“Open your mind to the possibility,” says Nagel. “Oils are from plants and have been around for centuries.”

For more information:

American Botanical Council – herbalgram.org
American Herbal Products Association – ahpa.org
National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy – naha.org

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