Peppermint: Aromatherapy’s Incredible Hulk

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Although a life-long fan of fantasy and science fiction, I am only a recent (last 5 years or so) follower of comic books. The Avengers and the spin-off movies and TV shows get credit for this. Brilliant coordination by Marvel. (Picture credit: Disney Marvel Studios)

My experience of one of these heroes, The Hulk, goes back to the early ‘80s TV show. Mostly, I knew that this green character was a good guy until he got angry and then his shirt would rip apart (etched detail in the memory of a child). I remember he would try to do good but was reckless and resembled more of a bull in a china closet than a cavalier knight.

The main character, Doctor Bruce Banner, was brilliantly intelligent and capable of great love, yet emotionally fractured and quite dangerous. I explain the essential oil peppermint to clients and colleagues as being slightly like The Hulk. Peppermint, like Bruce Banner, is a highly intelligent and healing oil. Unfortunately, like The Incredible Hulk, it is unpredictable and if used recklessly could cause harm.

If you invest in just a handful of oils, I suggest that peppermint be one of the first as it is so versatile. However, it is also an oil found on many caution lists, especially not for use in children under 3 or used with an abundance of caution. Peppermint is an even and highly effective oil, yet contains some components that bring with it specific risks. Think of sweet Doctor Banner and alien bashing Hulk.

My go to uses for peppermint are also ones that frequently have easy to identify commercial counterparts. These reflect the aromatic value as they tend towards the “minty” scent:

  1. Digestion – Pepto-Bismol.
  2. Sore muscles – Ben Gay
  3. Cold and cough – Mentholatum/ Vicks
  4. Bug bites
  5. Fever reduction

The Bruce Banner character qualities of peppermint are preventative and healing. Great power is found in the chemical components limonene and pinene. Limonene is found in most citrus oils, lime being the beginning sound. Pinene is found in conifer oils like pine, again the introductory syllable. We know citrus oils and pine oils are used for cleaning, think lemony Pine-sol. They are effective in cleaning and wellness because of their antimicrobial functions, central to healers.

The Hulk properties of peppermint are breathtaking and burning. Peppermint contains menthol. The chemical component menthol is to be used with caution with children both topically and inhaled. Oils high in menthol have a small risk of side effects which might impact the central nervous system and/or the respiratory system in small children. It is safe to use after testing in children OVER the age of 30 months, but in decreased amounts.

The story of the Incredible Hulk is dominated by Bruce Banner trying to “tame” his inner Hulk. Given the right circumstances and will – he can do this and his power used for good, rather than destruction Peppermint is on the cautionary lists of the aromatherapy world, like The Hulk a notorious danger. However, when looking at a chart of injuries from essential oils in the past few years, peppermint is not the big monster, misuse is. Only one injury appeared to be a child under 3 with breathing (seizure actually) issues and that was combined with a known trigger –eucalyptus. Most injuries were caused by oils not necessarily on the naughty list, just oils that were undiluted/ under-diluted or improperly ingested.

Most injuries in our world are not caused by monsters like in comic books. They are caused by everyday items which are accidentally or intentionally misused (like cars or knives).  Most of the time our world is filled with Bruce Banners, but a little knowledge of the Hulk could help if you live in the land of Marvel Comics where there are dangers. Same goes for essential oils in general and peppermint in particular. Although peppermint is an oil that should evoke a thought of caution, used with prudence it is one of the most versatile and valuable for a medicine cabinet (or in my case ready for anything as it is resting safely in the bottom of my purse).

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REFERENCE: In September, 2015 National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy recommended not using peppermint in children under 30 months.<br> Reference: http://www.naha.org/explore-aromatherapy/about-aromatherapy/most-commonly-used-essential-oils/ <br>Source Facebook: Robert Tisserand Essential Training September 3 post including comments. https://www.facebook.com/RobertTisserandEssentialTraining/photos/a.230965720267970.62331.166263113404898/1020576281306906/?type=1&theater

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OPINION: The Myth of Essential Oils in the Bible.

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Apparently, there is an online summit being held and a media doctor spoke about the use of essential oils during biblical times, in particular referring to the gifts of the Magi: Frankincense and Myrrh as essential oils and gold actually being turmeric. I have seen this particular celebrity, who is associated with a particular brand of essential oils, reference this before. Others do as well. There is also a highly references book and an online course you can take on the subject and the authors have been associated with a different brand of essential oils.

