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Steam Distilling Snakeweed (Gutierrezia sarothrae)


Last weekend I had the privilege of joining Stillpoint Aromatics,  PhiBee Aromatics and Original Trade Goods for the wildcrafting and distillation of Broom Snakeweed (Gutierrezia sarothrae) in Sedona, AZ.

Snakeweed is a plant that is not commonly distilled for its essential oil and as of yet, the therapeutic benefits have not been fully studied or tested. The plant was used by Native Americans in a steam for respiratory ailments such as colds & coughs and applied to the skin for headaches, dizzinesss, wounds & snake bites. We can assume the essential oil of Snakeweed carries these same medicinal benefits….only more potent! The aroma is fresh, herbaceous and earthy.

It was very fitting to be exploring a new essential oil out west and I couldn’t help but think of our group as essential oil pioneers. Below are images of the excursion as well as descriptions of the steam distillation.

Wildcrafting Snakeweed for distillation

A portion of the harvest.

The gathered plant material is placed into the retort where it will be heated and steamed.

The retort connects to the distillation apparatus.

Steam containing the plants essential oil is carried from the retort to a condensing chamber, where cold water separates the essential oil from the steam/water.

The newly distilled snakeweed essential oil sits on top of the steam/water. Quite a bit of therapeutic benefits remain in the water and the result is called its hydrosol.

The essential oil is then poured while the hydrosol is collected below.



The Role of Aromatherapy in Natural ADHD Treatment


The human brain produces four different frequencies of waves.  A quick run down goes like this:

Beta waves = an alert and attentive state
Alpha waves = a relaxed state
Theta waves = a drowsy and day dreaming state
Delta waves = a deep sleep state

There is no proven cause of ADHD, but the general theory from the many observations and studies available point to the differences in brainwaves of patients with and without ADHD. The brainwaves of the ADHD population are generally slower, with Theta waves being dominant over Beta waves.

Because it is in a constant state of drowsiness and fogginess due to the slower Theta waves, the ADHD brain tends to overcompensate with hyperactivity…to try and “wake-up” the brain so to speak.  This overcompensation results in restlessness, anxiety, distraction, etc., and why ADHD is typically treated with stimulants such as Adderall.  These conventional stimulants speed up brainwaves – but only temporarily and with undesirable side effects.

While Neurofeedback has become a popular and effective natural treatment for ADHD because it doesn’t just cover up the problem but actually trains the brain to produce faster Beta waves on its own, aromatherapy can play a powerful complimentary role in treatment.

Rosemary essential oil has been well known in the aromatherapy community as boosting focus and brain performance for decades – and even centuries, before the term aromatherapy was even coined. Now it seems like the rest of the population is waking up.  Just google “rosemary brain” and rosemary’s connection with increased brain function is obvious, with perhaps this recent Huffington Post article going the most viral.

Other essential oils known to be focus aids and stimulating to the nervous system can also be helpful, but like with all aromatherapy treatments the individual person and their needs should be taken into account when blending.  Some may find stimulating or spicy essential oils agitating while others find them warming and invigorating. A few of my top picks would be black pepper, sweet basil and lemon.  Children often gravitate to the sweet & uplifting aromas of spearmint or mandarin, so it is of my opinion that they should not be left out when working with an ADHD child. Blending stimulating oils, like the ones mentioned, with a grounding/calming oil or two can help settle the unintentional anxiety and restlessness that ADHD can bring and a well rounded blend can result. Jasmine, lavender or roman chamomile are good contenders.

And speaking of grounding oils, perhaps one of the most well known studies on treating ADHD with aromatherapy was done by Dr. Terry S. Friedmann and highlights the success of vetiver. It took place over two years with children ages six to fourteen with ADHD.  Essential oils of vetiver, cedarwood and lavender were given by inhalation 3 times per day for 30 days with vetiver showing the greatest increase in scholastic performance and behavioral patterns. I can see how this would be so as vetiver is grounding and has high content of sesquiterpenes which, as the study mentions, is a chemical constituent that increases oxygenation and activity in the brain.

