Lecture to the Royal College of Nurses conference
on complementary medicine in 1992

by Martin Watt cert. phyt. medical herbalist.

Paul has asked me to start the day and I am told that I have to wake everyone
up. To do that I will pass on to you some of my knowledge about the
misleading and untruthful claims made by some complementary therapies and
in particular aromatherapy. Paul invented the title 'pragmatic aromatics' after
we had a meeting and discussed complementary therapies at length. I think he
soon realised that I was not the average practitioner who had blindly learnt
everything taught in various courses and then regurgitated it to others without
further thought, investigation, or research. As time is short, I am going to read
the paper I have prepared so that more time can be allowed at the end for

About me, I trained full time for 3 and a half years to qualify as a medical
herbalist, but soon realised that my course could have been done in about 2
years if it had been properly organised and if a lot of the unnecessary material
was trimmed. A lot of the reason for this length of time was simply an attempt
to convince the medical and scientific establishment that we were receiving
adequate training, particularly since we were taught pathology and clinical
examination by doctors. In fact one of the doctors who was also studying
psychiatry, had such a 'holier than thou' attitude and Victorian approach to
teaching, that it made me feel very sorry for any medical students who were
trained by his idiotic methods. It also indicated to me one of the reasons that
western style psychiatry is not particularly successful, perhaps one of the
reasons that aromatherapy is so successful for psychiatric disorders is due to
its more gentle and caring approach to peoples problems.

It is due to these experiences that I strongly believe length of training should
never be considered the main criteria for judging the depth of knowledge of
anyone including those in the medical profession. They in particular are well
known for filling the heads of students with unnecessarily detailed information
which once qualified they rarely find of any value. The skills of counselling are
still not considered as vital as knowing the name of the middle ligament of the
small toe.

Like conventional medicine, this over emphasis on academic standards is now
bringing into complementary medicine on the longer courses, a lot of
academically bright young people who generally do not possess those life skills
so vital for dealing sympathetically and effectively with peoples health
problems. Frequently pure medical attention can not fully address those
problems. Thank goodness aromatherapy still has a high degree of more
mature people who's practical life experiences are invaluable to helping their

At the moment there are proposals to increase the number of hours required
for aromatherapy training, but no one ever talks about the quality of this
training and whether the people doing it know enough about the subjects
they are teaching. In my opinion most of them don't and there are very few
who are prepared to accept that a lot of what they have taught in the past is

I have studied essential oils for about 8 years and intensively for 3-4 years and
I freely admit that my knowledge is limited. I have only scratched the surface
of learning about the multitude of uses they can be put to, therefore how
people who have done a few weekends aromatherapy training and claim they
know all they need to about their stock in trade is beyond me.

So there is a lot wrong in regard to training in the understanding of ill health
and the methods of dealing with it on all sides.

How I got involved with seeking correct information.

During my herbalist training it soon became apparent that a lot of the herbal
materia medica we were being given was very lacking in references as to
where the information originally came from. We were expected simply to learn
it without being able to check if the information was correct. This I could never
accept, and it forced me to start looking around for more accurate sources of
information. This led me to the science reference libraries and other libraries in
London, where I soon realised that extensive and more accurate information
on plant extracts, and their traditional uses in medicine around the world was

This is where aromatherapy and essential oils come in. During my training I
became interested in the therapeutic properties of medicinal plant oils, this
interest was increased once I qualified in massage and started to find that
certain essential oils seemed to improve therapeutic effects.

During my study in the libraries I came across masses of information on the
science of essential oils. I should add that a particular talent of mine is
digging out information from obscure sources. In this regard I soon discovered
that the place to look for information about essential oils was not in medical
publications but rather in the food, cosmetics, perfumery and phytochemistry
sections. It became pretty obvious that those trades knew more about the
production, chemistry and effects of essential oils than anyone in
complementary medicine.

