Archive for tag: essential oils

Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh -- Minus the Gold

2014-10-07_1If it was good enough for the Christ Child, then it's good enough for me. That's my motto. I've been using a (gasp) commercially prepared skin care product for the past month or so, and these are two of the main ingredients -- frankincense and myrrh essential oils!

Once again I've found myself playing the "overlapping medical paradigm" game. You know the one -- you realize you're eating a vegetable that also happens to appear in a Materia Medica (giant book of medicinal herbs). Suddenly you second-guess yourself at every meal. "Should I add sautéed onions to my steak," "Does a cooked onion still hold the same medicinal properties as a raw one?" Who eats raw onions anyway? "Is the live peppermint growing in my backyard the same as the dried peppermint in my tea bags, the essential oil of peppermint in my cabinet, or the bo he (Mentha piperita) listed in my TCM Materia Medica?"

2014-10-07_2Now I'm having this same sense of wonderment about my facial products. As I'm rolling on and rubbing in this blend of ancient oils that smells distinctly like a special day in a Catholic church, I'm pondering the reach of these powerful substances. It's no secret that frankincense can run $100 per bottle of essential oil, and myrrh comes in around $70.This is good stuff, people. But why? What properties do they carry that have made them, along with the missing "gold" in my formulation, so heavily sought after for millennia? Myrrh was not only presented to the baby Jesus but also used to anoint his body after death. Egyptian pharaohs were also doused in the stuff.

2014-10-07_3          2014-10-07_4
Myrrh on the left, frankincense on the right

Myrhh (mo yao) has been a documented herb in TCM since the Kaibao Era circa 975 AD. Frankincense (ru xiang) has been on the books since 500 AD. How are they used in Chinese medicine? Both come from small shrub-like trees in the Arabian Peninsula and Northeast Africa, and both are used in resin form to invigorate blood, treating a variety of "stasis" issues, from traumas to tumors. Specific entries might look like this:

2014-10-07_5Myrrh: neutral, bitter, downward draining; enters the Liver meridian; moves blood, dispels stasis, disperses phlegm nodules.

Frankincense: warm, acrid, aromatic; enters the Heart and Lung meridians; moves blood, relaxes sinews, freecourses qi, and removes obstruction from the channels.

Together, they have complementary properties of healing weeping sores and engendering new flesh. Well, there we have it. Now I see why this blend (which also includes lavender, Hawaiian sandalwood, helichrysum, and rose oils) would be used as a facial formula of the anti-aging variety. Hey, I'm 31. I might as well be prepared.

Qi Li Sanis the name of the formula utilizing the highly effective complementary herbsmo yao(myrrh) and ru xiang (frankincense). Technically they are resins, but we call every substance in our Materia Medica an "herb." This traditional formula combines our frankincense and myrrh with dragon's blood (spoiler alert: not really the blood of a dragon), catechu (another resin), carthamus (flower), cinnabar (ooh, an illegal one!), musk (illegal plus you'd smell like a deer), and borneol (one more resin for good measure).

2014-10-07_6Ayurvedic medicine, native to India, also uses frankincense and myrrh, now sometimes in nutraceutical forms like guggulsterones and bowsellic acids, respectively, for high cholesterol and joint pain.

So, what am I putting on my face? Sure, an essential oil is not exactly the same as a resin or a neutraceutical, or a Chinese decoction for that matter, but that's not what matters. What's important here is another step in the direction towards integrated medicine. Maybe western and eastern are both right this time. As one of my favorite patients helped me realize recently, you'll kill yourself trying to figure out which is the one right answer. There isn't one. Open your eyes, open your ears, and open your heart to acknowledge the truth in each tradition.

Essential Oils or Chinese Herbs

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.

2014-07-28_booksAs 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!

2014-07-28_shelvesFinding 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 friend, peppermint.

peppermint plantChinese 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." Sounds...pretty...similar!

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.

2014-07-28_peppermintI'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 warm water.

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!

2014-07-28_oils

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 that...