About a month back, I was at a women’s retreat on Oahu’s North Shore.

Before you roll your eyes and think, “Of course, this essential oil article starts with a women’s retreat,” you should know we weren’t only making vision boards and howling at the moon.

We were cooking up mustard gas. 

Yes it’s true, poisonous mustard gas. Let me explain.

We were cooking mustard seeds to create a traditional Ayurvedic cleansing dish. Mustard seeds are a master cleanser of the body, used to induce vomiting, increase urine production, and in small doses, they create a slight cellular purging; think of little cells puking out their toxins.

If you’re thinking, “What’s the big deal?” then you’re underestimating the power of plants. When cooked, mustard seeds produce a gas that can cause blistering of the mucous membranes and skin.  

So while we were all getting our zen on, a poisonous gas was wafting through the air.

Usually, this isn’t a huge deal, since the gas quickly dissipates leaving only the medicinal qualities of the seeds. But the woman standing next to me accidentally got a big whiff. She looked at me with panic rising in her eyes. I could immediately tell she was struggling to breathe as her chest heaved and she started to wheeze.

On the counter were a few bottles of essential oils, and — before we go further, full disclaimer — though I’m not suggesting essential oils replace an EpiPen or 911, plants do have their place in our medicine cabinets, and even our emergency kits.

We have used plants medicinally for thousands of years, think of them (as with all elements) as a communication system. Each plant tells your body to do something — slow the heart rate, heal tissue, get out of fight-or-flight, or reduce inflammatory response, to name a few. They are like little sergeants bossing around our various systems.

What we needed was a sergeant to tell this woman’s respiratory and nervous systems to calm down, relax, and turn off the histamine response. Usually, in a situation like this, you could use a combination of lavender, peppermint and lemon dropped quickly under the tongue.

Peppermint is a vasoconstrictor — an anti-histamine — and lavender has an immediate calming effect on the nervous system. Lemon, considered a cure-all in many European countries, quickly helps with respiratory disorders. Dropped under the tongue, this tincture quickly enters the bloodstream, bypassing the liver, resulting in almost immediate action.

But, none of those oils were available.

Instead, I had wintergreen blend and wild orange. Wild orange could lift her spirits, but it wasn’t going to do anything for the situation-on-hand. Wintergreen, however, could help. 

Wintergreen is a plant native to North America and has been traditionally used for respiratory conditions such as chronic mucous discharge and inflammation of the joints. The oil can be toxic, however; one milliliter (20 drops) of wintergreen oil is roughly equivalent to six regular-strength aspirin pills.

Yes, plants really are that strong. 

I grabbed the oil, put a few drops in the palm of her hands, instructing her to hold it over her nose and mouth while taking some deep breaths. The aromatic oil immediately began to open her airways while the reaction quickly subsided. It took a while for her to return to normal but the calming sensation she experienced helped her recover faster from the scary ordeal.

A few years back, I wouldn’t have known how to do this. I would have thought that essential oils were just for fun, or to make the house smell nice. Now, I see them as the most easily accessible form of plant medicine we have; one that everyone can, and should, learn how to use.

Plants are powerful beyond what most of us realize. Aspirin, for example, comes from salicylic acid, a substance found in white birch trees. Taxol, one of the most potent anti-cancer chemotherapy drugs used to treat breast, ovarian, lung, bladder, prostate, melanoma, esophageal, and other types of solid tumor cancers, is derived from the Yew Taxus Baccata, a common tree found in many back yards.

Nature is wise; she has much to teach us. Plants have been used from the beginning of time to fight infections, induce healing, calm the mind, and kill microbes. As human beings, we should know how to use them. We don’t always need to be at the mercy of pharmaceuticals — the ones advertising ghastly side effects like diarrhea, erectile dysfunction, suicidal tendencies, and — my favorite — death. Instead, we can become our own shaman.

So what are some basic essentials to keep in your medicine cabinet to keep you and your family healthy?

