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Thoughts on Aromatherapy and Herbalism

Thank you to Courtney Herrera for sharing her thoughts and this BLOG post. Courtney is a Certified Herbalist & currently a Clinical Aromatherapy Mastery Program Student.

To me, aromatherapy is part of herbalism. Maybe it's because I am trained as an herbalist first, and am undergoing training as an aromatherapist now. Whatever the reason, I find myself utterly confused at the division between these two herbal healing modalities. To me, it makes sense that as an herbalist you should have formal training in aromatherapy and that aromatherapists should have some knowledge of herbs. Even before I started aromatherapy school, I used essential oils in many of the salves I make as herbal remedies. I used frankincense (Boswellia carterii) and myrrh (Commiphora myrrha) in my skin healing salve and mandarin (Citrus reticulata). If I am going to use essential oils in my practice as an herbalist, to me, it is the next logical step to learn aromatherapy.

I want to be confident in the information I give my clients, and to know what I am doing will not violate the first rule of being a healer; “Do no harm.” However, many aromatherapists have no formal training in herbalism and vice versa. Why?

I have a theory. My theory is that most herbalists are overwhelmed by the sheer scale of herbalism, and the fact that no matter how long you live, or how hard you study, you can never know it all. Most feel that they do not have enough time to dedicate to the study of aromatherapy. They feel that aromatherapy is an unrelated branch of alternative medicine and that aromatherapists are not herbalists. Herbalists certainly are not aromatherapists, either. I have been studying herbalism for going on four years now, and I know close to nothing. I know a lot, but in the grand scheme of things, I know nothing. I could pick twenty plants a day to learn about and by the time I die, assuming I live to a ripe old age, I still would know close to nothing. The truth is, when you consider how many plants there are on the Earth, and then consider how many of these plants have medicinal constituents, you will be faced with something larger than you can reasonably comprehend as a human. We do not possess the ability to learn “all of it” in one lifetime. So, it stands to reason, that with this monumental task looming in front of us, that we simply do not have the time to delve into the formal study of aromatherapy. After all, as herbalists we have to learn the plants to use, how to prepare them, what their actions and constituents are, what the precautions are, and what the constitution of each plant is, all before we can even look at our client.

Now, aromatherapists have an equally monumental task. Although there are not as many essential oils on the planet as medicinal herbs, there is a ton of information to know about each one that does exist. Aromatherapists (formally trained ones, anyway) need to know the chemical makeup of the oils, what the chemical constituents within each oil does (some oils have dozens), and then they need to know what precautions each oil has and apply that knowledge to each client on an individual basis. One misstep and they can do some serious harm. In addition to knowing the chemistry of each essential oil, when it is safe to use them, and on who, aromatherapists have to know how to choose a carrier oil, source quality oils, use an appropriate dilution for each client, and advise clients on proper blend usage and applications.

It makes sense that many aromatherapists feel that herbalism is a completely separate science from theirs and that they do not have any desire or time to delve into herbs. Additionally, essential oils are one of the most potent forms of herbal medicine, so there is an attitude of “we have the best stuff, why look anywhere else” in regards to herbs vs. essential oils.

The truth is, whether or not an aromatherapist will admit it, aromatherapy is a branch of herbalism. Essential oils are a form of herbal medicine. Herbs in their raw form are sometimes the better choice when creating a remedy. There are certain advantages and disadvantages for each branch, and both sciences have their weaknesses. Some herbs work better as oils, and some are not aromatic. There is an essential oil for everything, but that doesn't mean that every essential oil is for everyone. The same goes for herbs. There is no one size that fits all remedies.

Personally, in most cases I would use both herbs and aromatherapy together. However, there are a few instances where I would choose one over the other. If someone came to me with a topical injury or complaint like a scrape, burn, hemorrhoids, or wound, I would then opt for an aromatherapy remedy over an herbal one. I also found myself gravitating to essential oils when the cause of the complaint is emotional. An herbal tea might be soothing for a digestive issue, but a topical application of an emotionally balancing essential oil blend and a secondary application of a nasal inhaler will be more effective if the digestive issue is caused by emotional stress.

If my client was dealing with a systemic issue or a chronic issue requiring long term treatment, I would opt for herbal therapy. I have a client with spastic cerebral palsy, which causes severe widespread spasms in her body. Although essential oils are effective, because she will always have this condition, I opt for herbals as they are more gentle. I give her an herbal tincture for spasms during the day, a different one at night, a nervine tonic tea. This has worked well for her. I also choose herbals in any instance involving a sensitive client, as essential oils can be a bit overwhelming for them.

Something I think we can all agree on, whether you practice as an herbalist or aromatherapist, that safety is paramount. We have an obligation to be diligent and keep ourselves up to date with new information and research. Unfortunately, there are many uneducated folks hanging out their shingles and misinforming the masses.

Whatever herbal medicine you practice, make sure you have the correct information. Do no harm.

Director, Shanti Dechen’s comments – "I have been studying and utilizing herbal medicine for more than 40 years now. It was shocking to me that when I was first introduced to aromatherapy in the early 90's that there were no precautions. Realizing the amazing concentration of essential oils, it has since been an intention of mine, when in doubt, to be on the side of safety. I utilize the healing benefits of both aromatherapy and herbalism in my daily life. When I need an internal remedy I choose herbs, if I need mental or emotional clearing, or an external application, I choose aromatherapy."

~ It is such a blessing that we have these nature’s remedies to keep our body, mind, and spirit in harmony. ~

Here are a few recommended herbal books:

Chevallier, Andrew, Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine: The Definitive Home Reference Guide to 550 Key Herbs with all their Uses as Remedies for Common Ailments, DK Adult; 3rd American edition, 2016.

Tierra, Michael, The Way of Herbs: Fully Updated with the Latest Developments in Herbal Science, Pocket Books; Revised edition, August 1, 1998.

Moore, Michael, Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West, Museum of New Mexico Press; Revised edition, August 18, 2003.

Keville, Kathi, Herbs for Health and Healing: A Drug-Free Guide to Prevention and Cure, Rodale Press, Emmaus, Pennsylvania, 1996.

Good news! Aroma Apothecary Healing Arts Academy has been working on an Herbology Fundamentals for Aromatherapists course and it will be launched the spring of 2018!

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