As a student of aromatherapy and a Christian – I have to say it irritates me a wee bit and inspired me to look more deeply into the topic. Some people who read this will believe in the therapeutic value of essential oils. Some people who read this will believe that the Bible is truth. Some will believe both. Some will believe neither. This is just a perspective of someone who believes both and is writing about the intersection of that perspective. This is not about brand nor buying preferences. Hopefully, maybe there are some kernels of wisdom which could be used by folks who might not understand oils or who see the bible as a historical document. I will try to be transparent before I attempt to educate and then only do so with a suggestion for room for greater improvement. True confessions as to be transparent:

  1. I BOUGHT THE BOOK and I TOOK A CLASS: I was curious about the book Healing Oils of Scripture and wanted to see what it was. Within the first chapter, I was neither impressed by the science nor the accuracy of use of biblical references. I didn’t finish it. When looking for schools for my certification, I found one listed that offered a course on Healing Oils of Scripture. It was and is a school that has an aromatherapist certification course approved by a leading professional organization. I already knew enough about oils to know that there were no essential oils in the bible but thought there might be a more validity in this program as I saw their approval of the certification course as a tacit nod of approval of the whole school. I specifically wanted to know more about the herbs, infusions, and stories of the bible – so just bought the corresponding video to the course and oil sampler rather than the whole shabang. I would not do that again. The teacher seemed genuine and sweet, but I read the science and theology quite differently than she. (Not the first time in my life)
  2. BIAS: The media doctor (and others on the health circuit) also speaks on the topic of the problems of wheat and the importance of a gluten-free diet. As the former director of education for the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness I can tell you – not all of his information is accurate nor helpful either to those with gluten related disorders nor those who do not have them. People, almost victims in my mind, are being lured into the diet without proper testing – potentially limiting their overall nutrition and missing other areas or root causes which might be the source of their distress. I was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2000, so this comes from someone who has been on the diet over 15 years. I know it helps many, but it is NOT for everyone, in my opinion. My bias against him is such, that I did not watch the summit. Not particularly fair, but just can’t do it. Once more, seems like a nice guy with a genuine faith, but I categorically disagree on some of his interpretation of data (I have friends that I do that with too) on the topics of essential oils and the gluten-free diet.

Points for Educating:

  1. OIL: With the exception of some processes of citrus and a few exceptions, essential oils are rendered through distillation. Distillation was only invented about 1000 years ago and it changes the chemistry of the material. So – no essential oils in the bible. Not the same as having penicillin burned in the Temple, but it is a modern healer imposed on an ancient document. Have I mentioned I used to be a high school history and religion teacher?

WHAT IS IT? The word oil in the bible is always attached to olive oil. However, it was often olive oil infused with plant based materials like myrrh (a resin – dried sap) or spikenard (a type of flower – lily). What we do have in the bible is the use of aromatics through plants like herbs, flowers, or resins; incense and infused oils. For the infused oils they took the plants and stuck them in the oils. We still do this, check out a gourmet food shop. This practice and technology was not exclusive to the Hebrews, though using olive as the base of the oil was regional. These aromatic plants in infusions and incense have a different chemistry than essential oils, albeit some benefits cross-over. We don’t know what form frankincense and myrrh showed up to the manger. It was either a resin (like rock candy) or infused oil. We DO know, it was NOT essential oil since distillation was not made for 1000 years later.

AN ILLUSTRATION OF THE DIFFERENCE: Take rye, used for bread. Rye when distilled makes whiskey. A notable difference between the grain and drink. Kentucky Moonshiners, back in the day, found when they distilled corn that something “special” happened to the mash, just as medieval alchemists found a “special” essence when they distilled local flowers (lavender) and culinary herbs (thyme). When touring an Irish whiskey distillery know that the unstable compounds from the distillation are in the air. You might feel a wee tipsy not from the drink but from what is called “The Angels’ Share”. Therapeutic essential oils are similar in their airborne potential. It is not a perfect comparison and no essential oils are not alcoholic, but perhaps it give an illustration that a marble of Frankincense burned, that plant matter placed in a bottle of oil and that resin distilled are very different in the end.

  1. DIMINISHING: By using the term of a process which was not scientifically available in biblical times, I fear that it diminishes the historical document. If the Three Kings no longer bring the gifts from their time-period then I can tell you, that the bright star might be a light from a time travelling US Army Blackhawk from Area 51 driven by Elvis and JFK tasked by S.H.E.I.LD. with finding out the “real story”. In my mind, there is no need to improve on the Bible. It is strong enough without adding to the potential or power. Yeah, as an aromatherapist – it makes me kind of cringe. But as a Christian it makes me really sad, especially in a context of sales. I don’t need a value added bible that promotes the sales of my trade. The plants and practices of history stand on their own as does Judeo Christian Scripture. It needs not sprucing up for the 21st century. In my view to do so diminishes its particularity.

At a risk of appearing passive-aggressive I intentionally have not named, names although they are easy to find. My goal is to educate around the myths, not confront the person who interpreted the information differently than I.

AN ATTEMPT AT BEING CONSTRUCTIVE: Although the content of my Oils in Scripture class was a waste of my money – the experience was not. It pointed out something I keep running into. If just seems, the aromatherapy and essential oil industry needs better self-monitoring both of professional content and of the oils themselves in order to clean its own house.

A STANDARD?: It was clear that the trade I was being drawn farther into – lacked generally agreed upon standards and scientific guidelines. In my view, without this, you risk being a pseudo-science and selling snake oil. I know what might be placed in a curriculum to standardize it, but placing a standard on oils is rough – it is a science and art and a tension of quantification versus qualification. I think there is room for a conversation with professional credentialing organizations about the continuation of the perpetuation of the myth of essential oils in the bible (probably not the only issue) in schools on their websites. How could they approve of a school for certification that ALSO was teaching something that was point blank scientifically incorrect? They approve certifications courses, but the whole school is listed. A fine line – but I think one that the professional non-profits should consider, because this lack of standards contributes to the epidemic of misinformation. Miseducated representatives in the public from large oil companies can only bear a certain amount of responsibility.

