Herbs and Oils: a comparison: The strengths and weaknesses of herbs and essential oils

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Herbs have been used in worldwide healing traditions for thousands of years. The term herbs – pronounced “erbs” in most of North America but “herbs” (with the H) in other areas, including England – properly refers to non-woody (“herbaceous”) plants that die down to the ground after flowering. In common usage, however, you’ll hear the name herb applied to any plant or plant product that can be used in cooking, healing, or other uses.

Most of the herbs we use and recognize – oregano, thyme, sage, basil, marjoram, lavender – are of a particular type of plant: small, green, leafy, and members of the mint family. Plants in the mint family have square stems, strong fragrances, and are rich in the chemical constituents that the human body can use to repair and heal itself – the same chemical components that, when properly extracted, make up an essential oil.

Herbs can be invaluable when used fresh or dried; in poultices; taken internally in capsules, tinctures or teas; or for bathing and external use. However, those of you who are familiar with other of my writings won’t be surprised when I warn you about the downside of commercially available herbs that are being grown and sold today.

A lot of herbs used in supplements and other wellness products are grown with pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. The drying process for most herbs, unless you do it yourself, can rob them of whatever medicinal value they may have. Finally, most herbs are packaged and may sit on shelves in their little plastic bottles for years before we buy them…

…All of which means that unless we’re harvesting for ourselves or we know a supplier directly, we would do well to check out the herbs that we’re using very thoroughly, or risk poor quality or even useless supplies. This is the reason that so many people are skeptical of herbal medicine – because the herbs they’ve tried really haven’t done much for them. Of course chemical-laden, irradiated, desiccated, dried herbs aren’t working!

The drying process is the reason that essential oils are often superior to dried herbs

It takes a large mass of fresh herbs to get much value from them, because fresh herbs (like raw vegetables, or any living plant) are made up mostly of water. In order to concentrate the nutrients and the active chemicals in the herbs, they are dried for medicinal use. In the process, the most volatile chemical elements in the plant evaporate off with the water and are lost. These are the chemicals that we regain, in concentrated form, when we turn to an essential oil in the place of a dried herb.