The key to aromatherapy’s effectiveness is to incorporate it into everyday life and routine. Fortunately there are so many ways to do this from a few drops in the bath to room diffusers to simply taking the top off of an essential oil bottle and breathing in deeply.  And because of the pleasing aromas, it is a treatment that is enjoyable.  A favorite method of mine when using essential oils to address a physical issue is to combine it with foot reflexology.  In the case of ADHD, applying an essential oil blend to the foot and stimulating the brain reflex would be the way to go.

To further understand how aromatherapy actually works, here is some recommended reading:

Benefits of Inhaling Essential Oils
Essential Oils and Skin Application



A Cautionary Look at Wintergreen Essential Oil


While all essential oils can be hazardous if used improperly, certain ones should be used with more caution and care than others.  Wintergreen Gaultheria procumbens – which is distilled from the leaves - is one of them.

Most aromatherapy books don’t even mention wintergreen essential oil and if the oil is mentioned, it is usually under toxic or hazardous oils. However, when used with proper dilution wintergreen essential oil can be of great benefit for certain individuals due to its ability to relieve muscle/joint pain and soreness.

Before I get into proper dilution I’d like to talk about cautions one needs to take with the oil.  When using wintergreen essential oil on others, it is crucial to ask if they take aspirin daily or any other kind of anticoagulant drugs such as Warfarin.

Anticogulants are drugs that prevent blood clots by thinning the blood.  With too much thinning of the blood comes internal bleeding.  Wintergreen is made up of 95-98% methyl salicylate which makes the essential oil nothing to mess with.  If topically applied improperly, methyl salicylate can increase the anticoagulant effect.  Google  methyl salicylate anticoagulants and you get the picture.

Although methyl salicylate is an active ingredient in many healing liniments such as BenGay, Icy Hot and so on, a synthetic version is usually used and none of the products contain such a concentrated amount as wintergreen essential oil does. Even then, overdose on sports creams is possible.  Even death.

Menthyl salicylate is also a teratogenic which means it has been known to cause malformations of an embryo or fetus. Avoid using wintergreen oil during pregnancy or on a pregnant client.

Because wintergreen essential oil is basically pure methyl salicylate, proper dilution is paramont.  I dilute it like I would any other extremely powerful oil and keep it at only a 1% dilution.  This means an absolute maximum 4-5 drops of wintergreen for every 1 ounce of carrier oil like jojoba oil, almond oil, olive oil, etc.  I would never even think of using it in a bath or steam because of undiluted skin contact and mucus membrane irritation.  1 drop in a room diffuser or nebulizer blend is safe.  Never apply to the skin undiluted.

Need another example of how potent wintergreen essential oil is?  As it turns out, methyl salicylate is also a natural lacquer thinner.  Just one drop was enough to take the finish off of a wooden tray of mine within minutes:

I try not to get preachy about a certain essential oil company but I feel like this is appropriate time to call them out. With everything we know about the heavy concentration of methyl salicylate in wintergreen essential oil and why it can be dangerous for certain individuals, why in the world Young Living advises applying 4-5 drops of undiluted wintergreen essential oil along the spine and then 2-3 undiluted drops on the inside the lower leg for their Raindrop Technique is beyond my comprehension. Note there is no mention of potential danger in pregnancy or with anticoagulant drugs.  It is also recommended that “it may be necessary to have the application done every week until the body begins to respond.”  I personally steer clear of this technique and company.

It should also be noted that Sweet Birch Betula lenta essential oil is comparable to wintergreen.  It too is 95%- 98% of methyl salicylate and should be used with the same caution and care.

While it is true that wintergreen essential oil is to be used with a bit more care and consideration I don’t think it should be dismissed altogether.  Amazing results can occur when used properly and I consider it to be a crucial part of my essential oil toolbox.



‘Tis The Season For Frankincense & Myrrh


…and not just because of the symbolism with the upcoming holiday season!  Frankincense & Myrrh essential oils contain properties that make them a crucial part of the cold winter months.

Frankincense (lighter) and Myrrh (darker) resins.

