Using essential oils in accordance with Chinese medicine

With the increased popularity of essential oils, learn how to incorporate them in your veterinary practice to positively affect patient care.

Many diseases result from habituations that create chronicity. Essential oils are among the modalities that can change habituations. Sensations create our perception and oils can change our perception.

Essential oils represent the genetic unfolding of the plant – the Jing, the essence of the plant. They therefore have potential effects on physical developmental problems as well as the mental and spiritual development of an individual. The plant’s Jing will resonate with the body’s Jing. As a result, a vast degree of possible healing can occur when essential oils are applied to acupuncture meridians such as the Eight Extraordinary channels, Yuan-source points, or Mu-points.

Dr. Jeffrey Yuen first began using essential oils in his pediatric practice, since children often fear needles and do not want to eat/drink Chinese herbs. This is also often the case with animals.

It is important to use oils on yourself so you can personally experience their effects. The aromas can induce five different states that can influence and affect an individual, and transform one emotion into another e.g. fear into acceptance.

The five states are:

  1. Healing relaxation – resins like Frankincense and myrrh can create this state.
  2. Assistance with non-healing wounds.
  3. A sense of internal beauty, help with self-esteem and lifting of the spirit – floral oils such as carnation can create this emotional state in which a patient learns to love.
  4. Nobility – it’s enhanced when one is able to embrace both the bad and the good and still see the beauty or the worth in any situation. Sage is an example of an oil to use for this purpose.
  5. A solitary state without distraction – some aromas such as sandalwood, vetiver and spikenard root can encourage this. An oil with a light intensity, like citrus, will affect the moods very quickly. Moderately intense aromas will affect the emotions, while a strongly intense aroma can affect temperament.

Oil quality is critical

The preparation of essential oils varies and some should never be used on animals.

  1. Absolutes have been extracted using chemicals, so should never be used on animals, either topically or internally.
  2. You should always use medicinal quality oils; these are safe if ingested.
  3. Hydrosols can be used in place of essential oils to avoid toxicity issues, although they may be less effective.

Mechanisms of action

There are many theories around how essential oils work. For example, the chemotype theory is based on the pharmacology of the chemical components found in essential oils. Clinical results points to the efficacy of the oils, and testing has been done to find out which organs are predominantly affected by which oils. For example, rosemary oil is associated with the liver.

Most oils contain monoterpenes, which are antiseptic and antibacterial. These are used to stimulate acupuncture points and tend to irritate the skin. An example would be using lemon on St 26 to stimulate the Wei Qi, the defensive immune system, for any immune
deficiency or imbalance.

Other oils contain sesquiterpenes, which are antiseptic, antibacterial and anti-viral, and soothing to the skin. They are more cooling and nourishing. An example would be using chamomile to help with sleep.

Additional characteristics are also attached to other groups of oils:

  • Alcohol groups tend to be strongly antibacterial, anti-viral, and anti-inflammatory. E.g. lavender.
  • Ketone groups break up fat (lipolytic) and phlegm (mucolytic) and help regulate fluid metabolism – e.g. Phase 1 (garlic) and Phase 2 (rosemary) conjugation in liver detoxification.
  • Ester groups are analgesic and regulate pain as well as, if not better than, NSAIDs.
  • Phenol groups break up lymphatic congestion and stimulate WBCs (e.g. cinnamon bark). If a goiter is present, bay laurel could help. Caution must be used with cats if the phenol group eugenol is used, due to its hepatotoxic effects.

High, middle and base notes

Chinese medicine classifies essential oils based on criteria similar to the classification of Chinese herbs – i.e. via the law of signatures, five elemental associations, nature or temperature, taste, aroma, relationship to neighboring plants and channel (or meridian) affiliation. An additional feature for oils is the “notes”.

1. High notes (top notes) are oils that evaporate rapidly, often in a few hours. They influence the Wei Qi (defensive immune system or external) level and include the citruses (safest – mandarin orange, tangerine, clementine), mints, peppermint, wintergreen (toxic to animals) and eucalyptus. These oils are primarily used for acute conditions. They awaken the senses, serving as the first invitation for a patient to change. The safer hydrosols usually act as top notes. Peppermint can be thought of as the “rescue remedy” of essential oils.

2. The middle notes have a duration of five to seven hours and are used for more sub-acute problems that tend to be in the Ying level, which affects the plasma in the blood, or the internal level. They are useful for circulatory issues (movement of Qi moving blood), to regulate digestion (both assimilation and elimination) and for cognitive function (digesting and assimilating the information around us, and eliminating that which is not needed).

The oils at this level tend to be spices – fennel, dill, caraway, rosemary, parsley and oregano (the safest are seeds of caraway, coriander/cilantro). Also included are floral oils like chamomile, ylang ylang, geranium and lavender – safest are naroli/orange blossom, rose (absolute) lavender, German or Roman chamomile. Grass seeds like lemon grass, as well as melaluca (tea tree oil) are also part of this group. Lavender is also often used as a “rescue remedy” of sorts, but the initial burst is more subtle and it will have a longer effect than peppermint

3. The base notes evaporate in 24 to 48 hours, and are therefore effective for chronic, constitutional issues at the Yuan level (which can influence genetic tendencies). They include the resins, like frankincense, myrrh and sandal wood; precious florals, like rose and jasmine; roots like spikenard and vetiver; and wood oils. When making a therapeutic blend for a patient, an essential oil is often chosen from each note level. The top note is used to awaken the senses and is often the first one to be smelled. The middle notes are often used as harmonizers and modifiers for the formula, and the base notes are used as fixatives. In an acute situation, a blend can be made using all top notes, but know that there is always is a deeper constitutional susceptibility, and a more balanced blend is usually needed to support and address this constitutional issue.

For example, if you have a dog with an autoimmune joint disease such as rheumatoid arthritis, you could use a top note of peppermint to help with his ability to rest during any acute situations; a middle note of thyme or gerianol to help clear the heat of the latent infection; and a base note of sandalwood to help treat the fascial pain.

Use and applications

There are three ways to use essential oils:

  1. Topical application for bodywork and cranial-sacral work.
  2. Topical application on acupuncture points for point stimulation, or on discrete areas of the body. Topical application depends on the humors you want to affect –lymphatics, blood or nerves – and the regions you want to influence. Massaging the ears with oils can have an effect on the nervous system. Massaging the paws will have an effect on the circulation of blood.
  3. Medical grade essential oils can be given orally in a one- or two-drop dose. (Remember that cats are sensitive to the eugenols of the phenol group.)

While essential oils have long been popular for healing in people and animals, integrating their effects into a Chinese medicine approach gives you an even more powerful healing modality to explore. More than merely treating animal’s ailments, essential oils are excellent for treating the home environment – people, living space and animals.


Dr. Cynthia Lankenau received her DVM from Cornell University in 1981, and started studying alternative modalities in 1992. She is certified with the IVAS, AVCA and AHV, and in Chinese Herbal Medicine through the Chi Institute and CIVT. She is a registered herbalist through the American Herbal Guild and is currently working on CIVT’s Western Graduate Herbal program. She is Past President of the Veterinary Botanical Medicine Association, and owns a private integrative mixed practice.