In a community where the certification schools teaching the professionals are not only not in agreement, but perhaps teaching inaccuracies themselves maybe give cause to step back an evaluate the greater realm. Maybe we should look at the perpetuation of myths that plague the industry and start with edifying the COMMUNITY educational programs as a public service rather than reacting to misinformation or placing the information on the shoulders on one entity in the industry. Just something to think about …… and yes, I know it would be big task.

A BOTANICAL VIEW OF SCRIPTURE?: I’d suggest that the smells of essential oils can tell help tell an aromatic story of biblical times and guide a spiritual conversation without damaging either field. Smell is such a strong sense. It draws emotion and memory – which are so much a part of our spiritual side yet unique in and of themselves. I confess, I have been known to come across the reference to a plant, oil or incense while reading my bible and stop. I then will go to my inventory to get whiff of its corresponding essential oil while I try to understand and apply the text better. After the reading of the Passion last year, I shared the scents of spikenard, myrrh, and hyssop with my kids, explaining the plants and preparations. Maybe the story will stick in their memories with an aroma attached to it. We always have room for improvement. I am confident there is room for connection and still be true chemistry and theology as well as to the plants and their Creator.

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Lemon Essential Oil: There was an old woman who lived in a shoe ……

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Truth be told, the nursery rhyme “The Old Woman in the Shoe” scared me. I couldn’t have been the only kid. It made me scared to have kids and grateful for my patient mother.

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.
She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do;
She gave them some broth without any bread;
Then whipped them all soundly and put them to bed.

As an adult, I understand far more of the truth behind the rhyme. I know some days at 5:37 pm when: my children are bickering, I forgot to pick up X ingredient for dinner AND the tri-fold for the class project (due tomorrow), the laundry with “today’s” soccer practice jersey is still in the washer and hasn’t been dried (for 2 days and stinks), and lupus is kicking my derier – that my patience might be a wee bit less than that of a sane person. I am sure – if a couple of more kids came along and financial pressure mounted on top of life’s other chaos, that my ability to be a peaceful parent would diminish even more.

As a divergent learner, in order to try to grasp the chemistry and function of aromatherapy, I have begun to think of essential oils in terms of personalities and stories – I have a whole list of them. I have also tried to describe to “inquiring folks” the science behind essential oils in a manner that might make broader sense of course, not claiming that the oils do anything medically, heaven forbid. The FDA looks down upon that.

Lemon essential oil reminds me of the old lady who lived in a shoe. You see the chemistry of whole lemons and lemon oil are a tad different. The lemon essential oil, which is not water soluble (while lemon juice makes lemonade), is made up of a unique combination of chemical constituents that bring specific functions to the oil, hence the therapeutic value. Her complicated make up, gives the woman in the shoe her character. The main chemical components which are shown in gas chromatography–mass spectrometry analysis of lemon oil give it, show the each chemical component which is seen in the character as well:

  • She is pressed – pressed for money, pressed for time, pressed for patience. Lemon rinds are cold expeller pressed to make lemon essential oil.
  • Stuck in the house, she doesn’t go out in the sun much: Pressed lemon oil is phototoxic. Needs to be wiped off or used in small dose on skin before UV exposure.
  • She cooks. Limonene is the monoterpene primarily responsible for the fragrance of citrus fruits—specifically, the D-isomer. D-limonene smells strongly in its isolated form, and is in widespread use as a flavor additive in food production and an aroma compound in perfumery. It is also in used complementary medicine, due to its observed ability to reduce heartburn and gastric acid reflux.
  • … And cleans. α-Terpinen is used as a natural, renewable solvent in cleaning products, due to its ability to dissolve oils and other lipids; it is even capable of stripping paint and is considered an effective substitute for turpentine Terpinen/ turpentine) > think Lemon Pinesol or lemon furniture polish.
  • She helps when her kids have the flu, colds, and tummy bugs. Lemon oil contains a-pinene: In small doses, this chemical acts as a bronchodilator and exhibits anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and antibiotic properties.
  • She listens to her kids talk about stresses after school and then helps them focus concentration to finish homework. linalool: Linalool’s main medicinal function is as an anxiolytic—anxiety-reducing.
  • She pats her kids forehead when they are in pain or anxious. Myrcene has been demonstrated to produce analgesic effects in laboratory testing on rats; myrcene and limonene, along with the terpenoid citral (found in many citrus fruits, lemon myrtle, lemongrass and lemon verbena) have also been found to exert sedative and motor relaxant effects in mice.

Not a perfect analogy, but a way to remember perhaps. What is needed to manage that shoe is a gentle yet efficient project manager and perhaps a wee splash of lemon essential oil.

And of course, this is just a story with no claims about what women who live in shoes can or cannot do. And even more it tells a story about some chemicals which just so happen to be found in lemon oil and does not give medical claims.