Frankincense Boswellia carterii is steam distilled from resin and mostly made up of Monoterpenes- a chemical family known for relieving pain & stiffness, being mild antiseptics and air purifiers.  However, I feel like the most important quality the essential oil of Frankincense can offer us this time of year is the calming relationship it has with our respiratory and nervous system.  Frankincense is known to deepen the breath, relieve nervous tension, calm the mind and support introspection which is why it has traditionally been used for meditation.  I can’t think of a more hectic time than the holiday season and the inhalation of Frankincense essential oil can be beneficial.  One drop on a tissue for a quick fix is just enough to center ourselves while battling traffic or preparing for family.  The opening of the breath- and therefore the lungs- is what makes it an effective addition to blends geared to treating congestion, bronchitis, asthma and so on.

Myrhh Commiphora myrrha is also steam distilled from resin but composed dominantly of Sesquiterpenes – a chemical family known to be healing to the skin, warming, antiseptic, anti-inflammatory & antibacterial.  It is the first oil I reach for to treat any kind of skin issue, especially when I want to prevent and heal the dry skin winter tends to bring.  Myrrh is especially effective with the cracked heels of feet that are usually so hard to relieve.  Because it is antibacterial and has an astringent effect on the mucus membrane, gargling with a drop of Myrrh in water or inhaling it via steam is fantastic for treating throat infections.  Like Frankincense it supports the respiratory system but in a different way.  The oil is anti-infammatory, an expectorant & antispasmodic making it useful for breaking up mucus, coughs, bronchitis and colds. I find it to be an integral addition in winter chest rubs and its calming, grounding energy means that it is safe to use at night.

A good evening chest and temple rub to break up congestion could consist of Frankincense, Myrrh, Pine, Myrtle & Spike Lavender in a 2% dilution.  This means 10-12 total drops per 1 ounce of carrier such as jojoba oil or aloe vera.

Adding a few drops of Frankincense & Myrrh to your evening bath or bedside nebulizer/diffuser can be a simple way to stay relaxed and healthy during the winter.  Both aromatically blend well with Rose Absolute, Sandalwood, Lavender or Ylang Ylang.



Solvent Extraction Vs. Steam Distillation


Hydro Steam Distilled Rose Otto from Turkey

All of the Rose Rosa damascena I have used up until this point has been an absolute, as this has been the most affordable way for me to enjoy the aroma and benefits of Rose.  Just when I thought I was blown away and satisfied enough with the absolute,  I was notified about a bulk direct sale with a Turkish producer of Rose Otto Rosa damascena and had to bite when I saw the discount.  It arrived yesterday and worth every cent…if only to smell the aromatic differences.

Although both are from the same family of Rose, the essential oil that has been hydro steam distilled is known as Rose Otto while the Rose extracted via the solvent method is known as Rose Absolute.

So what is the difference between these two methods?

Solvent extraction is usually used for plants whose essential oils would be compromised by steam distillation either because they can’t handle too much heat (flower petals where the essential oil is stored such as in Rose or Jasmine can be too delicate), the plant contains a lot of resin or the part of the plant has a low concentration of essential oil.

The basic idea of solvent extraction is this: the plant material is mixed with a solvent (usually acetone, benzene or hexane) which pulls out the essential oil.  This is known as an extract and it is placed in a still with gentle heat that removes the solvent, but not the essential oil.  When the extract is cooled it solidifies into a wax.  The wax is removed with alcohol, into which the essential oil dissolves.  The alcohol/oil mixture is chilled and the alcohol is removed via a vacuum extraction with the final residue left over being an absolute.

Solvent extracted oils have a wonderfully full aroma but the downside is that waxes and other non-volatile materials can be extracted along with the essential oils.  The result is a much thicker oil that can actually solidify in room temperature.  There is debate as to whether oils extracted in this way are true essential oils or not, therefore the term absolute is used.

In steam distillation the plant material is placed in a copper still with water.  Heat is applied at the bottom and as the still is heated, the plant sacs containing essential oils open.  The oils vaporize and are carried up via steam into a condenser where the steam and oil are separated, take on their respective forms (steam to water) and collect into the receiver.  Since oil and water don’t mix, the essential oils form a layer on the top of the condensed water and are collected and filtered.  Hydro steam distillation is a variation on this method in that the plant material is placed in water and heat is applied from the top instead of the base.  Condensation of the oil/steam happens inside the still below the plant being processed.  The benefit to this is less steam (therefore less heat), a shorter processing time and higher yield of pure, unadulterated essential oil.

