Exploring the Energetics of Essential Oils
By Holly Dunbar, LMT, RH (AHG), Certified Aromatherapist
(A version of this article was published in Plant Healer Quarterly, #47, June 2022)
Two trains of thought tend to emerge when one broaches the subject of the energetics of essential oils – one branches to the vibrational energy, and the other to the classification of the oils’ thermal properties. The thermal nature of essential oils- whether an oil is cooling, warming, or somewhere in between, is not as consistently defined as it is in herbal medicine. While the application of aromatic oils has been used by humans since antiquity, Aromatherapy as we know it today is a much younger holistic modality than herbal medicine’s 5,000-year written history, which perhaps explains the deficiency of classification in energetic principles. There is still much to be learned about essential oils, a potent product that results from distillation, pressing, or chemical extraction. Essential oils’ intricate chemistry, their interaction on the physical and mental level, and their synergistic effects with one another, is key to deciphering the science of aromatherapy.
While the focus of this article will be thermal nature of essential oils, it is not to dismiss vibrational energy. To separate the mind, body, and spirit would be a contrast to my training and personal experiences as a practitioner and deny my profound belief in holistic medicine. As a practitioner, I have witnessed how essential oils tap into deep memories, invoke deeper breathing and instant relaxation responses, inspire an instant chatty response in a once despondent class- all indications that the oils quickly tap into a part of the human brain that is connected to our emotional responses, and affect the central nervous system. Essential oils can efficiently perk up an apathetic individual and calm an anxious one. I’ve witnessed how a client’s eyes widen and a big smile follows when they smell an oil that really resonates with them. That resonate energy, an unexplainable grab at some recess of the brain that perhaps has not been tapped for years, decades, certainly invokes a vibrational energy. My rational mind and training in aromatherapy can explain the connection between the oils and the limbic system, and its direct influence on moods, memories, and desires, but I also recognize the untapped and mysterious elements at play.
Energetics is defined by Oxford Languages first as “the properties of something in terms of energy,” and second as “the branch of science dealing with the properties of energy and the way in which it is redistributed in physical, chemical, or biological processes.” Plants have an inherent energetic nature- a concept thoroughly recognized by both Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Ayurvedic Medicine, two ancient systems of herbal medicine. The energetics of the herb used, the conditions the patient is presenting, the basic constitution of the patient- whether they are more deficient or excess, guides the treatment protocol. Essential oils’ energetic profile may not be as clearly defined, or even conflicting in texts, but it remains an important consideration when choosing the most effective oils for the condition and the patient. In evaluating many texts on essential oils, it is interesting to note that authors who emphasize the energetics of the oils, for the most part, tend to be practitioners of TCM or Ayurveda, and recognizing and classifying the oils’ energetic nature seems a natural extension into Aromatherapy. More commonly, essential oils are classified by chemical constituent families, such as monoterpenes, esters, ketones, etc., which define their therapeutic indications. These classifications can also be suggestive of their energetic properties, both on a physical and emotional level.
For example, Thyme, Clove, and Oregano- these common culinary ingredients can yield potent anti-infectious agents when distilled as essential oils. Carvacrol, thymol, and eugenol, the phenols predominant in these oils, are useful allies in acute illness. Thyme Thymus vulgaris has antibacterial, antifungal, expectorant, and stimulating properties, which can vary with different chemotypes that yield different constituents. (Price) Clove Eugenia caryophyllata, is rich in eugenol, as the Latin suggests. This antiseptic component is effective against bacteria, which dentistry has employed for years, and antiviral effects that have been used to treat viral hepatitis. (Schnaubelt) I have found 1% dilution of Clove oil, combined with other oils in a carrier oil creates a pleasant warming sensation when used in a massage session, effective for relieving pain and muscle tension. Carvacrol is a dominant phenol found in Oregano Origanum vulgaris which is an antibacterial component specific for bacterial infections of the gastrointestinal tract and the bronchii. (Schnaubelt) Oregano oil is frequently combined with a carrier oil and encapsulated for internal use to treat infection, which should be limited to treating acute infections, and avoided by diabetics taking medication to control blood sugar, persons with bleeding disorders, before major surgery, childbirth, or anyone on anti-coagulant medication. (Tisserand and Young) Phenols aggressive nature in combating infection, and ability to stimulate local circulation suggests a warm to hot nature. Think of these oils as soldiers, ready to do battle with pathogens, armed and ready for combat. But this aggression has its toll, as phenols can be skin and mucous membrane irritants (Tisserand and Young) and must be skillfully blended with skin-nourishing oils.
