Many of you have heard about CBD Oil – it’s had a lot of publicity lately. We’re going to take a brief look at what it is and why it’s become so popular, and then delve into some chemistry and some biology which will help us find other plants and essential oils that may be at least as effective as CBD oil.
What is CBD? Cannabidiol – aka CBD – is a chemical constituent (or compound) that is found in hemp and cannabis plants. Because it comes from plants, it’s known as a phytochemical. CBD is different from THC in that it doesn’t have a mind-altering effect on the brain. So why has it gained so much popularity in recent years?
The answer is both simple and complex. The simple explanation is that CBD works in and with our bodies to reduce inflammation, pain, seizures, and anxiety, and may be able to benefit those with certain chemical imbalances in the brain, help combat certain types of cancer, help with withdrawal from certain addictive substances, and help treat Type 1 diabetes. Reducing inflammation is a key factor in all of these conditions, and reducing inflammation is a key factor in helping our bodies return to homeostasis. So why isn’t everyone using CBD oil if it does all that?
There are legality issues worldwide with the use of CBD oil because it comes from the cannabis genus of plants. In the U.S., the federal government legalized products which come from industrialized hemp, but that’s not the final word on the matter. Each of the 50 states has to determine the legal status individually. In some states, CBD is only legal with a prescription in the case of severe epilepsy. In many states, it’s legal for everyone without a prescription as long as the THC content is below a certain level (0.3%).
Here’s the catch, there may be a small amount of THC in a batch of CBD oil, and at this time, independent testing of each batch is not widespread. So, there could be a risk of possibly having positive results for those who are required to take drug tests (and I am acquainted with some people who have had that happen). I have not personally tried CBD oil because Texas is one of the states where it’s legal only for those with severe epilepsy. If CBD oil becomes legal for everyone in Texas, I would like to try it topically – under certain conditions. The primary condition I would insist on is that I receive a GC/MS report from an agency that’s independent from the producing company so I know that what I’m getting is pure CBD oil (with no THC and no adulterants).
Well, that’s a lot of information on CBD oil, but this blog is supposed to be about something called Beta-caryophyllene (β-caryophyllene) and alpha-humulene (α-humulene). What are these, and how do they fit into the CBD picture?
β-caryophyllene is a natural phytochemical and phytocannabinoid that works in our bodies similarly to CBD oil, and α-humulene (another phytochemical) compliments, and has a synergistic effect with, β-caryophyllene. The good news is that these two natural chemicals are available and legal worldwide! So, let’s take a look at what these chemicals are, how they work in, and with, our bodies, and where we can find them in nature. This is where chemistry and biology come into play. We’ll look at the biology first.
Human beings (and all mammals) have what is called an endocannabinoid (EC) system in our bodies. This system helps control our appetites, mood, memory, sensitivity to pain, immune system, and inflammation. It is comprised of endocannabinoids, enzymes, and receptors that will only allow cannabinoid molecules to attach to/activate them. The term endocannabinoid refers to the fact that our bodies produce their own cannabinoids. These endocannabinoids are fats produced by our bodies which help regulate all the information firing through the synapses of our brain cells. (Imagine millions of bytes of information being processed every second and you can see why we need an automatic filter.) The metabolic enzymes that are part of the EC system are proteins designed to maintain functioning cells, break down cells that are used up/not needed, and create new cells. Once the endocannabinoids have finished their job, the enzymes break them down. Receptors are proteins that get the messages being passed through the blood and then tell the cell what to do. There are two primary types of EC receptors, called CB1 and CB2 receptors. CB1 receptors affect the brain and central nervous system. THC molecules activate CB1 receptors and in so doing have an impact on pain and cause a person to get “high’. CB2 receptors are found in neurones (cells that transmit nerve impulses) and immune cells – specifically in T-cells, B-cells, and hematopoietic stem cells (cells that create red and white blood cells). In other words, CB2 receptors work with our immune system – most prominently with controlling inflammation. When the EC system is working properly, our bodies should be reasonably healthy with minimal inflammation. Sometimes, our EC system has glitches occurring – you already know many factors that may cause problems: poor diet, excess stress, lack of sleep, smoking, too much alcohol, etc. In these cases, we may experience widespread or chronic inflammation, and chronic inflammation can lead to a host of physical illnesses including skin conditions, arthritis, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, cancer, and many more.
In order to help reduce this chronic inflammation, in addition to making healthier lifestyle choices, we can learn about (and, with proper guidance, start using) foods, herbs, spices, and oils (both carrier and essential) to support our EC system. So, how can foods, herbs, spices, and oils help support our EC system? To answer this question, we need to learn some chemistry.