Below are pictures of the hydro steam distillation process. Source: Appalachian Vally Natural Products (click to enlarge).



Ravensara or Ravintsara? Know What You Are Buying!


Ravintsara Cinnamomum camphora ct 1,8 cineole

I was aware of some confusion in the aromatherapy world regarding the differences between Ravensara and Ravintsara, but it wasn’t until I decided to figure it out once and for all just how much confusion there was. WOW.  It’s enough to make you want to just blend the two together and call it a day!

It is a problomatic situation worth looking into since Ravensara essential oil is still being sold as either Ravensara aromatica or Cinnamonum camphora. They both come from the Lauraceae botanical family but are two different essential oils with completely different chemical make-ups and aromas.  So why is there so much confusion? After doing a bit of research, I will attempt to lay it out here as simply as I can.

Ravintsara is a large evergreen tree believed to have originated in China but was introduced to Madagascar in the mid-nineteenth century.  This is where some of the confusion with Ravintsara begins…and we haven’t even gotten to Ravensara yet!  Because the Ravintsara tree was introduced to another country, and therefore a different growing region, various chemotypes (resulting in different chemical properties) exist.  The two most common chemtoypes are Cinnamonum camphora ct 1,8 cineole commonly sold as Ravintsara or Ho Leaf (from Madagascar) and Cinnamonum camphora ct linalol which is commonly sold as Ho Wood (from China, Japan and Sri Lanka).  Adding more to the equation is the part of the tree the different oils are distilled from.  Ravintsara or Ho Leaf essential oil is distilled from the leaves while Ho Wood is distilled from the twigs/wood of the tree, resulting in chemical and aromatic differences.  Ravintsara’s aroma is camphoraceous & fresh like Eucalyptus (although according to one source, it lost its ability to produce any trace of camphor once the tree was introduced to the climate of Madagascar) and Ho Wood being more floral, fresh, sweet & woody.   Between it’s floral and woody aroma and high linalol content, Ho Wood is more like Rosewood essential oil for the immune system & emotions.  Ravintsara or Ho Leaf Cinnamonum camphora ct 1,8 cineole is the one you want for the flu virus, respiratory issues or allergies.

Ravensara Ravensara aromatica

Now to make an already confusing situation even more so, ravensara is the Latinization of the Malagasy word ravintsara…meaning”good leaf.”  But Ravensara essential oil actually comes form a completely different source:  the Agatophyllum aromaticum tree in Madagascar.  It was discovered in 1792 by the French naturalist & explorer Pierre Sonnerat who gave it the the botanical name of Ravensara aromatica.  Again, two different essential oils are produced from this tree: the oil distilled from the leaves is called Ravensara aromatica and the oil produced from the bark is Ravensara anisata.  The oil from the leaves is what should be sold as Ravensara essential oil. It’s aroma has a bit of an aniseed or licorice-like odor while its components make it a strong anti-viral and good for inflammation.

Phew! Got it?  Good.


The Healing Trail: Essential Oils of Madagascar by Georges M. Halpern, MD PhD

The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy by Salvatore Battaglia

Ravintsara vs Ravensara

Ravensara Oils

Aromatics International



Sweet Marjoram (Origanum marjorana)


Sweet Marjoram essential oil continues to inspire me.  Its fresh, herbacious, woody, warm and sweet aroma is beautifully unisex and balancing.  I love it in the bath at night with lavender because it works wonders for a restful night and sore muscles after a long day in my bodywork studio. I find it extremely effective for menstrual cramping when used with a hot compress.  I have been really appreciating it lately because I’ve been doing a lot of  yard work and mosquitos love me!  It has been my experience that a few drops in some aloe vera gel applied to the bite stops the itching immediately.  I will often times put it in a blend for asthma, bronchitis or general congestion from a cold and it is an absolute must for a massage oil for stiff joints & muscles.

So how does this essential oil, which is steam distilled from flowering tops of the herb, do all of this?

Sweet Marjoram  Origanum marjorana is mostly made up of the monoterpene (decongestant for respiratory & muscular systems, promotes circulation & pain releif) and monoterpenol (anti-inflammatory for the skin, antispasmodic, supports emotional balance, immune stimulant) chemical families with a little help from sesquiterpenes (pain relieving, anti-inflammatory, grounding) & esters (antispasmodic, sedating, effective for skin irritants/rashes).

