I haven’t written much about my aromatherapy practice, yet friends are constantly asking me which oils to use for sleeping, staying awake, relaxing, morning sickness, calming the mind… "Is peppermint safe during pregnancy?" (answer: not really, no) "Is lavender safe to use with my children in the house?" (answer: yes!)
So… why don’t I write about it more?
Truthfully, I’ve feared people calling me out on bullshit and when they don’t I worry that they are blindly trusting in my judgement. That’s not to discount what I’ve studied for three years under an incredible teacher who is excruciatingly exact, not to mention sharp as a whip. Tracey Tief is the first person to call bullshit on a wild claim.
But the truth is I have some concerns and questions about aromatherapy, myself, though I trust and believe in this powerful traditional medicine. That’s why to be completely transparent and keep myself accountable to answer these questions, I want to share with you 7 complicated feelings I have about aromatherapy.
1. Awe and wonder: life is not a lab. I love scientific research. It makes me feel safe and certain. The study of plant medicines has lead to the creation of many drugs such as aspirin, birth control pills, morphine, and antibiotics. Unlike these synthesised pharmaceuticals, plant medicines often have significantly less side effects than pharmaceuticals. Plant medicines are considered whole medicines containing properties to treat illness and the potential side effects of that treatment, as well. Here's a great article medicinal marijuana that explains how whole plant medicines work.
But life is not a lab and taking medicine to cure an illness rarely works in isolation, whether we’re talking about synthesised pharmaceuticals or herbal medicines. How many documentaries have come out in the last 10 years, based on good science, emphasising the importance of a whole food diet, moderate exercise, stress relieving activities, and connections with others?
Sometimes the rigorous research methods meant to understand a plant medicine is the antithesis to understanding how that medicine works best. Looking at an oil in a petri dish is not the same as recording its effects on the body, is not the same as using the oil in conjunction with massage. It would take several studies controlling for each variable each time, as well as a study that includes all variables at once to compare results with one another. Who’s going to pay for that? Who’s going to care enough to take the time and look at an oil from all angles like that? Also, who’s going to have access to those studies? Will laypeople ever have access to research that is understandable, accurate, and affordable? That’s the kind of science that I want to see. Repeated, validated, and accessible.
Do I disbelieve traditional teachings in the meantime? No, because I am comfortable trusting that healers over the years were not just throwing shit at a wall and seeing what sticks. This idea that anyone other than a scientist can’t possibly know a medicinal plant from a poison seems like controlling, money-hungry, privileged, overpowering, white people talk to me. Why bother with scientific study at all, then? Because I also feel…
2. Suspicious: is traditional medicine frozen in time? This is the feeling that has driven me to queer holistic health. Why do people keep telling me rose essential oil is great for women and frankincense essential oil is great for men? Rose essential oil is used in traditional medicine for heart conditions and frankincense has been used in meditation practice and higher thinking. The heart and the head. Sounding familiar? There is nothing inherently feminine about heart conditions and certainly nothing inherently masculine about higher thinking. Both oils are useful for any gender and any body. There is no such thing as oils for men and oils for women. If someone tells you otherwise, I encourage to you to challenge this narrative.
Climate change, location of crops, mutations, and farming practices also impact the quality and potency of a plant and its subsequent oil over time. For example, I loved sweet marjoram and used it often when quitting drinking to help with cravings. The last time I was at the shop to refill my bottle I was horrified: it had completely changed. It didn’t smell anything like the sweet marjoram I had come to know and love. I felt no connection with this oil and I didn’t want to use it. As far as I was concerned, it had died. It lead me to wonder: how much do the plants I work with today still resemble the plants healers used thousands of years ago? Did the information get updated as it was passed along from generation to generation? All the more reason to continue scientific study of the plants and oils we use today.
3. Panicked excitement: accessible medicine is radical and risky. When doctors became the authorities on healing we lost confidence in the knowledge of our bodies and communities were robbed of their healers. I’m not anti-doctors. I think western medicine can play an integral and important role in health and wellness. I am deeply grateful that advances in medicine have enabled doctors to save some lives. But let’s be real, if you’re Indigenous living in Northern Canada without access to a hospital or drug plan, how likely is it that western medicine is going to save your life? I am enraged by western medicine’s patriarchal, racist, ableist, queer-ignorant, classist, indifference and I have found more cures and better management of chronic conditions outside of this paradigm. It is deeply empowering to know I am capable of providing medicine for myself most of the time. Queering Herbalism is a great resource that looks at the intersection of race, gender, oppression, and traditional plant medicines offering extensive training opportunities. I highly recommend checking them out.
