SYNERGY: A FOUR-PART HARMONY
Edited by Sherill Pociecha, Dyndelf Aromatics
The term synergy is used all the time in aromatherapy, sometimes referring to the special qualities of a single oil but most often to talk about blends. If you've ever felt confused about just what the term means in aromatherapy, you are not alone! The following discussion—a sort of synergy in itself? —might shed some light.
Cast of Characters:
The art of Aromatherapy is the mixing of essential oils to help multiply the beneficial effects of the oils and reduce the negative side effects that some oils have. For instance, many spice oils can have very beneficial effects in treating conditions such as rheumatism and arthritis, yet these oils can cause a toxic reaction with some people and some skin types. Thus, by careful blending of oils, the toxic side effects can be reduced and, in some cases, eliminated. Further, the therapeutic effects of the oils can be increased by careful blending of oils. These blends are known as “synergies.”
However, not all blends are synergies. There is a misconception that all essential oil blends are synergies. A synergy is a blend that has a therapeutic effect greater than the oils would have had individually.
Sherill chimes in:
Good point. The term synergy is used a lot in this field, often
rather vaguely. The definition you give here is a good one, for
therapeutic blends; it's also worth being aware, though, that lots of
people, including many AT authors, use the word synergy to
describe a nicely balanced blend in the perfumery sense.
Now my question is, defining synergy as Ian has here, how can one tell whether the blend one is concocting is a synergy or an oil spill? Just by checking it out and seeing if it seems to work better than any single oil? Seems like a lengthy (at least lengthy!) undertaking in many cases—checking out a whole array of single oils to compare them to a blend or, more probably, variations on a blend. And, even if I took to scalding my wrist every week to check out the effects of a series of single oils as opposed to several variations of possible blends, rigorously ruling out as many other factors affecting the rate of healing as I could, all I'd really have in the end is anecdotal evidence boiling down to, “My blend is a synergy because I say it's a synergy.”
I've never seen any works on eo's that go into this question from the chemistry standpoint (such as, "30% alpha-limonene combined with 15% nerol = cellulite-fighting synergy"). Maybe there are some blind studies that have gone into the effects of oil x on its own for condition y, as opposed to blends of oil x + oil z, but we don't often see these quoted. And when I see books like 357 Blends for Aromatherapy, no offense, but, I really don't expect that the authors did this kind of study to establish for each of 357 blends that it really is more potent than any of the ingredients on their own might be or than any other proportions of the same ingredients (and more potent for whom would, of course, have to be another question).
I do believe blends can be more effective than single
oils; please don't
get me wrong. And there are plenty of useful common-sense sort of
principles about blending (e.g., don't add rosemary if you're aiming
at a relaxing blend or the more you know about individual eo's,
the better chance you have of coming up with a good blend). In
my opinion intuition or instinct can contribute very valuably to the
blending process as well. All I'm trying to say is, assuming the
word “synergy” means more than the word “blend,” or even more
than “good blend,” what are the criteria that we use
to distinguish a synergy?
These are good points to bring up.
In Shirley Price's Aromatherapy Workbook, she gives a table of the
different chemical groupings and what effect(s) each grouping has.
So, for instance, if you want an antispasmodic, you should go for
oils with esters, phenolic ethers, sesquiterpenes, or phenols. Now,
with one oil you may have some of these constituents but with two or
three you may have more and potentially have more effect. I know that
the French base their practice on chemical constituents of oils, but
I haven't looked at blends suggested by either the French or others
to see if they are likely to act synergistically or if the blends are
suggested for other reasons.
However, on the basis of the work I did with headlice, when I looked at what I thought were the effective components and existing recipes for headlice, the recipes and effective components did not always tally (or maybe there was one effective component in one of the oils but none in the other two or three listed in the blend). This may mean that the recipes are not effective, or it may mean something else.
Another point is that there are usually several oils suitable for a
particular condition, and maybe a blend of some of these is
preferable in medicinal terms to just one, particularly if you are
trying to treat the person holistically for more than, say, a skin
problem. In this case, the aromatherapist may not be analyzing the
chemical constituents when formulating the blend. When I give
massages this is how I decide what oils to use.
Thanks, I needed that! I've heard that it's not really possible to attribute effects to whole categories of chemical constituents—not all esters are equal, not all ketones are neurotoxic, etc.—but I see what you mean.
Is this approach, in essence, any different from knowing the individual
oils well and combining them on the basis of, say, common sense (it isn't, quite!) or on the basis of
knowing what they do and therefore how they ought to work
I see that it could be different. If I want an antispasmodic blend, I can combine a few oils that I know to be antispasmodic, and if I lack this knowledge of chemistry, I might choose oils that are all antispasmodic in the ester fashion and, therefore, come up with a blend that's really no more potent than a single high-ester oil on its own. But if I use a chart like the kind you've described, I can make sure there are different kinds of antispasmodic constituents in the blend, and that will be more effective. Is that what you're saying? (I don't mean to be ignoring the fact that any given oil is composed of chemical constituents from more than one category, I'm just trying to simplify the discussion.)
As Lowana points out, a blend may be preferable in treating a person holistically for more than one problem. To continue with the antispasmodic example, I would consider a range of factors associated with the spasms themselves, e.g., the stress that aggravates them, the concomitant pain, etc., and try to address all of them in my blend.
So, which (if any!) of the following definitions is meant by the term synergy?
Again, my point is that the term synergy is
used all the time in aromatherapy, but it's not all that clear what
people mean when they use it.
I think the answer to most of your questions is “yes.” From my training, I try to work mostly in the areas of your definitions 1-4 and hope that number 5 happens!
It seems to me that a knowledge of the chemical constituents is
necessary, together with experience of which oils work best
as, say, antispasmodics. And also knowing that quite often these
spasms may be occurring because of stress or worry and, therefore,
addressing those concerns with the oils. My training also taught
me to probe a little in the consultation: “So, Mrs. Client, you think
you get your stomach spasms mostly when you're under stress
with deadlines at work? Have you considered other stress reduction
techniques, such as deep breathing, meditation, exercise, taking
more frequent breaks, or, even, changing your job?”
The difference I've seen recently in one client, who actually did change her job (not at my suggestion, she worked it out for herself), is nothing short of miraculous! My view is that a holistic approach involves looking at the person as a whole—all aspects of their life.
© S. Pociecha 1999
Graphics © S. Isakson 2000
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