Can herbs and essential oils be used interchangeably?
In this video, I discuss some of the similarities and differences between herbs and essential oils and how we can best utilize them.
Herbs vs. Essential Oils
There's a lot of confusion on herbs vs. essential oils and whether they can be used interchangeably or if substitutions can be made for one another. Aromatherapy and herbalism are different fields of study so someone who has studied herbalism doesn't automatically have a strong working knowledge of essential oils and vice versa so information can become a misinterpreted when findings on herbs are taken and automatically applied to essentials oils with the assumption that they work exactly the same.
This may look a little something like this whole herb X in this preparation was found to be helpful with condition Y. The essential oil is very concentrated so let's use the essential oil and imagine the results that we'll get. There are several problems with this assumption.
First, we can't cherry-pick a study and extrapolate those findings with any assumptions that any changes we make will yield the same result.
The process I've seen goes a little something like this (keep in mind these are made up numbers not an exact quote), the essential oil X is 70 times stronger than the whole herb, so if we use the essential oil, we're gonna get results way faster or we're gonna get better results than we would if we just use the whole herb. OK, so the problem with this is yes, essential oils are super concentrated. However, they are not chemically the same as your whole herb.
The Distillation Process
What happens in the steam distillation process is they take your whole herb and they are going to warm it. The steam vaporizes the plant material’s volatile compounds, go through condensation, and collection process. What's left behind is any chemical constituent of the plant that is too dense or too heavy to be extracted through steam. In the essential oil, only the volatile compounds are collected, you're not getting any of the molecular components of the whole hern that are too heavy to rise by steam. Chemically herbs and essential oils have some of the same chemicals, volatile oil components, but they don't have the same diversity from the plant to the essential oil. If the study we're looking at does not use or specify that the active components are the volatile compounds of the plant that was shown to produce the benefits then the same benefits can't be expected.
Synergy the interaction of two or more substances, to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects.
The chemicals in a plant work in synergy together. The diversity of a plant can make a difference in the effectiveness of any herbal preparation. If it's not specifically the volatile oil that's providing the benefits, then then you're not getting the same product when you do an essential oil versus a plant.
Preparation is Key.
Let's say we start using essential oil in a place where a whole herb was indicated. It's likely the results won't be what was expected and it would lead one to believe "natural remedies don't work"
When we're talking about plants, too, so we can go a little step further with this concept. Preparations are important when it comes to herbs (and essential oils) If you find a study that uses the whole herb in a capsule, for example, you may not get the same results if you decide to take it in tea form instead.
If you want to achieve the same results seen from a study you have to use the same preparation. Just as different chemicals are going to be extracted through the distillation process in essential oils, different chemicals might be extracted through different preparations with whole herbs. Some chemicals are water-soluble or fat-soluble and that is going to determine the best way to use your whole herb preparation. If something was prepared using a specific medium and you change the medium, you might not get the same chemicals as was in the medium from the original study.
As an example, if you're looking at an herb that used 1,500 mg of and herb in a capsule daily, and you're drinking a tea of the same herb 2-3 times a week you can't expect to see the same results.
Natural Products Don't Work
There are several factors that affect the way herbs and essential oils work. We have to use the right medium, the right method, the right preparation to get the results that we want. If the appropriate dosing or the consistency or preparation isn't being used then they may seem ineffective, when really it might just need a few adjustments.
I know that sounds difficult to say because the next question you probably have is what preparation is the best? And it's specific to the condition/issue that you're trying to you to use or the results you want to achieve. There are no blanket statements in aromatherapy and herbalism. You have to pick the right preparation for the right condition, for the right thing that you're trying to do to and then figure out, well, how am I going to use how am I going to utilize this plant and the proper way to get those results. The only way this works is through education, on specific oils or herbs.
One of the biggest and easiest tips because I don't want to be overwhelmed and say, oh, well, this is too difficult. Don't buy 30 different herbs and buy 30 different essential oils or big kits products that you don't know how to use, yet. Take one or two, learn everything you can about that essential oil or that herb. Learn all the ways to use it. All the preparations for it. And then pick another one. I'd rather everybody have five, really robust herbs or essential oils in their toolkit and know exactly how to use them then pick 30 different herbs and buy 30 different bottles of central oil and sit on your shelf and never use them because it's too confusing. So you get to know a couple really well and keep adding to your repertoire that way.
As always, if you guys have questions, you can always reach out to me and I would be happy to help.
Herbs versus essential oils are not interchangeable, they are both powerful tools with different indications that can be utilized for health and healing.