There are certain plant chemicals that can interact with our EC system. For example, THC interacts with CB1 receptors and CBD interacts with CB2 receptors.
β-caryophyllene (BCP) is a chemical found in certain plants that can attach to the CB2 receptors in our bodies and activate those receptors to reduce inflammation. Chemically, BCP is classified as a sesquiterpene and is also considered a phytocannabinoid (because only cannabinoids can attach to our CB cells). Research and studies over the past 30 years have focused on understanding how BCP works in our bodies and on proving a variety of its therapeutic properties, including reduction of inflammation and pain, antioxidant and chemopreventive activity, neuroprotective effects, and effects on neurochemistry (i.e. depression, anxiety, and chemical imbalance disorders). So far, results indicate that β-caryophyllene is at least as effective as CBD – and you can find BCP in herbs and spices that you buy in the grocery store and in certain essential oils you use topically!!! Black Pepper, Rosemary, cloves, Star Anise (from China), Tulsi Basil, and hops all contain BCP, as do Balsam Copaiba, Black Pepper, Hemp, Hops, Tulsi Basil, and Helichrysum bracteiferum essential oils. Who knew that reducing inflammation could taste (and smell) so good?
BCP by itself is great, but it has a ‘cousin’ chemical that it works with synergistically -
α-humulene. Alpha-humulene is also a sesquiterpene and is an isomer of
β-caryophyllene. That means it has the same chemical formula as β-caryophyllene, but its structure is different. This structural difference is responsible for both chemicals having similar therapeutic properties, but different mechanisms of action.
β-caryophyllene is a cannabinoid, but α-humulene is not. These two chemicals work together like salt and pepper – they enhance each other’s efficacy. Let’s explore
α-humulene and the synergy between these two phytochemicals.
Alpha-humulene is the renamed alpha-caryophyllene. A multitude of scientific studies have proven that its therapeutic properties include reducing inflammation, relieving pain, and suppressing appetite. It has also been shown to have antioxidant and antitumoral effects – which are enhanced when combined with β-caryophyllene. Just as with BCP, α-humulene can be found in several herbs, spices, and essential oils. Ginger, sage, clove, basil, black pepper, oregano, rosemary, hops, ginseng, and cinnamon can flavor our food or make delicious teas with great anti-inflammatory, and in many cases, antibacterial/antiviral benefits for us. Of the essential oils, hops and hemp tend to have high levels of α-humulene, while smaller amounts are found in oils like black pepper, Helichrysum bracteiferum, Tulsi Basil, and Balsam Copaiba.
Together, these two phytochemicals make powerful allies against the prime culprit of many health issues – inflammation; and together, they can help us work towards homeostasis.
All this may sound too good to be true – not quite. This is not a magic cure, and none of these chemicals will be a panacea for everything that ails us. We need to take proper care of ourselves – you know, the whole diet and exercise thing – to get best results, but adding a moderate amount of β-caryophyllene and α-humulene into our diets, or using them topically may help.
(Note: Therapeutic properties of these chemical constituents are generalized here. For more detailed information on individual chemical constituents, watch for the membership section to open – I’ll have detailed reviews on phytochemicals which have proven benefits. )
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Dhopeshwarkar, Amey (2014) CB2 Cannabinoid Receptors as a Therapeutic Target—What Does the Future Hold? Mol Pharmacol 4:430 – 437
Fernandes ES, Passos GF, Medeiros R et al (2007) Anti-inflammatory effects of compounds alpha-humulene and (-)-trans-caryophyllene isolated from the essential oil of Cordia verbenacea. European Journal of Pharmacology 569:22-36
Gertsch, Jurg (2008) Beta-caryophyllene is a dietary cannabinoid Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 105(26): 9099 - 9104
Johnson, Jon (2018) Everything you need to know about CBD oil Medical News Today
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Legault J, Dahl W, Debiton E et al (2003) Antitumour activity of balsam fir oil: production of reactive oxygen species induced by α-humulene as possible mechanism of action. Planta Medica 69:402-407
Loizzo MR, Tundis R, Menichini F et al (2007) Cytotoxic activity of essential oils from labiatae and lauraceae families against in vitro human tumor models. Anticancer Research 27:3293-3299
Zheng, Guo-Quiang (1992) Sesquiterpenes from Clove (Eugenia caryophyllata) as Potential Anticarcinogenic Agents J. Nat. Prod pp 999 – 1003
One of the questions I've often seen asked by budding aromatherapists is 'How do I clean and disinfect?' (my jars? my work space?) This is a topic that is important for anyone who is making products to sell.
First, we'll look at what these terms mean. Sanitizing means reducing germs to levels that don't threaten our health -- i.e. washing hands with soap and water. Disinfecting means destroying or inactivating the germs on non-living surfaces. Though disinfectants may not get all of the germs, they will get more than sanitizers. (When all the germs on a surface are killed, it's called sterilization.)
