Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Essential Oil in Focus: Wintergreen

Botanical name: Gaultheria procumbens

Aroma type: herbaceous/medicinal

Note: Middle - Top

When students first start training in Aromatherapy, they are given a list of oils which are considered too hazardous to be used in aromatherapy so should be avoided. Wintergreen is one of the essential oils which feature on the list. If wintergreen (or any of the other oils on the list) are not safe to use, then why are they still manufactured and why do many aromatherapy stockists still sell them? If Wintergreen is considered to be that hazardous, then why is it the main ingredient of shop-bought muscle rubs such as deep heat? The leaf and stem of the plant are also listed in the British Herbal Pharmacopoeiaas being helpful for rheumatoid arthritis!

Many of the oils on the “hazard” list are very beneficial oils: pennyroyal is excellent for rheumatism and arthritis; camphor is beneficial for respiratory problems; sage is helpful for menstrual problems; and wintergreen is great for joint and muscle aches and pains. These oils are very beneficial when used correctly so they are definitely best left for the professional aromatherapist as it is important to get the right dilution for a blend. The main concern with these oils is that they are toxic when taken internally but as they aren’t used in this way in aromatherapy this shouldn’t present a problem.

The properties of Wintergreen essential oil are anti-rheumatic, anti-inflammatory, rubefacient (increases blood circulation to the area and warms the skin), analgesic, astringent, anti-tussive (suppresses and relieves coughing), carminative, diuretic, emmenagogue, and antiseptic.

Wintergreen can help with lumbago, sciatica, arthritis, gout, bursitis, bunions, rheumatism, sprains/strains, neuralgia, fibromyalgia, muscular aches and pains, respiratory conditions, sinusitis, coughs, tendonitis, nasal congestion, colds/flu, asthma, cramps, muscle spasms, digestive problems, fluid retention, PMT, and irregular/lack of periods.

Wintergreen contains 98% methyl salicylate. When applied to the skin, the salicylates are absorbed and enter the tissues to inhibit the formation of prostaglandins (a substance which acts like a hormone which is produced in response to trauma and has an effect on smooth muscle activity), thereby reducing inflammation and pain.

Wintergreen should not be used if you are allergic to aspirin, if you suffer with liver problems, are on blood thinning medication (anti-coagulants) such as warfarin or heparin, or if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. The essential oil should also be avoided if you are already using any medication or topical creams which contain methyl salicylate. I’d also advise that it not be used on children.

A suitable blend for use on sprains and sore muscles would be 35 drops in 250mls of witch hazel. The blend can be bottled and stored in the fridge to keep cool. This makes an excellent rub to use after exercise. Wintergreen can also be added to a carrier oil (Arnica would be a good choice) along with other essential oils such as thyme, black pepper, ginger, marjoram, and eucalyptus. Blends containing wintergreen (including shop bought products) should not be used on large surface areas just on the localised area of pain so don’t cover your whole body in it at once! It is advisable to perform a patch test first as wintergreen can be an irritant to sensitive skin.

It’s not the best smelling oil but when blended with other essential oils it can become less overpowering. It apparently blends well with ylang ylang, ravensara, peppermint, and the oils I have already listed above. I actually quite like the smell - just think deep heat and you’ve got it! I think I like the smell because I know it is really good for soothing my aching muscles after a hard karate session rather than me actually liking the aroma in its own right.

Sweet Birch essential oil has nearly the exact chemical make up as wintergreen and is also an excellent choice for musculoskeletal problems. Both oils have been used in herbal remedies for centuries.

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