The use of essential oils in Ayurveda

The use of essential oils is very common today. Unfortunately, there is a new tendency to use essential oils internally and externally as medicines. I am not sure why or where this bad habit began, but it is a modern development based on a “quick fix” mentality. Certainly there is an economic aspect to it because essential oils have a very long shelf life. According to Ayurveda it is certain that the use of essential oils internally will create disease. Even external use is problematic and should be avoided. Let us explore several reasons why Ayurveda holds this opinion.

Basically, the essential oil of a plant is the “Agni” or fire of the plant. One of the basic therapeutic rules in Ayurveda is that “like increases like”. In other words if you are cold and go outside in the snow without a coat you will get colder. The primary problem of using essential oils is that they are a concentrated therapeutic substance with a very narrow therapeutic range as compared to the original plant source. They all increase the fire element (agnibhuta) in the body.

According to Ayurvedic pharmacology the pure fire element extract of a plant is very potent. This very potency is what makes it both dangerous and therapeutically efficient. When we use pure elements as medicine they increase radically their corresponding element in the body (like increases like). Unfortunately, pure substances are hard to dose and control. Thus, it is easier to damage tissues, systems or functions than it is to heal or correct them with pure substances. This is why in Ayurveda pure substances of any Dravya (substance) were “humanized” or rendered safe for the body through complex pharmacological methods. Some of these medicines take several years to make with traditional methods. They can transform poisons into safe medicine that have no secondary effects.

When these pure substances are ingested into the body they increase the agni in the corresponding area of consumption; e.g. stomach, lungs, etc. The increase of agni will disrupt metabolism. The concept of Agni in Ayurveda includes all levels of chemical transformation – including enzyme function. A short term increase of agni will stimulate the whole metabolism, this is what makes the therapeutic action. However, this kind of stimulation is not without secondary effects. It is impossible to use essential oils internally without causing secondary effects. A long term use will damage the function of agni permanently; in other words all metabolic functions. This is the nature of using pure substances in the body, which is why Ayurveda avoids their use.

There is no doubt that essential oils are effective therapeutically. There is also no doubt that they cause secondary effects and disease pathology – especially when used daily for a period of time. Ayurveda considers them to damage the body even in very small amounts when taken internally. The difficulty with the use of essential oils internally is that they cause an imbalance in Agni, then Pachakapitta, then Ranjakapitta and then a domino effect begins that effects other doshas and subdoshas as per the constitution. This kind of pathology is diagnosable in Ayurveda (and I have seen it a number of times), but is unknown in naturopathy or other forms of “natural” medicine that prescribe essential oils. Therefore, people get “cured” from one ailment only to create another disease – seemingly unrelated to the first. The problem is not that essential oils cause disease pathology when used internally – the problem is that these pathologies are almost impossible to diagnose and understand in terms of cause by modern practitioners.

It is my opinion that it will take modern medicine, naturopathy, herbalists, homeopaths and other practitioners another twenty years to realize this truth. The cause and effect relationship between the use of essential oils internally (yes, even diluted) and disease is there; it just needs to be discovered. The real sad aspect of this story is that essential oils are now in a number of medicines used by huge numbers of people. The ignorant statement that “it is natural” – meaning that it is safe – is not based on the traditional use or understanding of any traditional medicine anywhere in the world. In fact they are unsafe.

What is the correct use of essential oils according to traditional cultures and medicine? Aromatherapy. As the name implies aromatherapy is the use of perfumes, incense and diffusion of aromas by any means. In today’s world of miss-information and ignorance “aroma therapists” are prescribing essential oils internally and externally – a therapeutic application is not only dangerous, stupid and criminal – but also one for which they are not trained to perform. Traditional use of essential oils has been around for thousands of years and is very effective, helpful and safe. The correct use is through aroma, not through internal or external use – even in diluted doses in water or base oils. So called "Ayurvedic Massage" oils that have essential oils in them are fakes - fraudulent products to save money instead of decocting the herbs correctly in the base oil. The exception to this is the traditional preparation of Camphor essential oil and then adding this into the preparation of herbal decoctions when making massage oils for pain. Note the essential oil of Camphor is cooked with the other ingredients which transforms it into a safe substance for external use.

Note that essential oils can be used for lung inhalation therapies, typically called ‘inhalation’. Inhalation consists of using several drops of eucalyptus, camphor, thyme, or other plants that have an effect on the lungs in a bowl of boiling water. A towel covers the head of the person and the bowl. The person then inhales the steam vapor that arises from the bowl of boiled water. The essential oil in the steam is rendered safe by the heat and steam that breaks up the essential oil into small doses. This method is done for two to four days at a time and never more than one week or it will also begin to cause problems. This method increases the Agni in the lungs and helps to promote an expectorant action in the lungs and sinus.

Therefore, I discourage all of my students and patients from using essential oils internally or externally. The disorders caused by the daily use of essential oils are very hard or even impossible to correct. Their correct use is in aromatherapy. Ayurveda has used these oils like this for over thousands of years to great advantage.

Copyright © 2011 & 2018 Vaidya Atreya Smith

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