Herbal Workshop at Washington College

 

herbal workshop with whitney palacios in the alumni house
Herbal workshop in the Alumni House.   All photos in this post are compliments of Washington College Videographer, Shane Brill.

 

I have been teaching my children all about plants and herbal medicine for years.  They forage, mix, measure, and discuss what we are doing and why. We are big on science in this house and I have now been formally studying herbs, herbal medicine, and natural products for about three years.  Numerous friends and family have left my house with handmade goodies because they simply asked a question, paid a compliment, or just looked interested in what I was doing.  Any opportunity I get to share my knowledge, I jump right in.  After all, this is the medicine of the people.

As my studies at MUIH have progressed, so has my desire to share the knowledge that I have learned.  Not everyone needs to understand the phytochemistry or pharmacokinetics of plants (but wouldn’t that be great?), but there is no reason they can’t begin exploring the things that they can do and make for themselves.  I love empowering people to do things for themselves.  To this end, I decided it was time to reach out to groups that might be interested.  I really wanted to teach.

I contacted the Garden Club at Washington College.  My logic was that if anyone were going to love plants, it would be that group.  After a few weeks of correspondence, I taught my first workshop on Tuesday, October 10th.  This wasn’t a group of people that through birth, legal obligation, or friendship, are required to care about what I am doing or feign interest.  They didn’t have to pretend to like me or my message.  This was a group of intelligent, inquisitive college students with backgrounds ranging from Biology to Environmental Science.   In other words, this group was smart and kept me on my toes.

I consider myself lucky that they allowed me to share just a little bit of knowledge with them.  The workshop was very hands on, with the students measuring, pouring, and mixing while asking questions ranging from dosage of essential oils to whether particular plant oils were comedogenic.  Seriously, I couldn’t spell comedogenic, much less pronounce it correctly at 18.  I learned a lot from the group as they talked about what they were studying and the efforts underway at the college (which is truly fascinating so check out the Eastern Shore Food Lab).

 

 

In the course of an hour and a half the students made their own bath salts and lip balms. We discussed the role that the different ingredients played in the product, as well as how to change ratios or omit certain ingredients.  Everyone left with their own products, as well as the ability to recreate the recipes.  I am grateful for the experience and can’t wait to do it again.

 

 

 

 

What are your candles made of?

Do you love the smell of candles burning throughout your home?  Who doesn’t love lighting a candle and instantly transforming the mood?  We love them, too.  We also love our health and the health of our family, pets, and guests.  If you do, too then keep reading.

Everything you inhale enters your body (or else no one would care about secondhand smoke, right?).  There are a lot of scary ingredients in candles and they are a non-food item so manufacturers aren’t required to list all of the ingredients on the label.  You may be inadvertently creating a toxic atmosphere in your home that can contribute to a host of health issues.  Compounding the issue is that once you start researching candles, you may become confused.  Many companies, particularly conglomerates with commercial interests, have engaged in smear campaigns.  What? Over candles? Yes.

For starters, paraffin, the wax used for most commercially available candles, is created during the process of refining crude oil into gasoline.  It is a petroleum byproduct that, when burned (candles), releases at least four different carcinogens into the air.  If you light a couple of those yummy candles to make your home smell good, you may have exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency’s standards set forth for indoor air pollution, creating a toxic environment for you and your family. This is critically important if you have kids since children are more sensitive to the effects and the soot alone can cause respiratory issues.

The fragrance oils that make those candles smell so good contain nasty ingredients that can wreak havoc on your health. Benzene, found in many synthetic fragrances, was specifically mentioned as causing cancer in the President’s Cancer Panel.  Frequent use of air fresheners and candles containing synthetic fragrances has been demonstrated to increase ear infections in babies and headaches in mothers. An EPA report cited links to allergies, birth defects, cancer, and disorders of the central nervous system. Worse?  The label only has to say “fragrance” or “parfume”.

Sound fun? No? There are alternatives.  Look for natural waxes.  The options are generally beeswax, palm wax, or soy.  You can even read about different waxes from candle making experts, CandleWic.  Look for candles that are scented with essential oils, not synthetic fragrance oils.  At the end of the day, candle-making is a science.  Artificial waxes need artificial fragrance to blend well and really “throw” the scent.  So you pay more for a better product but there really is no middle ground.  Candles are made from quality ingredients or they aren’t.

