‘There’s an oil for that’: The new age of essential oils

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According to author and essential oils educator Jen O'Sullivan, one of the uses of essential oils is to help us combat anxiety, stress and depression. She says: "Essential oils have a very amazing ability to help our emotional states, things from stress and just feeling [like] freaking out all the time." Illustration by JL JAVIER/Photos from SPARK DROPPERS

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — On a sweltering Friday afternoon in Makati, Jen O’Sullivan has been fielding one question after another about essential oils. O’Sullivan is known as “the oil lady to the oil ladies” and is here in Manila to give a one-time workshop on essential oils.

A kit of Young Living essential oils is in front of her. By the time she answers my first question, she has already dabbed a drop of Stress Away — a blend of copaiba, lime, cedarwood, ocotea, lavender, and vanilla — sensing the fumbling bundle of nerves that is me. The smell hits me like a calming balm, a welcoming force on this humid day. I wonder how many of the people who have interviewed her have received a dab of Stress Away as well.

O’Sullivan has used essential oils since 2007. She has already written five books on the topic but says that there is more to be written about it, especially now that it’s gotten more popular. She has been an educator since 1999 and is the founder of Ignite Academy, an online resource group for essential oils education.

“I seriously get so excited every time a new shipment of essential oils arrives at my front door,” she writes on her book “French Aromatherapy: Essential Oil Recipes and Usage Guide.” “It makes me feel like a child on Christmas.” Her years of training, combined with her nutrition and overall health background, forms the foundation of her essential oils methods.

O’Sullivan is but one of the many voices in the professional use of essential oils. Celebrities swear by it, Facebook groups discuss the topics thoroughly, YouTube videos testify to its benefits, conventions are held for it, and communities are built around it. Many testimonies about the use of essential oils come from people who no longer trust medicinal drugs and have turned to essential oils as an alternative.

She says in her book, “Essential oils should not be single-use fixes, although many people use them this way and wonder why the oils aren’t working like they thought they would. They should be viewed as another wellness regimen upon which we embark. You don’t brush your teeth or take a shower only when you feel like it; when you want results and overall wellness, you do something long-term and with deliberate dedication.”

Jen O'Sullivan Jen O'Sullivan is known as “the oil lady to the oil ladies.” She has already written five books about her practice of essential oils and gives online resource to those who are interested in the topic. Photo courtesy of NATIONAL BOOK STORE

There are some who dismiss essential oils as another healthcare fad, which will come in a surge but will eventually die down when people move on to the next trend. There is also very few scientific studies about its effectivity, though, as mentioned below, O’Sullivan cites PubMed for studies, but these are not mainstream and the use of essential oils are different from pharmaceuticals.

In the end, it’s up to the consumer whether they’ll follow the track O’Sullivan and her like-minded colleagues have forged for many oils aficionados.

“I like to use oils to help me be the best person that God wants me to be,” O’Sullivan says. “I know that they help my cells feel clean. It gives me great energy. I have better sleep because of them. So I know that I don’t have to use all these medications. I know that I can operate a 100 percent Jen. I can be the best me and that enables me to communicate to my friends better. That enables me to be a better person to you.”

In the interview below, O’Sullivan discusses how essential oils has been around for centuries, even in Biblical times, and dispenses advice to those who are curious about essential oils. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

Can you take us through your day and how you use essential oils?

I wake up in the morning, I take a shower, and I use essential oils infused hair shampoo. Most of the shampoos and conditioners that we use are synthetic, lots of petrochemicals, lots of silicones and parabens that are really bad for you and cause cancer, depression, linked to all sorts of problems.

After that, I use carrier oil fused with essential oils, so I use frankincense, copaiba, lavender, and some rosehip seed oil on my face, I use a lotion that’s infused with essential oils as well for my legs, I put purification for the bottom of my feet because it helps my feet not smell bad — one drop of purification, you don’t have stinky feet the whole day.

I put Stress Away or sometimes sacred sandalwood on my neck, helps me calm down and get me started for the day. I put oils in my water, I’m actually helping my system be clean. I used certain supplements that are essential oil-infused, NingXia Red every morning — it’s for your immune system — [and] I use capsules that have essential oils in them to help me clean up my system.

One of the things I found interesting was that essential oils have been around since the Biblical times and you actually cite verses where they are mentioned. Are there other uses of essential oils in our lives that people don’t know about but have been around for some time already?

Yeah, frankincense. I’ve been talking this whole time and I’m just rubbing it on my throat, it calms it. And I think a lot of people don’t realize that certain oils have emotionally calming properties. They are starting to think of them as topical use.

So one of the things that’s so rapidly growing in society is depression and being overly stressed and not feeling good. And so essential oils have a very amazing ability to help our emotional states, things from stress and just feeling [like] freaking out all the time. We joke about stress. [But] we just put one drop and then just rub them together, it’s helpful to help you focus. A lot of times we get overrun and so you can just take the Stress Away and rub it on the back of your neck.

“I feel like there’s a lot of people who want to kind of cut essential oils down. They want to discredit it. And it’s like, sorry, it’s been around centuries, pretty much since the beginning of time.”

One of the more recent articles on essential oils actually suggest that the resurgence of its use is a response to this age of anxiety. Do you think that’s true?