So I’m disheartened to find irresponsible and dangerous advice from prominent aromatherapy companies, advising the internal use of essential oils or using undiluted oils directly on the skin. This means that what could be an accessible medicine for many people with some guidance and education has become an industry riddled with carelessness in the name of profit. It has become no better than the pharmaceutical companies I aim to avoid. I think people should have access to the materials and knowledge they need to heal their own ailments as often as possible. I also think people need to be much more diligent about doing their research beyond a quick google search before they start writing blog posts about 5 great oils for putting in your tea to cure a sore throat.
4. Conflicted: anecdotal evidence is sketchy and personal experience is powerful. I have had some very intense experiences using essential oils. I kept a record of the types of oils I used during different periods of my life before I knew what the traditional uses were for those oils. I was unconsciously attracted to oils I needed when I needed them. The same oils became immediately unpleasant to me when I no longer needed them. I don’t know how you would study that. I also know my experience is real. I’ve spoken with others who's experiences were similar to my own. Is that valid? I’m not willing to wave-off personal experiences in conjunction with thousands of years of exploration as though it means nothing at all.
5. Blunted excitement: aromatherapy is affordable medicine… sometimes. My yeast infection concoction for vulvas is significantly cheaper to make than a tube of Canesten. It also took some trial and error, years of training, and wasted materials getting it wrong. Some oils are very cheap. Other oils are rarer and therefore more expensive. If you don’t have a drug plan, prescriptions can add-up quickly. A 10ml bottle of lavender essential oil can go a long way. Additionally, making soaps, shampoos, face creams, exfoliating products, and other beauty care products from scratch can save you hundreds of dollars each year (depending on what you use now). Again, learning can be initially costly. Eventually, a lot of money stays in your pocket, but not everyone can afford eventualities. (Picture to the right: wild yam root is pharmaceutical companies most profitable plant, used in the making of birth control pills. Found on the Sacred Gardner's farm in Northern Ontario).
6. Heartbroken: is taking medicines from around the world dangerous appropriation? This question tears me up the most. Is aromatherapy even ethical? On the one hand I wonder if pharmaceuticals are all that different. What raw materials are needed to synthesise drugs in a lab? Who are we buying or stealing these materials from? At least with aromatherapy I can do some digging and find ethical sources myself. In fact, it’s why I love working with Tracey Tief at Anarres Apothecary. I know she goes to great lengths to find ethical fair trade materials whenever she can.
The idea of taking medicines from countries that need it feels pretty gross. In developed countries, we can make drugs in a lab. Why take away medicines we don’t need? Or do we need them? Are our pharmaceuticals causing more damage than good, in some cases? Does that gives us a right to take other countries and Indigenous’ medicines? Or are we trading fairly and fostering relationships? Do countries need to keep their medicines? Would this benefit them more? Is aromatherapy sustainable for plants and for human life? Should we stick to producing essential oils from plants we can grow in our own countries? Having said that, this isn’t really our land to begin with in Canada— are Canadians even mindful of the impact of farming and foraging of medicinal herbs on Indigenous land?
I’m sure there are at least some answers to these questions and admittedly I’ve been afraid to look. That needs to change. I need to look— we need to look.
7. Hopeful: I have fallen in love with the Earth. Working in aromatherapy has profoundly impacted the way I look at the world and the environment. Admittedly, I was never passionate about environmental issues. It was the last thing that concerned me on a long list of world issues. When I started learning about the powerful healing properties of plants, I couldn’t help but develop a profound spiritual connection with the environment. This has impacted how much plastic I use, what kinds of food I purchase, and has dramatically changed the amount of waste I create. This newfound appreciation for environmental issues under a radically political teacher has significantly impacted my understanding of Indigenous issues. Did you know the toxins in plastics are getting into breast milk? Did you know this is affecting Northern Indigenous people to a much greater degree than the rest of Canadians? The plastic we make on land we’ve stolen is directly harming the people we stole it from. You can check-out a review of this great book here.
I have experienced a fundamental shift in the way I move through the world. I know that working in herbal medicines and aromatherapy has had this impact on other people, as well. I feel this work has made me a more socially and environmentally conscious person with a better understanding of how race, gender, power, oppression, the environment, and health intersect.
(Picture above: this evening primrose grows on the Sacred Gardner's farm in Northern Ontario. It has many applications for people with childbearing reproductive organs).
Which is why these questions are so important. I feel a responsibility to respect the land and people these medicines are attached to. If respect means not using them, then I’ll stop. If respect means trading fairly, I'll buy fair trade. If I don’t, what is the point? If the point is to heal myself at the expense of everything and everyone else, what am I really healing in the grand scheme of things? Do I believe I am the most important player in all of this? Do I believe white, wealthy, North Americans and Europeans are the most important players in all of this? No, absolutely not.
If that’s the case, then my practice damn well better reflect that belief, otherwise I’m bullshitting myself at best and harming others at worst.