Are essential oils (EOs) the answer to the challenging questions
of how to locate, transport, store, and prepare Chinese herbs? I'm
starting to think so. The more I use EOs in everyday life, in
everything from cleaning my kitchen floor to healing skin wounds,
and even to give my beer that summery citrus flavor, the more I see
the large overlap between EOs and Chinese herbs.
As a student of Acupuncture and
Oriental Medicine (AOM), mostly derived from Traditional
Chinese Medicine (TCM), I respect and value the efficacy of a
freshly decocted batch of raw Chinese herbs. I know they work, I've
gained a basic understanding of why they work, but I struggle with
the practicality of using them either for my family now or for a
future patient population.
What are these challenges? First, there are a lot of "herbs" in
TCM's Materia Medica (book of medical substances, whether plant,
animal, or mineral derived). To stock a shoebox-sized amount of
just most of them would require a very large storage room.
Some need to be refrigerated, some need to be pulverized just prior
to use, and some are illegal to use in the United States. No
rhinoceros horn for you!
Finding them--even the
legal ones--presents yet another stumbling block. Should you order
online, feign condition after condition to cache all the prescribed
herbs you can squeak out of your clinician at school? Drive to
Chinatown and take a stab at which shop has fresh, safe and
affordable herbs? Sure enough, within a few days of making each
trip to Chinatown myself I realize, "DOH! Now I need
that other herb, too!" Back in the car....
After a year or so of engaging in this disorderly and expensive
game of cat and mouse, I'd tried all (well, most) of these
tactics--even growing some of my own! All legal, of course. Think
"mint," not "ephedra." So, what's an AOM student to do? For the
past year, this one's been exploring the way that high-quality EOs
could fulfill many of the same needs as our Chinese herbs. How?
Well, I'm not entirely sure that the properties translate exactly,
but many sure seem to do just that. Let's take a look at our good
Chinese name: Bo
he. Common English name: Field Mint. Latin name: Mentha
piperita. Same plant...same medicinal properties? I argue
"yes." Most basically, peppermint is "cold" in nature. Both West
and East agree on that. TCM goes on to add other attributes such as
aromatic, acrid, and thus capable of dispelling the common
wind-heat invasion (think: yellow snot and sore throat). My western
manual of EOs describes peppermint as "anti-inflammatory,
antibacterial and invigorating," with primary uses including
"congestion, fever, influenza, heartburn."
Sure, the harvesting, processing, and distillation processes
change, emphasize, or even exclude some of the chemical
constituents, and the final usable product of dried bo he
differs greatly in appearance from the bottle of peppermint EO.
Does that mean they function differently, though? I used to
harvest, dry, and lightly decoct my own bo he when I felt
a wind-heat invasion coming on. It worked, as long as I was at home
with my own garden and had some time to prepare it all. Lately,
I've been easily reaching into my oils cabinet and tapping two
drops of peppermint EO into a mug of warm water. Instant peppermint
tea? Definitely. Instant medicinal answer to a wind-heat invasion?
I say yes again, based on my own experiences.
I'm not a chemist or a doctor, but in my experience
and increasingly informed opinion, I'm finding that EOs can make a
handy substitute for Chinese herbsin many cases. As with raw herbs,
quality is of upmost importance when selecting an EO company.
Storage, convenience and ease of use are all in favor of EOs, but
they are limited in number. I haven't found one called "gecko" or
"scorpion," or especially "Bear Gall Bladder," all of which are
clutch entries in a TCM Materia Medica.