I use beeswax in my candles.  I recommend beeswax (check out my post all about beeswax), however, I also recognize that my vegan friends need better options.  In that case, I recommend palm wax candles. Here’s why I do not support soy candles.

You may not want to spend more money on beeswax (go organic) and essential oils (if you want scented candles) but it could save your health.  Some people make their own candles or wax melts.  If you don’t have that inclination (or time), read product labels and descriptions carefully.  Ask questions about how the product is made and where the ingredients come from.  Above all else, educate yourself.  You are the consumer and you deserve better.

EPA Home » Science Inventory » CANDLES AND INCENSE AS POTENTIAL SOURCES OF INDOOR AIR POLLUTION: MARKET ANALYSIS AND LITERATURE REVIEW (EPA/600/R-01/001)

Essential oils in my food???

Essential Oils

There are essential oils in my food? Wait, what?  Why?

Well, I’m glad you asked. Let me explain the two different ways that eos are used in food.

  1. Food Preservation

Essential oils can serve a very vital purpose and prevent the growth of certain food-borne bacteria, such as L. monocytogenes (this is just one example).  L monocytogenes causes the illness, listeria, which leads to many deaths every year.  Pregnant women are often advised to avoid processed deli meats and other foods that are higher risk for listeria. Studies have shown promising evidence of some essential oils being useful at inhibiting the monotyogenes growth, even at low dilutions.

Other studies (below) have demonstrated the ability of cinnamon bark essential oil to damage the cellular structure of Staphylococcus aureus, amongst other bacteria. Because of its extreme antimicrobial acitivity, it is a useful food additive, as well as  preservative.

If you are interested in natural ways to preserve your food then take a look at these two links below.  I looked for scientific sources that carefully evaluate data, so potential bias is minimized.

Essential Oils in Food Preservation

Essential oils may provide good source of food preservation

2. Flavoring

Most of us are probably not looking for ways to preserve our food but that doesn’t mean that we can’t still use essential oils in our food and beverages.  *This is NOT the same thing as internal ingestion, which is a super hot button in the aromatherapy community.  That pertains to ingesting essential oils in water, gel capsules, or directly dropping them onto the tongue.  Essential oil dispersed in food will act very differently in your body and is less likely to cause irritation.*  We are talking about using essential oils that are recognized by the FDA to be safe in appropriate dilutions and are labeled as GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe).  Fun fact: this has been going on forever.  The food industry uses tons of essential oils in foods and drinks, often being directly responsible for their characteristic taste.

Fun fact: Juniper berries are responsible for gin’s characteristic taste!  

 

If you are the adventurous type and what to try some essential oils in your cooking, here are some tips below.  At some point I plan to do a post on making extracts, such as vanilla.

But first, Safety.  Repeat after me: OIL DOES NOT DISSOLVE IN WATER. Again. OIL DOES NOT DISSOLVE IN WATER.  You cannot put a few drops of essential oil in a glass of water and drink it safely. Oil does not dissolve in water, it isn’t water soluble. It will adhere directly to the lining of your throat as soon as it comes in contact. Anyone that tells you otherwise is not a trained aromatherapist. Or scientist.  It is indisputable chemistry.

Make sure your oils are very high quality.  No one wants to go eating a bunch of toxic diethyl phthalate used as a cheap filler or solvent in their essential oils.  See my blog on finding quality essential oils.

Start with one drop. They are very potent.  You can always add more, but you can’t undo a burning mouth or throat as easily. 

Add the oils near the end of the cooking as heat will damage them and potentially change their chemical properties.

Start simple. A couple of suggestions:

  • A drop of lemon in your cream cheese, icing, or pankcake batter is delicious.
  • Try a drop of cinnamon or nutmeg in your coffee or fall desserts.
  • How about peppermint in your homemade mint ice cream?

I’m sure there are plenty of recipes on Pinterest that you can try.  Keep in mind this is becoming a trend, so it may appear to be a new thing but it isn’t.  Like I mentioned above, this has been done in the food industry for ages.  If you are interested in giving it a shot, let me know how it works out.  And share some recipes!   

*Département De Biologie, Faculté Des Sciences, Université Abdelmalek Essaâdi, Tétouan, Morocco. “Functional and Ultrastructural Changes in Pseudomonas Aeruginosa and Staphylococcus Aureus Cells Induced by Cinnamomum Verum Essential Oil.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. U.S. National Library of Medicine, Oct. 2010. Web. 11 Dec. 2014.

