At Empirical Point Acupuncture, essential oils may be used to complement many of our other modalities. Essential oils represent the jing, or essence of plants, and have a long, rich history in Chinese medicine. Because of the foundational nature of oils, these substances can address structural complaints as well as an individual’s mental and spiritual development. Plant jing resonates with body jing. When used within the context of Chinese medicine, this modality strongly impacts the individual, and transformative states can occur.
The use of essential oils in Chinese medicine can be based on a number of classification and formulation systems. These include the law of signatures, five elemental associations, temperature, taste, aroma, and channel affinity. Examples of the most effective oil applications include the body’s eight extraordinary channels, Yuan-source points, Mu-points, and Shu-points. This is very similar to the way in which Chinese herbal medicine is practiced. Essential oils have the power to heal a wide array of complaints, either as a standalone modality or as an adjunct to acupuncture treatments.
Top, Middle, and Base Notes
“Notes” are a way of categorizing oils based on their rate of evaporation. Top notes are oils that evaporate rapidly, often within a few hours. They influence the wei qi (defensive immune system, or external) level of the body, and are generally used to treat acute conditions. Top note oils arouse the senses, serving as an invitation to awaken to change. Commonly used top notes include citruses, mints, and oils in the eucalyptus family.
Middle notes evaporate in five to eight hours, and are used most often for sub-acute issues that reside in the ying level – the blood, internal organs, and cognitive function. With the power to regulate both assimilative and eliminative digestive mechanisms, they are helpful for an array of movement and regulation issues. Middle note essential oils are familiar to most patients because they are derived from common cooking spices, such as coriander, caraway, and fennel. This group also includes the many varieties of chamomiles, melaleucas, geranium, lavender, and essential oil extractions of Chinese herbs like cang zhu (Black Atractylods Rhizone) for damp stagnation and chuan xiong (Ligusticum Wallichii) for blood stagnation and headaches.
Base note oils are thick and evaporate slowly. Their scents typically last 24 to 48 hours, so they are highly effective for chronic, constitutional, or genetic issues at the Yuan level. Base notes include resins, such as frankincense, myrrh, and sandalwood; prized florals, such as rose and jasmine; and wood oils like cedar wood.
In therapeutic formulations, essential oils are blended with a specific ratio of oils from each note. This way, blends not only address symptoms, but enter and create change on all levels of the individual. The top note awakens the senses, and is often the first one we can smell. Middle notes are used as the body of a formula to harmonize the humors. Base notes are used as fixatives or stabilizers.
The Chemical Composition of Essential Oils
From an organic chemical orientation, we can classify oils based on their molecular structure. This categorization is based on an essential oil’s chemotype, the pharmacological component used to establish organ affinity and medical applications.
Most oils contain monoterpenes, which are proven antiseptics. Recent research has shown that monoterpenes slow the growth of human colon cancer cells, improve cardiovascular health, and reduce inflammation throughout the body. Examples of oils high in monoterpenes include citruses, pines, and junipers. Undiluted, these tend to irritate the skin because of their fast rate of oxidation. They should only be applied topically when they are suspended in a carrier oil.
Some oils contain sesquiterpenes, which are antiviral as well as antibacterial. These oils, which include cedarwood, chamomile, and sandalwood, exhibit powerful anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic properties. They are also used to soothe the nervous system, as their cooling and nourishing properties are excellent for combating stress.
Other important constituent groups of essential oils include esters and phenols. The ester group, which includes fruity, soothing scents like lavender and clary sage, are analgesic. They can regulate pain as well as, if not better than, NSAIDs. The aldehyde group, which includes melissa and cinnamon bark (rou gui), have been extensively studied for their anti-viral qualities, especially herpes. Aldehydes also possess strong sedation and anti-inflammatory effects. For these reasons, they are often blended into massage oils.
Essential Oils and Our Emotions
Mood, emotion, and temperament can all be accessed and modulated with essential oils. In the West, olfaction is an area of intense scientific interest, and research is beginning to show just how powerfully essential oils affect our minds. Incredibly, our noses can detect trillions of smells. When scents are highly concentrated, they impact memory, relaxation, focus, and even cognitive speed.
In one recent study, breathing in orange oil was found to reduce anxiety during stressful times as effectively as listening to soothing music. Another study demonstrated that rosemary and lavender essential oils have very different and predictable effects. As many of us already know, lavender is relaxing and uplifting. Rosemary, on the other hand, increases alertness, focuses attention, and improves recall. This is why rosemary was widely favored by students during exam time.
Olfaction researchers know that our sense of smell is strongly tied to memory because it helps us assess the safety and familiarity of our environments. But when our environments are too familiar, we can become mired in comfortable patterns that negatively impact our health. Chronic diseases are often the result of habituated behaviors, such as overeating. The aromas of essential oils have the power to wake us from these autopilot states. They may call to mind specific memories or more generalized feelings from the past, and this often helps us view the present from a different perspective. Potent scents help us remain calm in the face of our worries and become more attentive to our body’s needs. Awakening one’s sense of self and transforming fear into acceptance can change the course of a disease.
For more information on this fascinating topic, I recommend Luca Turin’s TED talk on the incredible breadth and subtlety with which we experience scents.
As a modality in Chinese medicine, essential oils – these powerful elixirs from the plant kingdom – connect us not only to the world we inhabit, but also to the self and our collective humanity. Western science has consistently shown that essential oils tap into our vast olfactory capabilities to address emotional and psychological difficulties. To ensure that this modality used wisely and appropriately for your constitution, seek a qualified Chinese medical practitioner with extensive experience utilizing essential oils.