Conclusion: If you can manage to live and treat without the more
exotic or illegal Chinese herbs, then EOs might be a practical
substitute much of the time. Imagine the difference between handing
a patient a bag full of raw ingredients, a pictorial instruction
sheet, and a handshake full of hope that they can execute the
cooking process effectively vs. handing the patient a small bottle
of EO and the simple instructions to put two drops into a mug of
Extra considerations abound; this post cannot attempt to cover
every angle or offer every comparison point. Granule or patent
pills can make Chinese herbs more practical, while some EOs are
quite expensive to purchase. Frankincense can easily run $100 per
15 ml bottle. Hey, if it's good enough for the Christ Child, you're
going to have to pay up! There are also some pesky mind-blocks when
trying to move seamlessly from one medical paradigm to the other.
How could a TCM practitioner possibly use hot cinnamon bark and
clove bud for a yellow-snot, sore throat sinus infection? Yet,
that's exactly what the EO prescription is in that case. Homeopaths
have no qualms with the theory of treating heat with heat, but
that's not the plan in AOM!
For now, I'll chalk this entire idea up to just another piece of
evidence that an integrated approach to healthcare is truly the
best option. Taking what works from any and all medical systems
offers our patients the most options for being well. I'm open to
Over the past four weeks in my "Nutrition and Food Therapy of
Oriental Medicine" course, I've been frustrated and slightly
puzzled over the subject matter. I'm usually more a
go-with-the-flow student in class; I'm sure the instructor knows
what we need to cover and how to cover it. This time around, I
still think he knows what we need to cover and how to lay it out,
but I'm not as easy going about the whole thing for some
Maybe it's because it's springtime, so my Liver wind is swirling
and I'm irritable. Perhaps I'm overly critical because dietetics is
my personal favorite element of oriental medicine. Maybe I'm just a
jerk. I don't know. I want to study therapeutic properties of
foods, and I want to right now!
Let me start by saying how much I like this professor and every
class I've had with him to date. The theory behind where we stick
these needles and which herbal formulas we recommend is absolutely
mind blowing. He taught me two years ago that winter has a color
and a flavor -- black and salty, for the record. Yet each week, we
seem to review the basics -- flavors and temperatures of
substances. The course title indicates that the focus of the
classwork will be nutrition and food therapy within the framework
of oriental medicine, so I keep wanting more -- more detail, more
examples, more ideas of how to alter a person's diet in order to
As we approach the famed Week Five Quiz that now makes an
appearance in most classes, I'm starting to second-guess myself.
Have we been just reviewing the basics of five-phase
theory, or did the professor slip pages of new detail into the
lectures when I wasn't looking? I'm sure he worked new information
into the framework so smoothly that my associate learning didn't
even know what was happening.
My frustration with this class is that I love the topic so much
that I can't reach a satiation point. I will never have enough
detail about food therapy to be content. I want more, I want it
now, and I want to share it with everyone I know...and some people
I don't even know yet.
Once again, springtime has
duped me. I'm irritable, I'm impatient, and my Liver is out of
control. Feel my pulse, second position on the left wrist. Can you
As I do from time to time, I realize now it's time to reread the
Dao de Jing, or the Tao Te Ching. Same book. Oh,
pinyin, you are a beast that cannot be pinned down. The point is
that this book, this short, easy to read, little book, can save
your sanity. Whenever I feel overwhelmed, overstressed, over Livery
in any way, I know it's time to pick it up.
Look at this thing. Lao Tzu, you genius!
"Those who know do not
Those who speak do not know."
I, and just about everyone else, could learn a little something
from that eloquent one-liner (two-liner?).
"Rushing into action, you fail.
Trying to grasp things, you lose them.
Forcing a project to completion, you ruin what was almost
I don't even like poetry, but this stuff is literally
So, why I am frustrated in
Nutrition class? Why do I want to rush it? Why am I desperately
grasping at the next piece of information? It's that "forcing a
project to completion" part, that part I love for personal reasons.
My procrastination has been vindicated!
As a professor, I often wait until the deadline to return
students' papers; as a student, I expect my professors to grade my
paper today! Actually, I don't think Lao Tzu would like that
• So What Is Chinese Medicine?
• Jabbing Nerves with Needles
• Mission in Nicaragua
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