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Saturday, March 15, 2014

herbs versus essential oils

Before I get into comparing herbs with essential oils, I want to show off my apothecary a bit. This is my stash as of early spring 2014. The cabinet? You guessed it. Asher's old diaper change table. We did EC (elimination communication) with him so while this table was useful for a time I was able to steal it away from him before he was 2, as most of our changing was done on the fly or at night by then. The cabinet with drawers makes for a rather ideal apothecary for me at this point in time.

The mason jars are filled with herbal products I have prepared -- infused oils, infused vinegars and glycerines and alcohols to make various tinctures, and all labeled properly so I know what is in each and when they were finished being made. Plain old masking tape comes off jars cleanly for easy washing, and permanent marker written on the tape doesn't bleed in case of spills. One or two things, such as the plantain ACV you see on the top shelf, are still "cooking". You can see the herb settled at the bottom of the jar.

Drawers are filled with dried and ready herbs. Some are blended into teas or salve mixes. Most are single herbs. The dates you see, such as "summer 2013", tell me when I bought or harvested the herb so that I have a reasonable idea how long it should last. Herbs don't store indefinitely.

Now, here is my kitchen cabinet. This is my mini apothecary, my ready to go stuff that is used frequently. When I harvest peppermint in the garden, for example, I try to have grown enough to last me through the winter, but I don't want to store everything in the kitchen. That would take too much room. Nor do I want to trek several times a day into the purple room, the spare bedroom where my apothecary cabinet lives because it is the most consistently cool room in the house and has no direct sunlight in the windows at any time of day. I have a jar labeled "peppermint" in the kitchen and fill up once a month or two from the bulk storage. 4 oz bottles of tinctures I have made and like to have handy, such as peppermint, cinnamon, vitamin C, Snooze, PMS cramp, Double-E Immune Boost, vitamins, are in the box next to my Magic Bullet blender on the bottom left.

The kitchen is also where I keep all my essential oils. I have two blue cases of top notch oils from Native American Nutritionals, and a plastic tub filled with cheaper NOW Foods and Wyndmere essential oils. I want essential oils both neat and diluted always handy for cleaning, laundry, topical uses and popping in my essential oil burners at any time of day. E.o.s are my very favorite way to freshen up the air in the house. I empty a blue case and refill with just 5 ml or 15 ml bottles of essential oils for easy traveling, too. The oils are well protected with thick foam sponge and the case is smaller than a standard bathroom bag.

The amoxycillin doesn't usually live there! Just a temporary remedy for a particular need at the time of taking photos. Two salve tins you see are filled with my homemade Rapha (antiseptic, antibiotic), and A-plus (bruising and soreness) salves, made from herbal infused oil thickened with beeswax.

See how I have two types of lavender essential oil? Both are good, and I will use both on the skin. However, the large bottle of NOW is primarily for laundry and cleaning and evaporating in the burner, while the 15 ml of much more expensive lavandula angustfolia from Hungary by Native American Nutritionals (or Rocky Mountain Oils) we generally reserve for more direct use on the skin with bruising, insect bites, cuts and scrapes, and on my son's feet before bed after a rough day. I do recommend NAN/RMO oils above other top brands. I will post some reading at the bottom of this article so you can make your own decisions.

So as you can see, I use both herbs and essential oils on a regular basis. There are benefits and shortcomings to each, I think. I hope this might help you to make informed choices as you gradually compile your own selections of remedies and natural medicines for yourself and your family.

Pros to Herbs
  • Depends on the herb, but many are inexpensive and budget friendly. 
  • Many herbs are easy to grow, with a little planning, which makes for a fuller wallet and a ready, fresh source of certain herbs depending where you live. My central Arizona garden grows peppermint, rosemary, lavender flowers, catnip, yarrow, roses (for the petals -- gorgeous body creams with rose petal infused oil), sage, thyme, oregano, echinacea purpurea, calendula flowers, plantain.
  • A huge number of plants around the world bear nutritional and/or healing properties. Various mediums for internal and external use can be applied to herbs to create all manner of cures and homemade, affordable, potent and effective medicines. Salves, infused oils, poultices, lotions, tinctures and teas can be used externally. Infused oils, glycerites, vinegars, alcoholic tinctures, capsules, and teas can be taken internally.
  • A great many of these herbs are not made or cannot be made into essential oils. For example, dandelion root is a wonderfully beneficial herb that cleanses the blood and contains a great many nutrients. Plantain is a common lawn weed that helps heal and cure skin wounds like insect bites, rashes and acne, and is one of my very favorite herbs for these reasons. But I have never yet found an essential oil distilled from either dandelion root or plantain leaves. There are many herbs I like to use in teas or salves or tinctures on a regular basis that are not distilled into e.o.s, dandelion, arnica, comfrey, elderberry, red raspberry leaf, red rose hips, nettles, shavegrass, eleuthero root (Siberian ginseng), to name a very few. This article would become arduously long were I to explain in greater depth as to the clinical differences between herbs and essential oils, and why some herbs bear healing benefits that cannot be distilled into an essence, so I encourage you to pursue further reading if you would like to better understand how natural medicines work in the body.
  • It is difficult to overdose on many herbs in their natural state. As they are raw plant material in crude form and merely washed and dried, sometimes cut or powdered for ease of use, they contain controlled amounts of active properties. While some plants are poisonous, most herbs in this raw dried form are relatively safe, and easy for the body to rid of excess. 
  • Herbal tea is just about the safest medicine for a weakened body, and really easy to brew. Kinda hard to goof up tea! Infusion of catnip on a teaspoon is an excellent remedy for very young children and babies who are fevering, and takes only 5 minutes to prepare.

