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Chemicals: Friends or Foes

In these articles you will find talk of chemicals and chemistry. After what has been said , this may seem incongruous, but there is no contradiction here. Knowledge of the chemical composition of aromatherapy products is actually of vial importance, since this is a major factor in how they work on our health. It is also one of the keys to empowerment in consumer decision making. Every plant contains a wide variety of chemical compounds. Some of these chemicals exist in the form of aromatic essential-oil molecules, some are alkaloids, others are water-soluble or complex polysaccharides, and there are many more besides.

We know that therapeutic chemicals from plant material can be extracted by soaking the material in cold water (cold infusion), heating the material in water (decoction or tea), infusing the material in oil (maceration), extracting components in alcohol (tinctures), or distillation (essential oils and hydrosols). It is important to remember that there are many ways to extract the therapeutic benefits from plant material because each method will release different qualities and chemicals of the plant and therefore have different properties and applications in health and healing.

The primary issue here is not only that these are naturally occurring chemicals manufactured  by the plants as part of their desire  to grow, flourish, and propagate themselves, but also that they appear in complex combinations, not as singly or isolated compounds. Rose contain over 400 different chemicals, clary sage around 250, and lavender more than 100. Herein lies the rub! Mother nature is incredibly intelligent, and plants have spent millions of years evolving and using their chemicals to communicate with each other and with the world at large. Some of their chemicals protect them from predators, others alert them to weather changes  and soil conditions, still others send messages about potential pollution and seed carriers.

These chemicals exist in combination because that's how they work best, together in synergy, like an orchestra. A sols violin is nice, but Beethoven sounds better with a full complement  of instruments. When we talk about chemical sensitivities  or even, specifically, about fragrance sensitivities, we often forget to note  whether these chemicals  and fragrances  are natural or synthetics, isolated or in combination. And that makes all the difference!

The smell of chamomile is added to many shampoos that contain chamomile "extracts". The smell ahs to be added because the extracts are usually isolated chemicals chosen for a specific action, and this may have no odor or a non-chamomile odor. The smell component may or may not be natural; if it is natural, it may again be an isolated chemical chosen for scent only.

What we have is not what nature created, While 100 percent natural chamomile may not cause an allergic reaction in people, some of its chemicals taken in isolation -out of context, if you will-can cause an allergic response. And synthetic versions of chamomile will almost certainly cause a reaction in sensitive people.

The prescription drug Valium illustrates this point most clearly. There is a herb called valerian that has been used for thousands of years for its relaxing, antianxiety, and sedative properties, and Valerian products can be found in most health food stores. Recognizing its therapeutic value, scientists studied valerian in order to isolate the one chemical they felt was responsible for its desirable effects. They then worked on this chemical in the lab and finally came up with a drug they call Valium. it was a huge success. and millions of people, mostly women, were prescribed valium for many years.

We now know that this drug, for all its benefits, has some pretty serious side effects and, for many, it is highly addictive. World wide, there ate still thousands of people suffering its ill effects. In Britain there were so many lawsuits that the government withdrew legal aid for Valium cases in the early 1990s. What went wrong? is it possible that science, in its desire to find absolute answers, ignored the possibility that more than one chemical may contribute to a herb's beneficial affects? is it that some of the natural chemical combinations in a plant can prevent side effects, one chemical acting as a buffer for another? The scientists were doing their best, but even science is imperfect and is growing, changing, and learning all the time.

It is the same with aromas. If you make a synthetic smell, or isolate just one aromatic chemical from a natural source, you may well end up with a smell that harms. The chemical creating the odor may have a negative effect on health, causing headaches, allergies, skin reactions, nausea, and so on. It is not the order per se that harms but the chemical creating the odor when it is taken out of context. People want scent-free zones because isolated and synthetic chemicals are making them sick. It is not nature, but what we have done to nature, that causes harm!.

Reference: Hydrosols: Suzanne Catty


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