It was due to knowing of the existence of all that information that several
years later when I became involved with EOTA (the aromatherapy oil traders
organisation,) that I knew exactly where to look for the toxicological
information that some members were seeking. It makes me sick when I still
hear people in the trade and in the medical profession saying "little research
has been done on natural plant medicines" this is complete and utter

Now truths and untruths in complementary medicine.

There are an awful lot of frauds, con-artists and plagiarists in alternative
medicine and in aromatherapy. I know most of them, but neither is the
medical profession free of such people.
There are some well known figures
in aromatherapy who have produced little original work themselves, instead
they wait until someone else has produced something of note and then
reproduce the material as if it was their own, but without any
acknowledgement to the original author. Due to the lack of depth of
knowledge on the part of many aromatherapy tutors and their lack of interest
in thoroughly researching their subjects, a lot of aromatherapy tuition material
and especially books are full of major factual errors. Due to the extensive
copying of bits of each others books many of these errors are proliferated ad
infinitum. This is not to say that aromatherapists do not know how to treat
certain complaints, because over the years they have built up information from
observable effects on their clients, but where they go badly wrong is on their
knowledge of essential oils chemistry, toxicology and particularly the
dermatological effects of the oils.

After doing the research for my safety manual, I could not understand some of
the statements being promoted by aromatherapists on the contra-indications
of certain oils. I and others, have never succeeded in getting the main
associations to divulge where such information originated. The suspicion it is
mostly copied and copied again without anyone checking if the information is
correct which a lot is not.

Some of the trade journals are under the indirect or direct control of their
founders who are aromatherapists with vested business interests. Due to this
you can't get articles published where the information differs markedly from
the teachings of the magazine founders. I have twice come across this recently
where articles I have submitted containing well researched and referenced
information, have either not been published or have been substantially cut and

Oils supply.
There are some suppliers of essential oils who are well aware that they are not
selling pure oils and do not care. There are others who say their oils have been
analysed when they either have not, or they have not been subjected to the
full range of testing procedures. These suppliers are still back in the days when
aromatherapy was an offshoot of the beauty business and if oils were cut with
fragrance chemicals "so what they are only used externally". Why do you think
most suppliers put 'do not ingest' on labels, and yet essential oils are common
food flavours, it is because they can't rely on their oils being free of fragrance
chemicals and so they are playing safe.
Attempts have been made to remedy this sad position by introducing certain
standards for oils. However, these are not infallible as some of the
organisations who undertake analysis do not know enough about the chemistry
of natural oils or about the trade in essential oils to be able to correctly
authenticate the oils as 100% genuine. Other suppliers play on the fallacy that
the best oils come from France by implying that all their oils originate there,
when in fact they also buy from normal commercial sources. If I know an oil
has come from anything other than a certified organic grower in France it sets
bells ringing in my head. This is because the French fragrance chemists rank
amongst some of the cleverest at oil modification. I use the word 'modification'
rather than 'adulteration', as there are valid reasons for the large fragrance
suppliers to alter the composition of oils. One reason is that their main
customers are large perfumers who must have standardised ingredients, they
simply can't accept the perfumes varying from batch to batch. Therefore these
large customers rule the roost as aromatherapy is insignificant by comparison.
I have not got the latest figures, but some years ago, the yearly production of
lavender in France was 50 tons and they exported 400 tons, the difference
being partly oils cut with chemicals, or imported lavender being blended with
French oil.

Despite some suppliers of oils not caring about their authenticity, there are a
few genuine suppliers who do their utmost to ensure they only sell the real

Therapeutic effects.
As a herbalist I can tell that many of the claimed therapeutic actions of
essential oils are simply a transference of the known actions of herbal medicine
to the oils. This of course is totally wrong, since many of the actions of herbs
are due to the water soluble components. As nurses you will of course be
aware that many potent plant based medicines are alkaloids or glycosides,
examples are atropine, morphine, digitalis, vinblastine and vincristine. Such
water soluble chemicals do not form part of an essential oil. Another well worn
myth associated with aromatherapy is the actions given to oils when used
externally in massage, which are again transference's from the known action of
oils from internal consumption. The best example is 'fennel is diuretic or
oestrogenic'. When used in massage, in my opinion, this is utter nonsense.
Several oils including fennel have known diuretic action when consumed and it
is now believed that the resulting diuresis is caused by the oil irritating the
kidney tubules. I have seen no evidence that most essential oils are absorbed
by the skin in sufficient amounts to cause any such action.