Cons to Herbs
  • Herbs are not light or heat safe and have a somewhat short life span. Once dried and not still growing and living, they rapidly lose potency when exposed to heat and light. So, they can't be kept for years, and must be stored in dark, cool cabinets or other sensible places. I try to finish or preserve my herbs by the time they reach the approximate age of 24 months, generally speaking. Some herbs, such as arnica, are very fragile and cannot be kept at potency for as long as sturdier ones like fennel and fenugreek seeds. That said, most tinctures and infused oils if made well will store for 2-3 years, some even longer, which is a good way of stretching the shelf life of your dried herbs.  
  • Herbs that have been powdered or finely cut last even shorter at full potency than the same herbs left in a more whole state, too, so if you buy powdered eleuthero root it might be wise to plan on encapsulating or otherwise using the herb within about half the length as of the whole or chopped root.  
  • Herbs take up space. Just look at my apothecary! 

Pros to Essential Oils

  • Crunchy Betty's article, "21 things you should know about using essential oils" covers many, many of the points I wanted to give you about essential oils. She also has some informational links embedded through the article, so do read. For the sake of my lists (gotta have them!), I want to emphasize a few of the same points below. 
  • Essential oils have a long shelf life. With the exception of citrus oils, the vast majority of good quality essential oils "live" longer than dried herbs when kept in the right conditions. You can bank -- yes, actually bank -- on getting a good 5 years or more out of an essential oil from a reliable source, so investing $70 in that 15 ml of German Chamomile from NAN might actually prove worth it to your wallet in the long run. Chamomile flowers won't last a decade, that's for sure! 
  • One drop of most e.o.s is roughly equivalent to about 75 cups of herbal tea. That's a lot of potency in a tiny punch. This makes strong dosing or fragrancing very effective with a small amount. When I make homemade lotion, I generally infuse my base oil with a healing herb such as calendula, and add essential oils for fragrance in the latter stages of the making process. 
  • It is also brilliantly handy to have a very small container of very strong natural medicine at your fingertips when traveling. When we go overseas, I take some loose herbs for tea and several types of essential oils for other uses. Two months ago in England, my "Breathe Ease" and Immune blends (by NAN) came in very handy as a good handful of the house were all down with respiratory infections, and yet they took up less room in my luggage than my tube of toothpaste. In our busy bag (boy now mainly wearing pants, not diapers, so it is no longer a diaper bag), I keep lipbalm sized mini tubs of Rapha (antiseptic) and A+ (bumps and bruises) salves made from herbs, and several roller balls of diluted essential oils of lavender, peppermint, citrus and vanilla, and a headache blend.  
  • I'm getting a lot of mileage about that one point, that e.o.s pack potency in a tiny punch! I also like them for cleaning for this reason. I use herbs, too, but several drops of eucalyptus essential oil down the toilet disinfects the bowl a little more fully than dried herbs or a eucalyptus infusion could do, plus with the oils there are no funky bits to get stuck in the toilet brush. Just one example when it comes to cleaning. E.o.s aren't always the best solution for cleaning, granted, but their strength without fibers is undeniably useful.
  • One drop of an essential oil might cost only pennies, and yet be potent enough to provide the remedy. For example, the early twinges of an oncoming yeast infection are, for me, more rapidly killed with one drop each of castor oil (base) and tea tree essential oil than by any raw herb salve I have yet tried. Very handy, and nicely tidy and purse-friendly in a little 5 ml drop reducer bottle or set into a mini salve in a lipbalm tube, especially when compared with many other over the counter or homemade cures.

Cons to Essential Oils
  • Citrus essential oils don't have a long shelf life. Okay, not that strongly negative a point, but still worth knowing. Expect to use a lemon or other citrus essential oil in about 6 months after opening, not years. But these are also not very expensive oils, generally, so it's not a budget kill to have to plan around them. 
  • Given their potency, it is more likely to give a body toxic overload by using too many essential oils. This makes dosing children a little trickier. The difference between one and two drops of e.o. is quite a lot, really, when you think of it as 75 or 150 cups of tea, which is why diluting essentials is important. Not only can you irritate the skin with undiluted oils, but prediluted remedies in salves or rollerballs of base oil is often a necessary precaution against overdosing. Herbs and essential oils are medicines, after all, and too much of even a good thing can be bad.
  • Again, not a huge con, but I think it is worth knowing that one drop is not exactly the same quantity from each essential oil. Plant essences are different weights and densities, not only due to the type of plant from which they are distilled but also due to the quality of that plant. Higher quality oils may be slightly heavier than lower quality oils, and so form slightly larger drops. When dealing with children, elderly, and for any application on very sensitive skin, caution is the better part of aromatherapy. 
  • There are mixed messages out there about whether or not to ingest essential oils. Young Living and doTERRA, for example, both recommend the use of essential oils internally. Many e.o. home users, such as other bloggers, recommend regular internal consumption of essential oils. (This is one reason I remind my readers I do not claim official certification, and to please do your own research. Check out my claims. Be cynical.) When you consider the potency of one drop of e.o., however, it is not difficult to see why the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy in the USA does not sanction the use of essential oils this way. While I personally don't see a hard and fast rule applying one way or the other to the consumption of high quality, pure, organic essential oils, I say again: caution. And proper storage.
Some more reading? Sure, why not. And if you have any more online material you consider worth adding to this list, please comment below. I will have a look and see about adding it.

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