Strong lemon or cinnamon odors define the aldehyde chemical family which, like the phenols, have the same cautions pertaining to skin and mucous membrane irritation. Lemongrass Cymbopogon citratus is an interesting example of the interpretation of energy. Andrea Butje states that “aliphatic aldehydes are cooling and calming,” and despite the skin irritating potential, elaborates that “low concentrations of aldehydes in blends are generally safe for the skin.” Salvatore Battaglia classifies Lemongrass as warming, and Peter Holmes states that “Lemongrass oil regulates Qi, clears heat, and harmonizes the Shen.” Drs. Light and Bryan Miller classify the energy as cooling/moisturizing and state that Lemongrass is “an excellent anti-depressant, and it works wonders with connective tissue and back pain.” Clinically, I have found Lemongrass to be more stimulating and warming in higher concentrations for acute pain relief, and subtle and uplifting on an emotional level in low ratios blended with other oils. Careful blending is indicated with this oil, not only to protect the skin, but being mindful that its’ strong odor can easily overwhelm a blend.
Certain plants with high content of monoterpenols, have cicatrisant or skin healing qualities that blend well with oils of a hotter nature, such as the phenols. Geranium pelargonium x asperum is an excellent example, with its cooling, anti-inflammatory effects on both the skin and the psyche, (Mojay). Gabriel Mojay elaborates that Geranium with its “cool, moist, yin-tonifying nature of Geranium that benefits dry and inflamed conditions of the skin (when applied at a dilution of only 1%).” The monoterpenol geraniol is a main component of Geranium. Lavender Lavandula angustifolia hints of a cooling nature with resonate purple flowers, soothing aroma, and grey foliage that is soft to the touch. Rich in linalool, a monoterpenol, Lavender has anti-inflammatory, analgesic, cicatrisant, and sedative properties (Price) These properties lend themselves well to blends requiring the hotter natured phenols, tempering their warm nature, to lessen skin irritation. Lavandula angustifolia also has immune enhancing properties (Buckle) to increase the ability to overcome infection. The combination of linalool and linalyl acetate create an effective synergy, as they are analgesic and anti-inflammatory components, which have a good concentration in Clary Sage Salvia sclarea. Other essential oils which help calm skin irritation when using phenol or aldehyde-rich oils are Patchouli Pogostemon cablin, Rosewood Aniba Roseodora, Palmarosa Cymbopogon martinii, and German Chamomile Matricaria recutita. Rosewood should be used sparingly as it’s an at-risk plant, but due to its very high concentration of linalool, a drop or two goes a long way.
Two chemotypes in the monoterpenol group present interesting comparisons of energy and their appropriate uses. Chemotypes are oils which are processed from the same plant species but will vary in chemical composition due to the region of growth, time of harvest, and weather conditions. Thyme Thymus vulgaris can represent a wide range of constituents depending on these variables. Thymus Vulgaris ct. linalool, for example, has both antiviral, antifungal, and antibacterial qualities, all the characteristics of the phenols, but the linalool component makes it less skin irritating. (Schnaubelt) The linalool content of this chemotype would also suggest a compatibility with other tonic and relaxing oils, such as lavender and geranium. Thymus Vulgaris ct. thymol is also an effective microbial agent but must be used in low dilutions so that the skin and mucous membranes are not irritated (Tisserand and Young). The thymol chemotype is also one to avoid in the bath as heat exacerbates its hot nature.
