Essential oils and aromatherapy are growing in popularity among acupuncturists. And why not? Aromatherapy offers a natural, pleasurable, effective adjunct to treatments with needles and herbs, with no down side.
Except there can be a downside. Essential oils are so dramatically effective because of their power - which must be respected. A single drop of lavender oil contains an entire cup of lavender blossoms. So what do we need to know as acupuncturists integrating these powerful plant medicines into our practices?
Last weekend I had the opportunity to continue my studies with Josephine Spilkas, whose Nectar of Plants series is one I highly recommend for anyone seeking to deepen their work with essential oils in a Chinese Medicine context. I give credit to Josephine for many of these considerations, but Robert Tisserand, Essential Oil University and The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy are other useful sources for understanding essential oils and how to use them safely. I wanted to share what I have learned from these and other teachers, and also from hard-won personal experience in terms of adverse reactions I've had over the almost 30 years I've been using essential oils - let my rashes, headaches and hives be of benefit to you in your practice!
1. Dilution: Allergic reactions, skin irritation and sensitization are all possible side effects from essential oils. Using safe dilutions is key to minimizing them. Under 10% is often cited as a safe dilution rate, but many oils have lower dilution recommendations. For regular and repeated use, lower dilutions are advised. All Angelica & Peony products are formulated to have dilution rates of 2% or lower, designed for repeated and 'non-prescription' use. Mountain Rose Herbs has a handy dilution guide.
2. Rotation: sensitization, the development of an allergic response through repeated contact, and habituation, the loss of therapeutic benefit over time, can both be minimized by rotating the oils you are using with specific clients and avoiding long term daily use of any one oil, as well as proper dilution.
3. Ventilation: this is a vital consideration for acupuncturists, especially if you are using acupuncture point therapy. Is your treatment space easily ventilated? Do you have a sealed trash can to dispose of applicators? Can you prevent your next patient from getting a dose of the oil you just used? And what about you - imagine if you took every formula you prescribed, all day long. That's what's happening when you expose yourself repeatedly to concentrated essential oil vapours during acupoint therapy. As well as air filtration, consider whether your skin is coming into contact with undiluted oils. When working with oils in my workroom, I wear nitrile gloves to avoid accidental skin exposure, and suggest the same in your treatment room, especially if you are using neat oils for acupoint treatments.
The benefits of acupoint therapy can make it worthwhile - but having pre-diluted blends at safe dilutions ready to go is one of the reasons I created my healing oils. (Even with dilute applications, you will still need to ventilate between patients!)
Essential oils are a powerful and evocative adjunct to the Chinese Medicine practitioner's tool chest - using them with respect and caution will ensure a long and beneficial relationship between you, your patients, and the 'spirits of the plants'.
I collect interesting and useful links about essential oils and aromatherapy on my Pinterest Board.
Coming in Part II: How to buy essential oils - this was a question I got through my facebook page, and it's a very important one - one that needs it's own article! You can see some guidelines through the teachers and organizations I list above, and I'll collect my own recommendations here shortly.