 

The Birds and the Bees

Okay, we admit it.  We wanted to catch your attention, we aren’t really going to discuss the birds and the bees.  Just the bees.  Beeswax, specifically.  For our vegan friends, be aware that no bees are harmed, it’s just a byproduct.

Bees fly up to 3 miles away from their hives, collecting pollen wherever they go.  They take this back to their hive to make honey.  Worker bees produce wax in their abdominal glands and leave in or around the hive.  The wax is then used for various structural purposes in the hive: making cells to store honey, comfort for larvae, and protection. Once beekeepers extract the honey they have cera alba a.k.a. beeswax.

Since ancient times beeswax has had a LOT of uses.  Ever heard the phrase “mind your beeswax”?  We actually learned of the origin of the phrase while on a White House tour but you can learn about it here.  Beeswax has been used for centuries in salves, candles, sealants, etc.

According to Wikipedia,   “…it has been found in the tombs of Egypt, in wrecked Viking ships, and in Roman ruins. Beeswax never goes bad and can be heated and reused.”

Beeswax is used in the modern food industry to coat cheese during the aging process,  seal in food to maintain freshness, and as a glaze.  It is edible but does not have any real health benefits when consumed.  The thought of chewing on beeswax isn’t all the appealing, anyway.

As a natural, hypoallergenic emollient, beeswax really shines when used for all the things that we love most: health and beauty products.  It serves as an excellent barrier (think petroleum jelly but without the whole crude oil byproduct part) for the skin and lips.  When applied topically, the Vitamin A in beeswax, combined with its antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties, make it an excellent choice for treating acne, dry skin, eczema, stretch marks, and stimulating hair growth.

Our favorite thing about beeswax?  What it can do for allergies.  It’s used by many to help alleviate allergy symptoms since it’s natural properties protect the skin from airborne allergens.  When applied topically it serves as an excellent barrier (while still moisturizing the skin).  When used in a candle, it may benefit allergy sufferers since it is believed that the candles emit negative ions that “clean” the air of many allergens.  This is supposedly done when the negative ions bind with the positive ions (in this case the allergens) and neutralize each other.  I’ve seen no scientific studies proving or disproving this, but it’s a nice thought.  See why we choose beeswax for our candles.

Unless the beeswax is USDA Certified Organic, there is no way of knowing if the bees use pollen laden in toxic pesticides (to be fair, that’s not an absolute guarantee, either). This ends up in the wax and inside your body since what you breathe is absorbed into the body.  No one wants to breathe in vanilla-scented pesticide so logically you would want to make sure your beeswax was as pure as possible.

You may not want to spend more money on organic beeswax and essential oils but it could save your health.  Read product labels and descriptions carefully.  Ask questions about how the product is made and where the ingredients come from.  Above all else, educate yourself.  You are the consumer and you deserve better.

Natural Remedies for Combating Symptoms of the “Low-carb Flu”

Have you recently taken the plunge and undertaken a low carb, no-sugar diet like Whole30, Paleo, or Keto? If you have and you have found you are suffering from some of the many symptoms (and you want relief), then keep reading.

Design

“Low carb flu”, “carb flu”, and “keto flu” are all terms used to refer to the many unpleasant symptoms that may occur when switching to a low-carb, no sugar lifestyle. 

The symptoms may range from mental fog, nausea, fatigue, headaches, cramps, digestive issues, low energy levels, twitchiness, crankiness, and exhaustion.  Some people have characterized it as feeling like they were withdrawing from heroin. For me, I was an emotional terrorist, snapping at anyone in my path and only vaguely remembering why five minutes later.  I was one of the “lucky” ones.  I didn’t experience the other physical symptoms. Mine was mental and emotional.  I accidentally walked down the bread aisle and imagined myself ripping through a bag of bagels with my bare teeth and devouring every last one.

If you committed to one of these diets and have taken the time to do the tedious meal planning, I assume you were aware these symptoms could or would happen.  I will also assume that you have read about why.  I will provide a brief and not overly scientific explanation before moving on to what you can do to help alleviate the symptoms using some natural remedies.