I think [this is] our response to being sick and tired and not feeling good … we want to clean up our lives, right? It’s not just essential oils. You’re seeing more people understanding that you should go gluten-free, you’re seeing more people talking about are we supposed to be drinking all of this Diet Coke? Should we be drinking more water? Should we be getting more exercise? Should you be outside more?

I don’t even know if it’s a resurgence. It’s kind of like a “Wow we’ve gotten really sick!” And we’re really emotionally distraught and so essential oils, people are done with the synthetics that they’re putting in their lives, right? A doctor will prescribe something and then you take this medication that then becomes this problem of cycle of side effects. So now you’re having to take another medication for the side effects, and then another medication to help the side effects of that medication.

It’s sort of when you understand [that] our bodies operate slightly better when we’re alkaline … and realize that all the things that we’re doing in our lives are causing [our bodies] to be acidic: processed food, alcohol, smoking, all the petrochemicals in the air and the products that we’re using, medications, not getting enough sleep — all of this is causing an acidic environment. What essential oils do is help placate that acid and help create a more alkaline environment because the essential oils attack all those things that are bad for you.

These aren’t the answers but they’re one support like eat more fruits and vegetables, drink more water, get exercise, all of that helps.

Jen O'Sullivan O'Sullivan at her Make & Take event in Makati. Photo courtesy of NATIONAL BOOK STORE

Essential oils largely rely on the psychology of smell. And it’s interesting how it’s how people are drawn to it first.

It’s what they are. They’re volatile. They’re considered volatile organic compounds. That is because even when I open this, you’re gonna smell it. It wants to leap out. They’re the essence of the plant that is the smell of it.

Our limbic system is where your memories are. You guys have a largely Catholic nation, I think, so when I go around and tell people to smell this frankincense oil, and some people will go ‘Oh, I hate it!’ and some are like ‘Oh, I love it’ And I’m like, you hated Catholic mass, you love Catholic mass. The ones who smelled it and [went] ‘I hate that,’ you don’t hate this, it’s frankincense, it’s that you grew up not liking church and they’re constantly doing frankincense — which can be used for sleep and is good for your skin.

The thing about this is, that’s a bad memory. It’s not only because you have a bad experience at church, the people who had great experience at church love frankincense. Smell and memory is [really] great. But it can also induce anger, like for those who have been molested by priests, you would hate this, you would smell this and wanna punch a hole in the wall. That’s how powerful the sense of smell is. It’s just frankincense but it’s bringing back a memory that you might have suppressed. You might not even remember it. But you keep smelling this over and over, your body’s gonna release that and you’re gonna feel amazing if you release that negative energy.

You’ve been teaching about this since 1999. Have there been changes in the way people respond to the benefits and uses of essential oils?

There’s a lot of drama. I feel like there’s a lot of people who want to kind of cut it down. They want to discredit it. And it’s like, sorry, it’s been around centuries, pretty much since the beginning of time. I kind of liken it to electricity. I honestly don’t know how it works, I don’t really know where it comes from, but I know not to stick a fork in the outlet because it will electrocute me. We can’t see it, we can see the effects of it, I can see light, I can see my hair dryer turning on but I can’t understand it.

When electricity was first harnessed and put in light bulbs, did you know the first families who had lights in their house, people said their lights came from the devil? 'That’s the devil's home.'

I can see the benefits. My husband is super shy but if I put this drop right on the top of his head, he gets grounded, looks you in the eye, and doesn’t feel nervous anymore. So when you start seeing effects that are mind blowing — I’ve been with him for 26 years and he never looks people in the eye, and then I put oil on him and he’s all of a sudden confident? That’s a light bulb effect, like, whoa this stuff works. It’s exciting.

“Essential oils should be viewed as another wellness regimen upon which we embark. You don’t brush your teeth or take a shower only when you feel like it, you do something long-term and with deliberate dedication.”

You think that’s the reason why more people use it despite there being no concrete scientific evidence about it?

There’s concrete scientific evidence. The thing is they’re not mainstream, but there [are] plenty of studies. But they’re not like pharmaceutical. You can take a drug that has been tested to do the same thing over and over again to a person. When you look at essential oils, they work with our chemistry, for you, your sleeping time oil might be Stress Away. But [for someone else] it might be lavender. You use different oils because your body chemistry is different. They’re not like pharmaceuticals. You have to find your mix.

What are some reminders for people who want to try essential oils for the first time?

Not all oil companies are the same so make sure to research and find pure oil. Do know that as you’re moving forward, it’s not scary, you just use them and don’t use them like bandage. Don’t think that they’re single-use fixes, they’re not like pharmaceuticals. We want to use them to help health and not when you’re sick. Don’t use them when you’re sick, use them before you’re sick, kind of like fruit and vegetables. You need a little bit of education. This is not like buying candles. You need to know about the ways you can use them, the safety precautions.

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Jen O’Sullivan’s books (“The Essential Oil Truth: The Facts Without the Hype,” “French Aromatherapy,” “Essential Oil Make & Takes,” and “Live Well”) are available at Art Bar and Powerbooks Podium.

For free workshops on essential oils, visit the Spark Droppers website. The site offers a private online five-day class and access to her Make & Take script.