Folklore Thursday: Healing Oils

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I have been interested in aromatherapy for many years. While scientific evidence is still thin on the ground, clinical studies have found that rose, lavender and frankincense oils reduced anxiety in women giving birth, when administered by a qualified midwife; and that neroli reduced anxiety in people having a coloscopy.


I have also found neroli and frankincense useful during stressful times, and do find them calming. While lavender is an oil that many people find relaxing and use as a sleep aid, I often find it refreshing.

My sister recently sent me some Methyl Salicyate, Camphor and Menthol Oil, to help with my joint pain. It is wonderfully warming and relaxing, without the sting that comes with many lotions (though do use it according to instructions as it can be dangerous otherwise.)

Herbal Healing


On further investigation, there are roots of similar treatments in plantlore. Salycilic acid is found in willow bark, among other places, and is the active ingredient in aspirin. Hippocrates recommended willow bark to ease pain and fight fever. It has also been written about in historical texts worldwide, including Assyria, China, Egypt, Sumer and Europe.

Menthol is derived from mint, which is thought to have a number of healing properties. Horsemint has been used to treat back pain in Native American cultures. Modern research shows menthol can be an effective aid for pain relief.

Camphor is another folk remedy with deep roots. Produced by the camphor laurel, it is a waxy substance that was used in early culture to purify the air. It is also used as a decongestant (inhaled) and a circulation stimulant.

Camphor is used in ayurveda to stimulate the digestive system, and in Chinese medicine to treat muscular pains and rheumatism. It is also believed to be an antispasmodic, ease anxiety and soothe nervous disorders.

The Science Behind the Folklore

Research has shown that camphor may help ease the severity of osteoarthritis  symptoms when used in a cream also containing  glucosamine sulfate, and chondroitin sulfate.

In 2005, researchers at Cheju National University, South Korea, found that camphor interrupts the production of chemical messengers involved in the creation of pain sensations and the inflammatory response.

Another 2005 study, from Harvard Medical School, found that camphor brings a cooling feeling and helps reduce the perception of pain by desensitising a protein called TRPV1, which plays a central role in the body’s sensation of heat.

Get Oiled?

I’ve certainly found the oil effective – more so than Deep Heat or warming pads (which are great for pain but always make me feel environmentally guilty).

As with anything, do check healing oils won’t interact with medication you are on: camphor is particularly risky if you are on medication that affects the liver. However, by combining ancient wisdom with modern research, you may find new ways to ease your aches and pains.

#FolkloreThurs is a great hashtag to follow on Twitter if you’re interested in plantlore, folklore, myth and storytelling. Follow @FolkloreThurs and share your favourite stories and traditions.

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