WHY???  First, sugar.  Sugar is highly addictive.  It is as addictive, or more addictive, than many narcotic drugs.  Read that twice and let it sink in.  Here is just one study that shows that sugar is more addictive than cocaine. You are going through withdrawal from a highly addictive substance, just like a junkie.  Making it worse is that sugar is sugar. That means healthy sugar, imitation sugar (which is the devil), and carbohydrates (because your body converts unused carbs to sugar!) are all fueling your addiction.  Now that you are denying yourself all that pleasure-center activating sugar, you are going to feel like crap.

The other reason for all the unpleasantness has to do with your gut. Each of us have unique flora in our gut. This is determined by a lot of factors, most notably, your diet.  Your old diet, like 2-7 days old, is going to play a part in how you feel now.  Any drastic dietary changes will trigger a reaction where your gut needs to find some harmony. 

Until it does, you may suffer the dreaded “flu”.  Moving on… what can we do to make it better?

You should have read up before kicking off your diet.  There are some standard nuggets of wisdom: find a support network, get sufficient rest, exercise, drink tons of water, etc. 

 Those are critical to your success (and comfort!).  But you didn’t come here because I’m a diet expert (I’m not).  Sometimes those things just aren’t enough and you want some extra help.  If you are looking for natural, safe, mild alternatives, you are in the right place.  

 

I have created a list of things that you can try to help alleviate each symptom. To make it easy for you, it is in a completely free, downloadable infographic (the one above). Let me know what you think!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Essential Oils and the Law

Essential Oils (1)


If any of you are like I was, you began your essential oil journey in an earnest attempt to find the best ways to care for yourself and your family. Maybe you didn’t. Maybe you just like the way they smell as air freshener, personal perfume, or additives to your cleaning supplies. No matter what you use essential oils for, it’s important to understand the laws surrounding them.

U.S. regulations regarding natural products are unclear, ambiguous, and often confusing. The European Union (EU) has more specific definitions but even so, still lacks total clarity. I’ll try my best to break this down and make it easier.

Let’s look at some legislative definitions.

“Natural”

This word is easy for us all to understand, right? This is the most challenging and complex of the definitions.

“Natural” by U.S. standards means that all of the materials used to create something are derived from nature (that “derived from” part is the loophole). This looser interpretation of natural means that so long as a product contains all natural ingredients, it can still be considered a natural product, i.e. essential oils, smoke based flavors, etc. EU standards have a more restrictive definition of the term “natural” and apply it to the manufacturing process, as well as the component ingredients. The chemicals used for extraction, as well as the exact temperature that can be used are highly regulated. Many things that are “natural” by U.S. standards would not be deemed so when applying the EU standard.

The U.S. has the Flavoring Extract Manufacturer Association (FEMA). The EU has a comparable group, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). They also have the European Flavors and Fragrances Association (EFFA). The EU has new regulations that further restrict ingredients by implementing a list of positive ingredients that are much easier to regulate.

“Organic”

The USDA “Organic” seal is protected by federal law (7 CFR Part 205.311). In order to use it companies must comply with a set of USDA standards and have official certification (USDA Organic Factsheet). Pay close attention to the labels. If a product says “organic” it means that 95% of the ingredients meet organic criteria. The only way that you know the product is totally organic is if it says “100% Organic”. Non-agricultural products are broken down into: soap (self-explanatory), cosmetic, or a drug (FD&C Act, sec. 201 (i).

“Cosmetic”

The Federal Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) defines cosmetics as “articles intended to be rubbed, poured, sprinkled, or sprayed on, introduced into, or otherwise applied to the human body…for cleansing, beautifying, promoting attractiveness, or altering the appearance.”

Cosmetics are things like: moisturizers, hair products, lipstick, deodorant, makeup remover, nail polish, etc. If your cosmetic products claim to cure you of something then it is also a drug (or known as a “cosmeceutical”).

“Drug”

This is where it gets scary, folks, pay attention. Drugs are classified by their intended use. The FDA classifies drugs as “articles intended for use in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease” and “articles (other than food) intended to affect the structure or any function of the body of man or other animals”. Why should you care? Well, your essential oil products (and some cosmetics!) may actually fall into this category.

Now, why do you care?

