This is a guest post by Amber Bradshaw of The Coastal Homestead discussing two of the hottest trends in alternative medicine – herbs and essential oils.
Herbs or Essential Oils – Which is Better?
The use of herbs and herbal oils have both been documented for thousands of years, from hieroglyphics to teachings in the bible. (Editor's Note: Ancient texts more commonly reference infused herbal oils or pressed oils rather than distilled or essential oils.) Herbs and essential oils have been used in medicine, food preparation, preservation, healing, and rituals.
Now we have a new era of people who want to reconnect with Mother Nature and holistic practices. In the last decade the herb and essential oils movements have grown enormously. Essential oil sales alone were in the billions last year and estimated to grow to over eleven billion by 2020.
There are advantages and disadvantages to both herbs and essential oils. In this post I've done a step by step comparison of the two, sharing my research and opinions. Hopefully I've provided you with enough information to make your own decision on what is right for you and your needs.
What’s the Difference Between Herbs and Essential Oils?
Herbs are the plant, root, stem, flower or leaf, either fresh cut or dried.
Essential oils are the concentrated essence of the plant. Essential Oils are distilled and the whole plant constituents are not present, just the oils.
A good comparison for this is the process of extracting vitamin C from an apple. Scientist discovered vitamin C was good for us so they isolated the compound and extracted it and put it in a pill. They failed to realize that the other 10,000 compounds and constituents of that apple help make the vitamin C bio-available to our bodies.
When working with herbs, it's best to build a relationship with them in their environment and where they grow. You cannot get that by opening a bottle.
In choosing between herbs and essential oils, it is good to research the benefits of both for the specific condition or use.
Always ask your doctor or other medical professional when taking herbs or essential oils for health. Many herbs interact with prescription drugs and are not recommend for use by someone who is pregnant or nursing.
Which is More Affordable – Herbs or Essential Oils?
In working with herbs for over 30 years, I never looked into the big essential oil companies (MLM Multi-level marketing). I never felt the need or desire to, since I have everything I need right outside my door. But during my recent research, I was in utter shock and extremely saddened by the monetizing and monopolizing of Mother Nature. In my opinion, the prices they (MLM companies) are charging people for essential oils is outrageous.
Healing and health should belong to everyone. It is not meant for the rich or the select, it was given to us all. Weeds are herbs, trees are herbs, flowers are herbs – and all of them can provide food and medicine without spending a dime. I can show you a weed in your yard that can do the same thing as that 10ml $60.00 essential oil bottle. Education is the key in knowing how to use and apply these herbs in order to save money.
Herbs (either wild or home grown) win for affordability.
Which is Better for the Earth – Herbs or Essential Oils?
In the herbal classes I teach, I talk about sustainability and what it means. Respect for the earth and its resources needs to be an essential part of that journey. Essential oils are not necessarily a sustainable or earth-friendly product. Making essential oils can take hundreds, even thousands, of pounds of plant material to make one pound of essential oil. The article “Concerns over Essential Oils” states:
…it takes 50-60 pounds of eucalyptus to produce one pound of eucalyptus oil, 200-250 pounds of lavender for one pound of lavender oil, 2,000 pounds of cypress for a pound of cypress oil and as many as 10,000 pounds of rose blossoms for one pound of rose oil. Production of these source crops takes place all over the world and is often organized by large multinational corporations with little regard for local economies or ecosystems.
Make no mistake – essential oils are big business.
Overharvesting for both herbs and essential oils has placed many medicinal species at risk of extinction.We are at risk of losing invaluable medicine and perhaps the cures to diseases. Commercial exploitation has also sometimes led to traditional medicines becoming unavailable to the indigenous peoples that have relied on them for centuries or millennia. Worldwide, between 50,000 and 80,000 flowering plants are used medicinally. Of these, at least 15,000 may face extinction due to overharvesting and habitat loss.
When it comes to being earth-friendly, local herbs harvested responsibly (either planted or wild) win this one.
If you would like to get involved in saving our herbs and plants, contact United Plant Savers.
