a suburban greenmom fights the flu and winter blues with essential oils
Last week I talked a bit about aromatherapy—the use of plant essential oils—in general; over the next few weeks I’ll take some individual posts to write about some of the more specific ways it can be used to avoid and/or replace a bunch of the icky synthetic chemicals and pharmaceuticals that pop up in our lives. (As always, the disclaimer: I am not a licensed anything—except driver, I am a licensed driver, but that’s hardly relevant—so please do not take my advice as expert in any way. Do your own homework, read and study and ask, and pay attention! And please do read last week's post for cautions about how not to use essential oils!)
One of the most basic uses of essential oils is diffusion, which is essentially a fancy way to say “getting the oils into the air so you can smell them.” This whole concept is pretty foreign to our Western allopathic medical thinking, which says if it ain't swallowed or injected it probably ain't working—but if you consider it, it makes a lot of sense.
For one thing, the human sense of smell is incredibly powerful, and it’s linked very directly to our emotions and memory. (My grandmother used to wear L’air du Temps. I can smell it in my head to this day, as clearly as I can smell my mom’s spaghetti sauce, or my grandpa’s cigar.) Scent-memory has a very immediate and direct impact on our psyche, and that is a link that could be used to our advantage. In times of stress or depression, the very act of smelling something we associate with relaxation or peace directly links our current mental state to the one associated by the fragrance.
In a more concrete and scientifically measurable way, dispersing the oils into the air so we can breathe them means we are actually inhaling the chemical constituents of the oil into our bodies and respiratory systems. It’s not something we think about, but when we smell something, we do so because molecules of that which we smell are in the air, entering our bodies. (Think of that the next time your flatulent spouse makes your eyes water.) (Eew, or maybe don’t.) It’s why airborne viruses are called “airborne.” Something gets into the air, we breathe it in, and it’s inside us, absorbed into our lungs and/or nasal membranes.
(The above two paragraphs, I admit, are sort of Aromatherapy Froufrou 101—I apologize for the less-than-scholarly analysis of all this, but if you’re interested there’s a lot of info out there on the Internet, in places like Aromaweb, Nature’s Gift, and some very well-researched articles on the AGORA website.)
The most basic and least equipment-intensive method of diffusing and inhaling the oils (and probably least effective, honestly), is the “put a couple of drops on a tissue and tuck it into your collar” method. That’s what I used for my PPD, though, since it was immediate and easy, and it took the edge off until other methods had time to work. When my husband and I are sick, we’ll each put a little spray of eucalyptus oil on our pillow, which helps open up our nasal passages and helps—one hopes/believes—kill any other nasties we might otherwise be breathing onto each other in bed.
If we really wanted to keep the air clean and bug-free, we’d do better to get an actual nebulizer or diffuser; nebulizers are most effective and also most expensive; fan-based diffusers are also effective in smaller spaces. Heat-based diffusers are okay, but heating the oils changes their chemical compositions and may make them less effective.
One can find all kinds of diffusers, all over the place—Nature’s Gift (I swear, I don’t work for them, they’re just my main source for All Things Aromatherapeutic) has a very good and wide selection, with very thorough descriptions of the capabilities of each; so does Mountain Rose Herbs. There are diffusers you can plug into your car a/c jack, there are diffusers you can plug into the wall, there are even diffusers you can stick into your computer’s USB port (with a gig of extra storage to boot!). There are ceramic diffusers that absorb the oils and then disperse them into the air, which cover less space but also do not require power to run. And I have been known to put a few drops of the oil on a tissue and lightly tape it over one of our furnace vents—that’s fairly effective as well, if a little cheesy looking!
Diffused essential oils are being used for all kinds of things—to keep air in public environments less prone to harboring viruses, to help induce mental states of either greater alertness or greater calm, to address depression, and even in some children’s classrooms (including and especially kids with special needs) to help promote focus and diminish scattered behavior. Obviously researching the effectiveness of these methods is a challenge, especially with no giant pharmaceutical companies lining up to fund such studies, but anecdotally they seem to be meeting with some success.
So as we sit here in the middle of flu season, here are a few suggestions for your own blends (although—here I go again sounding like a commercial—Nature’s Gift’s “germ beater” blends are a good way to get it all in one bottle rather than buying a bunch)—
· Eucalyptus—a great decongestant, clears out your passages
· Thyme—nasty-smelling, one of the best anti-viral and anti-bacterial oils around.
· Basil—I also can’t stand the smell of this, but along with Thyme it’s highly effective. I don’t know why Thyme and Basil are so lovely smelling in red sauce but so icky when diffused in a room…but heck, they work.
· Manuka—a little more off the beaten track, it’s related to the melaleuca (tea tree) plant and, some say, has even more germ-beating power.
· Lavandin—similar to Lavender (also a must-have) but a bit more camphor-y smelling
· Tea Tree—of course. Tea Tree oil is good for pretty much everything.
· Pine and Cedarwood—also very good air-cleaners, antibacterial and antiviral.
If it were me, and I didn’t have much in the way of oils yet, I’d probably get some mixture of Lavender, Tea Tree, and Eucalyptus as my flu-season hard-hitters. I’d throw in a little peppermint or lemon if the winter blues were getting my family down, or maybe a little chamomile if my kids were getting unbelievably squirrelly and cabinfeverish, and diffuse it in the family room all evening after school.
Again, if anyone tries any of these, I’d love to hear how it works for you and what you think!
--Jenn the Greenmom