Nourishing the Nervous System: The Science Behind Three of my Favorite Essential Oils, Herbs, and Br
On the Be Kekoa Apothecary Facebook site, I shared three of my favorite essential oils and herbs along with a four-square breathing technique on a live video, that can be used to support overall emotional well being. Diffusing essential oils and/or sipping herbal tea or decocotion is a simple, yet powerful way to support the mind and body. And science supports what many aromatherapist, herbalists, essential oil and herb enthusiasts already know -- plants offer a plethora of benefits and can support both emotional and overall wellness. While there are many oils and herbs to choose from below are a few of my favorites.
Three Soothing Essential Oils: While there are many relaxing essential oils I wanted to share three of my favorite go to oils to support relaxation, soothe feelings of stress, and support sleep: Bergamot (Citrus bergamia), Ylang-ylang (Cananga odorata), and Frankincense (Boswellia carterii or sacra). These are not their only benefits, but it's what I wanted to focus on in this post.
Bergamot is a citrus fruit more commonly found in Italy. It's a flavor found in Earl Grey tea and an aromatic compound found in many perfumes and colognes. It's bright, uplifting aroma is enjoyed by many. Chemically it has similar aromatic compound to that of lavender and other citrus fruits. It's rich in limonene, linalool, and linalyl acetate. Limonene is uplifting and has analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties and also supports immune health. Research suggests linalool has analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties as well as anti-anxiety and sedative properties. Linalyl acetate also has been shown to have sedative properties as well as analgesic and anti-inflammatory actions. It has been shown to offer vasorelaxant properties as well -- which means it can act to relax smooth muscle tissue, including that found in blood vessels. Since bergamot is phototoxic (unless it's FCF free) it's best used in diffuser blends or aroma inhalers or on skin that will NOT be exposed to the sun.
Ylang-Ylang is an beautiful yellow flower from the rain forest. It has a sweet, intoxicating aroma and is best used in small amounts. In addition to linalool it is rich in sesquterpines and esters -- both classes of aromatic compounds that often offer relaxing benefits. According to research done by Hongratanaworakit and Buchbauer in 2004, ylang-ylang can act to reduce blood pressure and heart rate and elicit feelings of relaxation and calmness. When coupled with bergamot and lavender, ylang-ylang reduced psychological stress responses. Use in low doses both in diffuser blends or topcially (no more than 0.8%) as it can cause headache or sensitization in some individuals.
Frankincense is distilled from the resin or tears of the Boswellia carterii or sacra tree. It has a warm, resin-like, earthy aroma. Make sure that your supplier is getting the oil from a sustainably harvested source. Frankincense is rich in monoterpenols such as limonene, a-pinene, and myrcene, and has smaller amounts of b-caryophyllene. Inhaled a-pinene has been shown to have anxiolytic-like actions in animal studies. It has been shown to significally increase REM sleep (rapid eye movements) in animal models and is suggested to reduced feelings of stress or anxiety and promote better sleep in addition to offering analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties. Myrcene offers sedative properties in addition to analgesic and anti-inflammatory activity. Likewise b-caryophyllene offers analgesic, anti-inflammatory, and anxiolytic properties as well. Generally a very safe non-irritating oil.
Herbs especially when used as tea or decoction (strong tea) can be beneficial to the mind and body. Some herbs offer nervine properties -- or support the nervous system. Today I wanted to highlight German chamomile, oat straw, and lemon balm. While these herbs offer additional benefits as well I wanted to highlight their properties as a nervine. Each of these herbs is also gentle enough for children, especially if used as a dilute tea.
German Chamomile (Matricaria recutita): Chamomile reportedly acts to relax the smooth muscles of the digestive and reproductive systems. A clinical trial from 2009 by Amsterdam et. al. reported significant anxiolytic or anxiety reducing effects in patients with mild to moderate anxiety disorder. Another study found a reduction in feelings of depression.
Chamomile tea is mild and generally enjoyed by both adults and children -- especially if allowed to steep for no more than two minutes. It is referred to as a nervine, which means it nourishes and restores the nervous system as well as anti-spasmodic or eases muscle spasms. It is also useful to support restful sleep. Use 2 to 3 teaspoons of the dried herb per one cup of boiling water and steep 2 to 10 minutes in a covered container. Although extremely rare, chamomile may cause an allergic reaction in people sensitive to the Asteraceae or aster/daisy/sunflower family.
Oat Straw (Avena sativa): Oat straw as well as the grain nourishes, soothes, and strengthens the body. In 1997 researchers found that the B-glucan in oats support the immune system both in vivo and in vitro experiments. Oats are rich in B vitamins, calcium, magnesium, which support its role as a nervine. It is considered an excellent way to feed and nourish the nervous system especially when one is under stress. Pour one cup of boiling water over 1 to 3 teaspoons of oat straw and infuse for 10 to 15 minutes. Drink three times daily. No side effects or drug interactions have been noted.
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinallis): You may have heard of the essential oil "Melissa" -- it's another name for lemon balm. As a nervine lemon balm is said to have a tonic effect on the heart and blood pressure offering mild vasodilation -- or lowering of the blood pressure. Lemon balm can also support restful sleep. Use 2 to 3 teaspoons of dried herb per cup of boiling water. Steep 10-15 minutes and drink morning and evening or as needed. While teas are generally very safe lemon balm may potentially interfere with the action of thyroid hormones. So be sure to consult your doctor or health care provider if you are on thyroid medication and wish to enjoy lemon balm on a regular basis.
Breathe and Emotion: How does your breathing pattern change when you’re calm, angry, frustrated, happy, or sad? If you think about it breath is related to emotion. On the flip side changing your breathing pattern you can affect mood.
A 25 year old marine returning to the U.S.A. after being in the middle of a war in Afghanistan took part in a study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. What he found was that breathing practice, rather than drug and other therapeutic treatments, helped “give him his life back”. Breath is simple and powerful.
A powerful breathing technique I first learned about in a 2018 Botanica workshop “ Anxiety: Naturopathic and TCM Aromatic Therapuetics" with Dr. Timothy Miller and Gabriel Mojay is called four-square breathing. It is simply inhaling for four seconds, holding the breath for four seconds, exhaling for four second, holding the breath for four seconds, then repeat. The length of time can be shortened or lengthened if needed.
By focusing on the breath one can take stress-induced or frustrated or angry breathing pattern and help refocus the breath and mind to a more peaceful, thoughtful state. Coupled with essential oils it is a simple, yet powerful tool when faced with stressful moments.
While these techniques won't eradicate stress, changes, problems, and the like they empower and equip us to work through them. While most people would rather not have stressful situations and circumstances flung at them they can be viewed as opportunities for individual and corporate growth or can throw us off kilter. In choosing to look for solutions in the midst of problems and choosing healthy ways to manage stress we can grow through our challenges.
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Bustle Website, 5 Ways Your Breath Influences Your Emotions (And Vice Versa), Accessed October 20, 2019 from: https://www.bustle.com/articles/167370-5-ways-your-breath-influences-your-emotions-and-vice-versa
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Tricia Ambroziak is a professional aromatherapist but not a licensed health care professional.
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