Essential oils show promise and problems

As much as we sometimes resist change, there often is an urge to try something new. This is especially true when it comes to our health. Many folks never seem to worry about any complications from herbal treatments. However, they often are skeptical about many pharmaceutical drugs and the companies that produce them.

I’m not saying that’s bad. Being skeptical is good. It should make you try to learn more.

Essential oils are chemicals extracted from plants that give them their aroma. We often associate essential oils with plants from the mint family. Quite often we’re correct. What likely gives our spices their aroma and taste is contained in their essential oils.

These chemicals can be extracted by many different methods. Sometimes these compounds are synthesized artificially. If they are, they would not be considered true essential oils.

For years, wintergreen flavor used in foods was extracted from the wintergreen plant and from sweet birch. I’ve always liked sweet birch tea, and whenever I’m in an area where these trees grow, I usually collect some bark. It’s great to chew too, and it makes your breath smell and taste like wintergreen.

I think now most of the methyl salicylate is artificially produced. We often think that if these chemicals come from plants considered edible that they should be safe in any quantity or concentration. This is a dangerous assumption. Concentrated oils from any source can be toxic to people and pets.

I’m not saying that extracting essential oils from plants is dangerous. Many benefits await, but we must understand that most compounds in high concentrations can have harmful effects. Furthermore, all people don’t react to these chemicals the same just like all folks aren’t susceptible to dermatitis from poison ivy. It is caused by a plant oil called urushiol. Technically it is an essential oil, but it has no aroma.

Essential oils can be applied to the skin to treat various maladies. The biggest concern here is their concentration. They must be diluted. Always follow recommendations and consult with your medical professional.

Aromatherapy is relatively new mainstream science, but it has been practiced for centuries. Essential oils often have antimicrobial properties. When inhaled they can help cleanse our respiratory system.

Essential oils also can enter our cells and travel to our brain, which can affect all our body systems, hopefully positively. In short, these essential oils can improve our mood and make us feel better. This often translates into greater physical wellness.

Another thing to consider when using essential oils is our pets. It’s less concern to outside dogs and cats, but for inside animals, we must think about how essential oil use might affect their health.

Cinnamon, wintergreen, citrus, pine and peppermint oils are often a problem for dogs and cats. Common toxicity symptoms are difficulty breathing, weakness, fatigue, drooling and vomiting. Pets are like small children in that they’re more likely to get these substances on their skin or even ingest them.

Essential oils are medicines. We must use them wisely and be as informed as possible.


Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

About tedmanzer

I grew up in Old Town Maine and got a B.S. at the University of Maine in Plant Sciences/ minor in Botany. From there I moved to West Virginia and earned a M.S. in Agronomy at WVU. I also met my wife there. She grew up in rural WV as the daughter of tenant farmers who raised cattle and hogs. Their lifestyle at times was one of subsistence and I learned a lot from them. I've always been a foraging buff, but combining my formal botanical knowledge with their practical 'Foxfire-type' background opened up my eyes a little more. I recently retired from teaching high school agriculture after 25 years teaching with my wife. Until recently I wrote a weekly nature/foraging column for the local paper ( I also have written several Christian nature/adventure novels that can be purchased on Amazon in Kindle format. One is a five book family saga I call the 'Forgotten Virtues' series. In the first book, Never Alone (presently out of print), a young boy comes of age after his father dies in a plane crash, and he has to make it alone. The second book, Strange Courage, takes Carl from his High School graduation to his recovery from a nasty divorce. The third book, Second Chances, takes Carl from his ex-wife's death and the custody of his son to his heroic death at age 59. The fourth book, Promises Kept, depicts how his grandchildren react and adjust to his death (this one is not yet published). In the final book, Grandfather's Way, his youngest and most timid granddaughter emerges from the shadow of her overachieving family and accomplishes more in four months than most do in a lifetime. I use many foraging references with a lot of the plants I profile in these articles in those books. I also wrote a romance novel titled Virginia. It is available on Amazon and is a different type of romance from a man's perspective.
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