There are several ways to disinfect: boiling (for glassware), peroxide, rubbing alcohol. etc. How you choose to clean, disinfect, and/or sterilize your work space, equipment, and containers will be a personal decision.
Here's how I clean and disinfect at Dragoo's Oil Blends. I wash my hands first with soap and water, then I use a clean cloth and wash my counter tops, stove top, and sinks with white vinegar, then just plain water [sanitizing]. While all surfaces are wet, I spray them with 70% Isopropyl (aka Rubbing) Alcohol and allow time to air dry [disinfecting]. My work space is my home kitchen.
Equipment is washed with soap and water [sanitizing], then sprayed with Isopropyl Alcohol while still wet and allowed to air dry [disinfecting]. Once dry, equipment is handled only with gloved hands and stored in a clean area away from other kitchen items. Immediately prior to use, it is rinsed with water, sprayed with rubbing alcohol, and allowed to air dry again. It's important to note here that equipment used to make product is dedicated to only making product. For example, spoons used for cooking meals are not used for making product; and spoons used in making product are not used for making dinner. This is important because it can help keep the germ count down .
With product containers, I wash each container with soapy water, rinse, then spray inside and outside with 70% Isopropyl Alcohol and allow time to air dry - which can take 1 - 3 hours depending on the size of the container opening. Once they're dry, I put the containers in a large zip bag that is labeled "Disinfected _container name & size_". For the bagging step, I have put on my hairnet and face mask, washed my hands, and put on my gloves so that the containers stay uncontaminated. It's important to note that I disinfect large batches of containers within a few days of their arrival so they're ready to use as soon as orders come in. Doing this ahead of time allows the alcohol to completely evaporate so that it doesn't become a part of the product chemistry.
Why do I choose to use alcohol? For me, it's the most judicious method. I use a variety of container types - some glass, some plastic (BPA free). I also tend to purchase at least two dozen of each container type at a time. So, once my kitchen is disinfected, I'll spend from one to three hours at a time disinfecting containers, then allowing them to air dry.
Every time I open a bag to pull out a container, my hands are washed, and I'm netted, masked, and gloved.
I'm not a germaphobe on a personal level, but I'm committed to making sure that the products I make are (and stay) germ-free. I know I could skip some of these steps if I'm making a product for myself, but I don't and won't. Skipping steps for personal use might make it easy to rationalize skipping steps in my production process, so I stick to high standards of cleanliness/disinfection for every product I make.
Finally, why rubbing alcohol instead of peroxide or boiling? Boiling would be good for smaller items that won't melt, but I'd still need another way to disinfect items that are larger or that might melt (it's the same with the dishwasher sanitize setting). Isopropyl Alcohol is drying on the skin (and it does get on my skin). Peroxide is downright harsh on the skin and can do more damage; so I choose the drying rather than the damaging effect. Fortunately, I make my own skin butters to moisturize when I'm done disinfecting!
Scenario: You just got a new essential oil blend and can't wait to try it! You roll it all over your leg and massage the oil into your skin. A minute later, you notice red bumps raising up on your skin where you applied the oil. Wait, what??? Aaarrrggghhh! You realize you may be allergic to one of the ingredients.
While allergic reactions to essential oils are rare, they can occur. If you are allergic to certain plants or plant families, or have chemical sensitivities, you may have a higher possibility of reacting to essential oils. (This doesn't mean you will react - I tend to be very chemically sensitive, but have only once reacted to an essential oil blend, and that happened because I had let it oxidize.) Hopefully, you've already read in previous posts here to use whole milk to ameliorate a skin reaction, but it still stinks that you've spent money on this new blend and can't use it now! So, how can you be sure, before you buy an oil, that you won't react to it?
There are a few steps you can take. If you know what your allergies are, you can read the ingredients before you buy the product. For example, if you know you are allergic to plants in the Asteraceae family, you'll want to at least test oils that come from that plant family before using them. Reputable companies, like Dragoo's Oil Blends, will clearly list all of the ingredients in their products and gladly answer any questions you have. But what if you don't know what all of your allergies are?
This is where a skin test can be helpful. If you're buying from a local aromatherapist, (s)he may be willing to let you do a quick skin test before buying. I have samplers of my products at my flea market booth for that purpose, and before a customer buys a topical oil blend from me, I make sure (s)he does a skin test. However, buying oils online means you don't have that opportunity. In this case, I recommend you buy the smallest available quantity and perform a skin test when it arrives.