Whether you use, purchase, or sell essential oils, listen up. If you sell someone an essential oil and tell them that the oil, peppermint, for an example, will restore hair growth, lower a fever, treat indigestion, etc, you are breaking the law. Those are considered medical claims and it makes the product a drug. Unless you are a licensed physician, you are now practicing medicine without a license (hence the breaking the law part). Is it always fair? No. There are plenty of times we all eye-roll because we know peppermint tea helps an upset stomach. Is it necessary? Yes. I will give you a very real example. If you are offended, then you are exactly the person that needs to be reading this article.

Sellers/associates of both DoTerra and Young Living were caught making egregious and unqualified medical claims. These individual sellers were stating on social media, in sales “parties”, and on their personal blogs and websites that their products could cure all manner of diseases, to include Ebola. Yes, you read that correctly! These well-intended, but grossly unqualified people were making profits by telling the world they could cure a disease that is closely regulated and has not been tested against any of those products. The result was that both companies received warning letters from the FDA, advising them of the violations and directing them to remove all marketing materials related to the claims. If not, the FDA will initiate regulatory actions. You can read the DoTerra letter here and the Young Living letter here.

I use that situation as an example of why regulation is important. It is not to pick on either company. They happen to be the largest essential oil sellers in the U.S. so it’s natural that they would get caught for violations that I’m sure many smaller companies make, as well. I am a huge advocate of people choosing to buy their products wherever they want, based on educated choices.

To be clear, I am no fan of the FDA or the USDA and have a fair amount of distrust when it comes t the motives and honesty of both. Either way, essential oils are tricky but we are still ultimately responsible for compliance. If you don’t sell essential oils or essential oil products, knowing the regulations is still worthwhile. Pay attention to who you buy them yours from and what their qualifications are. If you are purchasing from someone that does not know the law, you may want to reconsider where you source your products.

Pheromones

Hola! To conclude our posts on aromatherapy and how smells work, I am going to break down pheromones for you. Hold tight, it might get a bit science-y.  Feel free to leave questions or comments at the end.

Last time, we briefly mentioned pheromones.  Here’s a refresher:

    In humans, our olfactory systems are rather elementary compared to other animals but it is still important for gathering information.  Odors and pheromones are translated into those electrical signals, conveying messages to the brain that elicit some type of response.  Odors are detected in the nose in the nasal olfactory epithelium (OE).  

    Animals detect pheromones via the VNO, the vomeronasal organ.  Some scientists believe that the VNO is an inactive organ in humans and that humans simply do not communicate via chemosignals.   Others know that scientific evidence proves this very concept.  Numerous tests have shown that when exposed to the smell of mens’ sweat, women’s physiological responses demonstrated statistically significant changes, classifying the sweat, or components of it, as pheromones.

 

So, what are pheromones?

Pheromones, like other hormones, are at the core, single compounds or small sets of chemicals secreted by animals.  Pheromones are set apart from other hormones in that once secreted, they act outside the body to affect the behavior of other animals, rather than just the animal secreting the pheromone.

There are several types of pheromones and each is secreted to trigger different types of behavior.  Pheromones are often misunderstood and considered to be related only to sex.  They are secreted for various other reasons:  alarm, bonding, food, marking territory, communicating that another animal should back off, etc.

Pheromones are detected by animals through an organ in the nose named the VNO (Vomeronasal Organ).  The VNO is connected to the brain via the hypothalamus.  This is how animals “receive” the communication.  Humans have the same 4 types of pheromones as other animals: releasers, primers, signalers, and modulators.  

  • Releaser pheromones are the ones most commonly thought to communicate sexual desire to another human, however there isn’t a lot of current evidence on the reliance of these pheromones in sexual attraction.  There is some evidence showing the involvement of releaser pheromones in guiding an infant to a lactating mother.
  • Primer pheromones are linked to the reproductive system.  They can impact puberty, menstruation, and pregnancy. This would include the lengthening, shortening, or synchronization of menstrual cycles based on who the menstruating woman was around, male or female, and how often.
  • Signaler pheromones are informative and communicate a certain type of information between humans. The most commonly cited example is the one of a mother being able to identify her newborn by scent alone.  Ovulating women may also signal when they are fertile.
  • Modulator pheromones communicate that a bodily function of another human needs to be altered in some way.  This can be anything from mood to sexual desire.

If you made it this far, thanks for hanging in there! You are now equipped with a whole lot of nerdy knowledge about smells work and why they matter.  Feel free to leave your comments below.