Peppermint mentha x piperita has paradoxical qualities, depending on the amount used in a blend. It can have a refrigerant effect, and be very cooling, or swing to the opposite extreme and burn. Peppermint contains a generous amount of menthol, a monoterpenol, and menthone, a ketone. Menthol, in low concentrations, imparts the characteristic refreshing note in toothpaste, confectionary, and pharmaceutical preparations. It is a well-used analgesic employed in aromatherapy, which is thought to impart cooling relief by activation of ion channels, in which calcium plays a key role. (Eccles 1994) The sensory impact depends on the concentration of dosage- a low concentration gives a cooling effect, a 2-5% concentration can be irritating to the skin and mucous membranes and/or produce a numb effect. Different body surfaces will respond differently to these effects, which are thought to be related to the density of thermoreceptors in those surfaces. (Eccles)
I’ve had some interesting experiences with Peppermint oil in massage sessions. It seems very effective for relieving achiness of the lower legs and feet, in a 3% dilution at 15 drops per ounce of carrier. The feet have fiver dermal layers which slows the penetration, yet large pores for absorbability, which makes a good combination when applying oils with either a very cooling effect or that have skin irritating potential. I once had a client become a little too cold on the table after using a 2% dilution of Peppermint at 10 drops per ounce of carrier. After massaging her upper back, chest, and neck area with this to relieve her headache and muscle tension, she required an extra blanket and became a little more tense in session until she warmed back up. In evaluating this afterward, I realized this was a poor choice of oil for her constitution, as she was peri-menopausal and had extreme fluctuations in temperature, often starting the session a bit agitated and warm, and then needing a blanket as the session progressed. Peppermint may have added to the confusion of her body’s temperature regulation. In subsequent sessions with this client, I used Lavender Lavandula angustifolia, combined with Sweet Orange Citrus sinensis, with excellent results. Another regular massage client always requests I close the session with a bit of peppermint oil. While prone, I rub a 2% dilution of 10 drops per ounce of carrier, into her back, starting with long strokes along the vertebrae and ending with some light effleurage of the neck muscles. This client is always on the warm side, never wants the heat on the table, and leaves her feet uncovered in session. The cooling nature of the peppermint at this low dilution seems the perfect choice for her warm constitution.
Energetics, along with chemical components and the emotional impact of the oils, is another consideration when blending oils to create the most effective synergies. My training in Traditional Chinese Medicine always guides my perception of plants, in that it always endeavors to know the inherent energy of a plant or oil. The ancient texts of TCM and Ayurveda classified energetics without the benefit of a modern lab, and yet the foundations of those systems stand strong. Research on essential oils has increased tremendously in the last few decades and it will be interesting to see if energetic classification will become more prominent in this growing field. What can our own observations and experiences using essential oils add to this base of knowledge for a more cohesive understanding?
Battaglia, Salvatore; The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy, Third Edition, Volume 3- Psyche & Subtle, Black Pepper Creative Pty Ltd, 2021
Mojay, Gabriel; Aromatherapy for Healing the Spirit, Henry Holt and Company, Inc. 1996
Miller, Light, ND, and Bryan, DC; Ayurveda & Aromatherapy, Lotus Press, 1995
Holmes, Peter; The Energetics of Western Herbs, Volume 1 & 2, Artemis Press, 1989
Price, Shirley, and Len; Aromatherapy for Health Professionals, 2nd Edition; Churchill Livingstone, 1995
Schnaubelt, Kurt, Ph.D. Advanced Aromatherapy, Healing Arts Press 1998
Tisserand, Robert and Young, Rodney; Essential Oil Safety, 2nd Edition, Churchill Livingstone Elsevier, 2014
Butje, Andrea; Aromahead Institute Chemical Family and Data Sheets from Aromahead Aromatherapy Certification Course, www.aromahead.com
Buckle, Jane PhD, RN; Clinical Aromatherapy- Essential Oils in Healthcare Edition 3, Elsevier, 2015
Menthol and Related Cooling Compounds, R. Eccles, Journal of Pharmacy & Pharmacology, 1994, 46, 618-630