Sweet Marjoram is also a crucial ingredient in my popular blend for migraines.  Not only because of its pain relieving/antispasmodic/anti-inflammatory quality but because migraines are said, especially in Chinese medicine, to be caused by a liver imbalance. Sweet Marjoram contains the monoterpenes b-Limonene which is a liver protector and  a-Phellandrene, a detoxifyer that supports the function of the liver.  Add this to its overall balancing action on the nervous system, and Sweet Marjoram has shown time and time again to be a great friend to my migraine suffers.

Many sources warn against using Sweet Marjoram regularly for an extended period of time.  It can have a very powerful sedating effect on ones senses and emotional response.  Although that quality can be a therapeutic one for those suffering from grief or other emotional transitions, too much of it can lead to a deadening effect on the emotions and can even result in being an anti-aphrodisiac.  That being said, it could be helpful for someone who needs to be celibate for whatever reason.  Again, only a consistent and extended use of this oil has been known to have this effect.

Sweet Marjoram should not be confused with Spanish Marjoram Thymus Mastichina which is a member of the Thyme family.



Therapeutic Grade


Be wary of mulit-level marketing essential oil companies that claim their oils are therapeutic grade or that only therapeutic grade essential oils are effective in treatment.  There is no such thing.  Here is an excellent article on the subject.





I’ve been playing around with hydrosols lately.  The main reason is because I want to offer healing aromatic blends to my cat Sophie and to all of my clients that have cats.  Essential oils are highly concentrated and way too potent for your furry friend.  The liver of a cat is simply not the same as ours and they lack the ability to properly metabolize the various compounds in essential oils…especially those containing phenol.  The end result can be gradual toxicity.  I advise cat owners to stay far away from any holistic products such as shampoos or medications that contain essential oils yet claim to be safe to use with cats.  I’ve seen many products out there that have this claim, with the most alarming being a catnip spray containing catnip essential oil.  Just because it’s catnip essential oil does not make it any less harmful.  If anything it may be more harmful since your cat probably won’t be able to get enough of it.  I experimented with catnip hydrosol and Sophie went crazy!  I especially love it because it is all of the fun of catnip without the mess.

So what is a hydrosol?  Simply put it is the aromatic water left over from the essential oil distillation process.   While essential oils are the fat soluble components of a plant, the hydrosol (or hydrolat) contains the water soluble parts thereby having many of the plants therapeutic benefits.   Below is a picture of the essential oil distillation process.  The container labeled “fragrant water” is the hydrosol:

Hydrosols are not the same thing as flower essences.  Flower essences are produced by immersing a flower in water and then exposing the water to heat or sunlight.   A hydrosol can come from any number of plants and plant part that an essential oil comes from i.e. the bark, seed, leaf, etc.  They are also much more aromatic then a flower essence and obviously obtained differently.

One of the things I am loving most about hydrosols is how gentle yet effective they are.  They can be used safely undiluted on the skin, with children and as mentioned, cats.  They can be added to a bath, room diffuser or nebulizer and many can even be taken internally or used as an oral wash.  One of my favorite uses is rose hydrosol in a spray bottle for a facial toner.  Another favorite is the calming blend of lavender, rose & melissa I blended for Sophie.  I find myself using it for myself as a nightly comforting pillow spray.  Hydrosols can also be used to enhance the effectiveness of an essential oil blend.  For instance instead of spring water as a carrier I’ve used frankincense hydrosol for an insect repellent essential oil blend.

Hydrosols are even more fragile than essential oils and should always be stored in the refrigerator to extend shelf life.  Like essential oils, each shelf life varies but most hydrosols are fine up to a year when properly stored.  I have found Hydrosols: The Next Aromatherapy by Suzanne Catty to be an invaluable addition to my aromatherapy library.   It is chock full of info on individual hydrosols and recipes from burn treatment to edible creations like soup, tomato sauce & cheesecake that are made better with the addition of hydrosols!  So cool.



The Benefits of Aromatherapy


I recently contributed an article on the benefits of aromatherapy to Danatopia, a wonderful website that focuses on healthy, enlightened modern living.


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