Which is Easier to Use – Herbs or Essential Oils?
Although many gardeners and herbalists have herb gardens that rival any nursery, not everyone has a plethora of herbs at their disposal. Making tinctures, decoctions, infusions, etc. can also be time consuming and rigorous. Certain herbs can be hard to obtain or won’t grow well in your climate and wild herb identification and foraging can take time to learn.
Essential oils are easy to purchase from your local health food store or online and very portable, so for these reasons essential oils win for ease of use.
(Editor's Note: Many times local herbs may be substituted with good results. Some herbs, like plantain, grow wild over much of the planet, and all you have to do to use it is crush and apply to the affected area. I'd argue that at least in some cases, herbs are easier to use than essential oils.)
Which is Safer to Use – Herbs or Oils?
One of the herbal and essential oil trends that I have noticed recently is the sheer lack of education and the lack of research people invest when it comes to all things “natural”. Opium is natural but it kills over 25,000 people per year. Mushrooms are natural (and delicious) but just a tiny bite of the wrong one is fatal. Even drinking water can kill you if you drink too much too fast. “Natural” doesn’t equal safe – too much of a good thing can hurt or even kill you.
Essential oils are 75 – 100 times more concentrated than whole herbs. One drop of essential oil could be equivalent to a handful or pounds of the herb. Just one drop of lemon essential oil is equivalent to one pound of lemons.
Individuals are medicating and overdosing themselves and their children with essential oils due to lack of education. The Tennessee Poison Center (TPC) housed at Vanderbilt University Medical Center reported the number of essential oil exposures doubled between 2011 and 2015 and 80 percent of cases involved children.
Essential oil companies and their distributors have been issued a warning by the FDA because they are giving medical advice, recommending dosages and making claims of curing sickness and disease. They are diagnosing and treating customers with no medical training and very little herbal background, which is dangerous.
Due to their extremely concentrated nature, some oils must be treated as hazardous when spilled. For instance, Mountain Rose Herbs shares that a tea tree oil spill should be absorbed with an inert material, sealed in a container and taken to a hazardous waste disposal site. Herb spills can be swept up and composted.
Because of the misuse of oils in recent years and their strong concentrations, herbs win for safety.
How to Choose When to Use Herbs or Essential Oils
I don’t think you have to choose between one or the other (herbs/essential oils) but rather incorporate them both as needed. The most important thing is to do your research to use your choice of herbs or essential oils safely. Always double check with your health care provider if you are on prescription medications, nursing or pregnant before using herbs or essential oils. Note: Essential oils should never be used on cats and small animals. See Animal Aromatherapy and Essential Oil Safety from the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy for more information.
There are good resources available to help you use herbs and oils safely. One of my favorite resources for herb use is Rosemary Gladstar's “Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner's Guide: 33 Healing Herbs to Know, Grow, and Use“. The Herbal Academy offers a number of online courses to help you use herbs safely. You can learn more about their courses here. Laurie also includes herbs and essential oils in her Common Sense Home Remedies series e-books.
Anything Strong Enough to Be Used as Medicine Should be Used with Care
Whether you choose herbs or essential oils, always use caution, especially the first time you use a new herb or oil, and don't use undiluted (neat) essential oils directly on the skin. Essential oils should only be used internally under the care of a trained healthcare practitioner. Although rare, allergic reactions can happen. It is also possible for sensitivity to build up over time, especially to essential oils.
Which do you prefer – herbs or essential oils? Leave a comment and share your experience.
You may also enjoy:
- Natural Mosquito Repellents
- Harvesting and Using Dandelion Roots
- The Weekly Weeder Series, which features ID and uses of common weeds
This is a guest post by Amber Bradshaw of The Coastal Homestead. Amber is a environmentalist, garden and outdoor enthusiast. She is a wife, mother of three and owns a contracting business with her husband. Amber strives to get back into nature with a more sustainable and self-reliant lifestyle that fits a busy schedule and a tight budget.
She lives on the east coast with her family on a little over 1/4 acre and encourages others to do big things with small spaces.
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