With a skin test, you put a drop of the blend on the inside of your wrist or elbow, rub it in, then wait 10 - 15 minutes to see if you're going to react. It's a quick, easy thing to do. If there's no reaction to the skin test, you can use the blend. If you do react, wash the area with whole milk, then soap and water and don't use the blend.
It's important to note here that you can develop a reaction to a substance, like an essential oil, even after you've been exposed to it many times. Regularly using an essential oil neat on your skin can cause you to become allergic to that oil. Whether it's the first or the 100th exposure, if you react to an essential oil blend, follow the steps above, then let the aromatherapist (or the company you purchased the oil from) know that you reacted and what the reaction was.
You think you might be interested in working with essential oils, creating your own blends, and maybe becoming a certified aromatherapist. You're wondering what's involved - what you need to learn. In a nutshell, there's science, art, communication, basic math, and joy. Before you panic, it'll be okay!
For those just starting out, the most likely scenario is that you'll begin by looking at the therapeutic properties of some oils (whoa, science).
That's how I started - I made an index card for each oil and listed the therapeutic properties and any warnings associated with that oil. I spent about eight weeks just researching and learning new terms before I acted on the information.
I was interested in making a blend to help with my chronic pain. I used my index cards to select and buy individual oils for that purpose. Since I'm a nut about safety, I chose oils that had no precautions as far as I could tell. I also looked at oils to help DH breathe more easily and quietly at night. At the time, my thinking was "more is better", so my first blends tended to have many oils at a high percent. As my research (and then my formal studies) progressed, I came to understand that fewer oils at a lower overall percent worked better than a bunch of oils at a large percent. Eventually, I started learning about the chemical compositions of oils and how the chemicals work with our bodies. Wow, this anecdote is already including the science, art, communication, and basic math.
Let's take a look at the science involved in aromatherapy. There's anatomy and physiology - you need to have an understanding of the systems of our bodies and how they work in order to create blends to support those systems. For example, our skin is made up of three layers, and each of those layers are made up of more layers. Skin is part of the integumentary system, which is the body system that acts as a barrier to protect us from everything around us. If you rub your shirt on your skin, the material doesn't absorb into your skin; however, if you rub a drop of Grapeseed Oil on your skin it does absorb. How does the skin know what to let in and what to keep out? Learning about and understanding the Biology of our bodies and of the plants will be a significant part of the scientific studies in aromatherapy certification. Chemistry will be just as important.
Essential oils are made up of natural chemicals, so there is a lot of chemistry involved. Understanding how the different chemicals work together and affect our bodies is a part of making blending decisions. Wintergreen is a good illustration of this. The primary constituent (chemical) in Wintergreen is Methyl Salicylate which is very similar to aspirin both chemically and therapeutically. There are also precautions associated with it, namely, don't use it: if you're taking blood thinners or have a blood clotting disorder; with children; are allergic to aspirin; have GERD; before surgery; or are pregnant or breastfeeding. It should only be used in low dilutions for short periods of time because it may build up in the body and can reach toxic levels - especially if you're concurrently using several products that contain it.
Wait, what do I mean when I say low dilutions? Here's where the math comes into play.
Pure essential oils are strong concentrations -- too strong for our bodies when used topically. We need to reduce their strength to a level our bodies can handle by mixing them with another substance -- usually a carrier oil or a plant butter. We might make dilutions that range from 0.25% for young children up to 10% for topical use in acute situations, or not dilute at all for diffusion blends. We'll need a system (or two) for measurement as well. In the US, we tend to rely on ounces, but scientifically, milliliters are used. Simplified: 1 oz = 30 mL ≈ 600 drops. [≈ means about equal.] So, to make a 1% dilution is to use 5 - 6 drops of essential oil in 1 oz (or 30 mL) of carrier oil. I'm really not hedging here, drop sizes are not all equal!
The other part of the math comes in when you decide to start your own business!
All of this sounds like a lot of serious science and math -- where does art enter into aromatherapy? This is imho, the best part (though I have to admit, I find the science and math part fascinating too). The art is in creating new blends, in finding combinations of oils that smell delicious and help us stay healthy, in using energetics to create synergy between the plant parts, the plants themselves, and the chemicals to benefit others. Experimenting with different oils and oil combinations is also an art! And this leads us to the communication part of aromatherapy.
As you explore this wonderful ancient - yet new - realm, you'll learn tons of new vocabulary (which, I promise, will become second nature to you). You'll ask questions and discover new ideas and hypothesize new possibilities. Okay, okay, I know this sounds lofty, but it really is true. Most importantly, you'll need to keep notes on the recipes you develop and how they work. You'll want to share your successes and your failures with others. For some, just creating and using blends will be enough; others will want to shout from the rooftops "Look what these incredible plants can do!"
(Can you feel the joy here too?) ;)