Health & Wellness

Healing herbs: Nature’s medicine (and perfume!)

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You can hire someone to help you organize your closets, but can you enlist someone to categorize your spice rack? I’ve got more dried herbs and ground spices than someone who cooks twice a week should legally own. There’s oregano, turmeric, ginger, the peppercorns: traditional black and green and red varieties, cinnamon, a precious vial of pricey saffron, cayenne pepper, red pepper flakes — can’t do pizza without it — the list goes on and on. Turmeric? I have no idea what tastes good with turmeric. Oatmeal? Lasagna? I’d love to hire someone to organize all of the little jars and bottles and tag them with helpful labels: “Great on scrambled eggs and broiled tofu.”

Meanwhile, all of this spice-rack analysis inspired me to take a good look at the herbs that are a vital part of the products I use outside of the kitchen. Some are multitaskers that successfully find their way into Italian recipes and hand lotion (like rosemary), while others like lavender and eucalyptus would do little for your palate but much for your sense of well-being.

Take a peek at the labels of most all-natural personal care products and you’re quite likely to stumble upon an essential oil or two. The pure essences of plants or herbs, essential oils are the backbone of aromatherapy, a healing modality that relies on the power of scent to promote healing. My rosemary hand lotion, for example, contains a healthy helping of rosmarinus officinalis, the botanical term for rosemary essential oil. Essential oils are nature’s air freshener, breath enhancer and laundry deodorizer.

Essential oils are often tucked into personal care products — peppermint in toothpaste, citrus in laundry detergent, lemongrass in shampoo — but they can also be purchased on their own and used as you desire. Each essential oil not only comes with its own scent, but also with a major healing attribute that makes it even more delectable. You could place a few drops (go slow! Essential oil is powerful stuff) of peppermint essential oil on a tissue and inhale and exhale deeply into it when you’re feeling nauseous. Or you could add a few drops of neroli essential oil into your bathwater when you’re feeling a bit depressed. As with all alternative therapies, aromatherapy makes no promises of curing an ailment or condition, but since the process smells so good, it’s definitely worth a shot. In the early months of pregnancy, I kept a bottle of menta piperita (good old peppermint) by my bed to calm my morning sickness. By the time I hit the shower, I was ready to eat breakfast.

Here are some of my favorite essential oils. Look for them in the products that you use each day or buy them individually and add to bathwater, unscented lotion (always read the label carefully before applying an essential oil topically or ingesting it) or massage oil (often called a “carrier” oil).

PeppermintPeppermint, or menta piperita, plays a starring role in our household, where it can be found, as I mentioned, on our toothbrushes, next to my bed and in even in the car as a refreshing deodorizer and stimulator. Peppermint can help fight drowsiness, which is undeniably ideal when behind the wheel.

Ylang-ylangI can’t get enough of ylang-ylang, or cananga odorata. The uplifting floral scent is a great alternative for those of us who aren’t crazy about rose or geranium. And ylang-ylang helps keep anxiety or depression at bay. At the first sign of jitters, I slather on a handful of ylang-ylang lotion (Avalon Organics makes a great one).

LavenderIs it possible to overdose on lavender? If so, I may be the one to do it. Poke around my home and you’ll find lavender soap, lavender body lotion, lavender laundry detergent and lavender candles. Oh yes, I like my lavender. The gentle fragrance can lull me to sleep after the most stressful New York day — even when the fire trucks are still blaring and the guy who has parked underneath my bedroom window insists on blaring 1980s hits at top volume.

For more information on aromatherapy than you could ever imagine, check out Julia Lawless’ book, “The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Essential Oils.”

Marisa Belger is a writer and editor with more than 10 years of experience covering health and wellness. She was a founding editor of, a multiplatform media company specializing in health, wellness and sustainable living. Marisa also collaborated with Josh Dorfman on “The Lazy Environmentalist” (Stewart, Tabori, and Chang), a comprehensive guide to easy, stylish green living.