We have often talked about how even a basic understanding of essential oil chemistry can help you decide how to use an essential oil. And I have emphasised that this understanding requires no understanding about (potentially confusing) diagrams of molecules. None whatsoever! If you are averse to chemistry just think of the names of these compound types (ketones, phenols, terpenes, aldehydes, etc) as poetic labels for a certain type of tendency that they may have, and you won’t go far wrong.
One example of this, which I mentioned previously, is Malte Hozzel’s suggestion that we think of ketones as ‘dis-incarnators’. That means that they are not appropriate for situations where the theme is on ‘incarnating’, which means establishing the physical aspect of life. Therefore we would avoid using ketonic oils in pregnancy and with young children. However where the theme is to remove matter or transcend physical limitations they come into their own. We can use them to reduce phlegm in cases of cough or bronchitis, against parasites, as an anti-cellulite treatment, or to enhance spiritual experience.
Another instance of this poetic approach to understanding essential oil chemistry came up some months ago when I was on a course at the Oshadhi conference facility in Provence run by Malte together with Rhiannon Lewis. Rhiannon also has a great ability to take potentially indigestible scientific facts, simmer them gently over the warmth of her own deep understanding, and serve up a dish that is palatable to everyone. The course was rich with information, but one snippet that jumped out at me was when she was talking about the chemistry of Tulsi, Ocimum sanctum, which is also known as Basil Sanctum or Holy Basil.
Tulsi is one of the holiest plants in India and is considered to have God-like qualities. Having a Tulsi plant in the home is akin to caring for the Divine, and the plant is said to provide good luck, protection and purification. Tulsi is planted in the grounds of temples all around the country. In Ayurveda (India’s traditional system of medicine) Tulsi has the status of a miracle herb and has a huge range of applications. Interestingly it balances both Vata (the quick, light, rough, cold, moving element in the body) and Kapha (the heavy, slow, stable, oily tendency).
Tulsi is anti-microbial, one of the most potent anti-viral herbs of Ayurveda, and a natural detoxifier. When used as a herb, it has a range of applications including as a cardiac tonic, anti-cholesterol agent, for a range of stomach problems including gas, some itchy skin conditions, asthma and other respiratory disorders. The key point for us is that it is an ‘adaptogenic-like’ herb which is useful in stress-related disorders. An adaptogen helps you to withstand extremes of stress whatever direction the stress comes from. So for one person it might be enlivening and for another it might be calming.
What gives Tulsi it’s ‘adaptogen-like’ qualities?
Rhiannon explains the blend of opposites in Tulsi essential oil by highlighting the existence of two key ingredients in the essential oil: Eugenol (approx 50%) and beta-Caryophyllene (approx 38%), and then ascribes to each of these ingredients a different ‘personality’.
Rhiannon explains as follows:
• Eugenol, which smells like clove, is a ‘Rambo’. He is there to save the planet and does wonderful things, but there may be collateral damage. He is full of fire and intense energy, a phenolic ether, who generates a lot of heat and dynamic activity especially on the physical sphere. He is anti-microbial, fights infection, and boosts the immune system. He is very aggressive with a tendency to dominate, and when you need him he is there as a form of aromatic rescue. However he needs controlling. As a very powerful phenolic ether, he has the characteristics of both phenols and ethers. He is a remarkable ingredient but he tends to dominate. He can be aggressive on the skin and that can make him difficult to use.
• Beta Caryophyllene is a sesquiterpene (as is chamazulene which is found in German Camomile). It is like the ice to eugenol’s fire. This is the ‘Mother Theresa’, the more gentle ‘yin energy’ to eugenol’s fiery ‘yang’ nature, and provides a soothing, cooling ’tissue-protecting’ anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant effect. She is very powerful and should never be underestimated, but acts in a ‘quieter’ way.
The fact that Tulsi contains high concentrations of both these compounds gives it a fascinating duality, and it is this that allows it to tonify and boost, but also to soothe and protect. It makes it much easier to use than clove or cinnamon leaf when dealing with pain, inflammation or infection associated with tissue damage.
I love to use this oil for meditation (grounding and uplifting in one oil); for pain due to inflammation in muscles and joints; and for infectious conditions where pain is a significant factor (such as abscess and boils). I recommend its use at a maximum of 3% in external preparations – to benefit from both the stimulating and soothing properties of this oil. So here is the chemical basis of what we noted above, that Tulsi will pacify or reduce both Vata and Kapha tendencies at the same time. This gives it a balancing effect, especially useful for skin conditions.