Of course just massage can have a diuretic effect due to unloading lymph into
the venous system. I would consider it feasible that the smell of fennel by
affecting the brain, could lead to diuresis as I believe that this is the method by
winch most essential oils achieve therapeutic effects. I do not subscribe to the
theory that essential oils are absorbed by the skin and thence to the circulation
in pharmacologically significant amounts, in fact the evidence of skin patch
tests points to the reverse. Of much greater interest, is the fact that a tiny
number of essential oils winch are freely absorbed also tend to be the ones
which cause skin irritation or sensitization.

So you may ask because I know of all this fraud why am I still involved with
aromatherapy? The answer is that despite all the hype associated with this
treatment, it is a highly effective therapy, and for stress related ailments there
is nothing to beat it. Having treated people with massage using fixed oils and
then gone on to using aromatherapy, a substantial increase in relaxation
occurred when using essential oils. This effect has been substantiated by
subsequent medical trials plus trials of major components of oils on animals.
Give instances of linalool, neroli. I just wish western style psychiatry would
embrace it, as then they would achieve much more satisfactory results. The
combination of treatments involved in aromatherapy massage seem to quickly
bring the patient into a near hypnotic state in which the subconscious mind
seems very amenable to auto-suggestion. You can definitely make things
happen by making the right comments when people are in this state. I used to
find that those people with the more active and analytical minds were the
quickest to get into this state of receptiveness to suggestions on improving
their health.

I believe the effects of fragrances on the brain can help the initiation of self
healing processes. Smell can produce profound alterations in physiology, the
simplest best know example is what the smell of food does to the salivary and
digestive systems which are instantly prepared for food. Lavender and Jasmine
have been shown to alter brain patterns. Research in America has shown that
the smell of breast milk and mothers natural smell is of utmost importance for
the baby bonding process. The medical profession stand indited here for
removing this natural mechanism by their undue haste in bathing both mother
and baby post birth.

For any muscular, ligament and tendon problems you can achieve a great deal
of long lasting pain relief and prevent further damage to tissues by releasing
muscular guarding.

There is a vast amount of minor illness and side effects of medical procedures
which could be dealt with by nurses if they were allowed to use more natural
medicine techniques. Past generations of nurses did with great success, and we
are not talking about that far back, just look at nurses Materia Medicas of the
1950s. Those are full of plant based medicines on which nurses would have
received instruction during their training, and which they had considerably
more discretion to use than now. There is no doubt in my mind, that its time
for nurses to stand up to the paternalistic, Victorian attitude of doctors and
consultants and tell them to keep to their jobs and let you get on with taking
care of the patients general well being which is what nursing was originally
developed for. In most hospitals nurses can take no independent action without
first referring to a doctor or consultant. (give example of pain after wrist op.)

Finally a piece of advice I give to students of any subject; question everything
you are taught, even the best of tutors make mistakes. If you are not satisfied
check original sources of information for yourself and ask where statements
made can be checked. This is of great importance in complementary medicine
as a lot of tutors have not studied the subjects they teach carefully enough.
Never be afraid of being a lone dissenting voice. When you are dealing with
peoples health particularly in nursing you owe it to them to give the best
advice and treatment within your abilities. question, check and question again.

I am trying to do my bit to inject some truth into aromatherapy. If
complimentary medicine in general does not start questioning what they no, I
am convinced the big brothers in the drugs businesses will destroy natural
medicine. They are already attempting this via their supporters in the sciences
and medical establishment.

I sincerely hope what I have said has given you food for thought rather than
confused you. There is not much time for questions, but I shall be here for the
rest of the conference so feel free to ask me about anything you want
clarification on.

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