If 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
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?"
Now 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.
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:
Myrrh: neutral, bitter, downward draining; enters
the Liver meridian; moves blood, dispels stasis, disperses phlegm
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
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).
Ayurvedic 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.
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
• So What Is Chinese Medicine?
• Jabbing Nerves with Needles
• Mission in Nicaragua
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