Melaleuca

Melaleuca, or tea tree, is a potent anti-bacterial and anti-fungal agent. Ringworm, athletes foot, minor scrapes, zits, gums can all benefit from tea tree. Tea tree was traditionally used by aboriginal tribes. The leaves would be turned into tea, or cut and applied directly to areas of ailment like the skin or chest. In modern days, a few drops of tea tree oil in the diffuser will help you breath better during times of respiratory stress like the flu or the cold. Think of it as nature’s “Vicks vapor rub.” You can also use this oil topically for cuts, fungal infections, and small scrapes. It’s one I recommend for every medicine cabinet. You can even ingest the oil during times of illness.

Lavender

Lavender is the most commonly known essential oil, and for good reason. Lavender creates a calming effect on the nervous system and induces restful sleep. No, it’s not FDA-approved, but it can help lower levels of anxiety and high stress. Put some on the base of your feet, under your tongue or in your diffuser at night.  Better yet, make a linen spray and spritz your resting space, or add it to your bath. Lavender is an immediate go-to for the minor burn, but is also wonderful for skin irritations and cuts. It should be an immediate go-to for a minor burn. You can also cook with versatile lavender.

Frankincense

Frankincense is one of the 12 oils written about in the bible. Some others are Cassia, a sweet herb in the cinnamon family which balances blood sugar. Cedarwood is referenced for fighting leprosy and used as a symbol of abundance, while Myrrh is used as a perfume, ointment and even consumed with wine and spices. Myrrh has a synergistic effect with frankincense, and they play very well together. But if you can only get one oil, Frankincense should be it, as it can be used for almost anything.

It has healing properties, is a known antimicrobial agent, and is also an immuno-stimulant, meaning it prevents illness and disease. Mix a few drops of frankincense in any of your topical lotions, or enjoy this delicious scent in your diffuser.

When in doubt, use Frankincense.

Peppermint 

This oil may seem basic, but it is far from it.  

Do you know the history of toothpaste? Most people don’t. Toothpaste isn’t minty because it needs to be; it’s minty because it led to a multibillion-dollar industry. Toothpaste didn’t gain popularity until some astute marketers got together and said, “How can we make people addicted to this product?” The tingly feeling you get after using peppermint toothpaste created a sensation and a reward which equaled a habit. People didn’t get addicted to brushing their teeth daily; they got addicted to the tingle.

So yes, peppermint can freshen your breath, but it does so much more. Peppermint oil dropped down the spine — just one or two drops at the base, middle and occipital bone — can quickly break a fever. In a bind, I call it my hippy A/C (insert image of large, sweaty boyfriend disdainfully staring at broken fan, rolling his eyes as I rub peppermint oil all over his back). To be fair, I did once offer him Hellechrism, a natural coagulant, when he really needed stitches. But trust me on the peppermint thing — it works.  

You can obviously go further down the plant medicine path, but be forewarned that, as with all supplements, not all essential oils are created equal.

Essential oils are a $7.3 billion industry, and there are some less-than-ethical companies. Some are not environmentally conscious, nor do they care if their synthetic products are harmful to you and your family. Some brands simply miss the point — essential oils are meant to connect us back to our innate right to live harmoniously with nature; to use her wisdom.

I stick with companies that are reputed to have the highest levels of product testing, and in my opinion have the most integrity. There are companies that truly pay it forward, connect with their community, employ women and men around the world with equal and fair wages, all while restoring balance to our planet through wildcrafted growing practices. Those factors check all my boxes of ethical practice.

If you want to learn more, feel free to reach out! Getting you back to your true human nature and getting you in touch with basic things you can do for yourself, your family, and the environment are part of my joy. I would love to help empower you, your body, and your family.

By Chelsea Newman

You can reach me at www.withchelsea.com or email chelsea@collaborativehealthconsulting.com

If you want to dive right into my favorite basic kit, you can grab one directly from this link. https://www.doterra.com/US/en/p/home-essentials-kit?OwnerID=6528798

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