It is quite hard to fathom just how much things have escalated in the last few days : it seems the world is now talking exclusively about one thing, and one thing only, as countries shut down, borders are sealed, people are sequestrated inside their own homes (a friend of mine has had a censor fitted on her door in China by the authorities so she can’t go outside for the next two weeks); the US in pandemonium at airports with the recent European travel bans and the UK talking now about making citizens over seventy years old stay inside their houses until July or August – a sensible move, if a very drastic one – but all of it making us both rather worried about our parents, who are in that age group, and how they will cope.
Japan continues in slightly head-in-the-sand mode, testing less than other countries and giving us wan statistics that I don’t feel paint the full picture – understandable, perhaps, given that the Olympics, so hard fought for, and such a focal point for 2020 for years – everyone was so much looking forward to this event! – could all go down the tube (and all because of a cultural predilection across the water for munching on pangolins and palm civets and bats tainted with pig’s blood – this has to stop, the World Health Organisation simply has to insist on it) —– but not comforting enough when you can’t trust the people in charge here to tell the truth about the situation and the full extent of coronavirus infections…….Prime Minister Abe has just been granted the power to declare a State Of Emergency, in a spirit of ‘toughness and action’ whenever he sees fit, so who knows: soon we could also be shut up inside with our ready made curries and Bombay Mix gasping for fresh fruit.
Going into Tokyo the other day for a necessary appointment; a cold, raining day of misery stuck on a bus which felt like a mortuary – unmoving passengers, mainly the vulnerable elderly, all wearing masks, staring forward silently, and then the train, not especially different, I decided to join the throng for once this time and wore two masks on top of each other, just for good measure: an inner one sprinkled lavishly with bergamot and grapefruit essential oils – so I was breathing and exhaling pure citrus– and an outer one for extra protection. Although not an ideal modus operandi – I know for a fact that I sensitize to grapefruit oil and can get red or rashy skin from it so would not recommend this action for others – I felt (and this is the important point) that the pleasing smelling essential oils were offering extra protection from whatever invisible microscopic bastards were tainting the atmosphere around me waiting to infiltrate my gullet and oesophagus and the vulnerable lower respiratory tract; and in reality, whether or not they offered any actual protection against this crown shaped micro-scourge that is tearing through the world and threatening economic breakdown and chaos in society, at the very least it is an established fact that bergamot (my holy grail of essential oils – I cannot be without it), is an immune system stimulant, mood enhancer, is bactericidal – some say viricidal, too – and will definitely do you more good than harm: the cold-pressed citric benevolence of a powerful, healing oil that enhances your natural powers of protection, and smells beautiful in the process.
I cut my hand the other day, in the centre, twice, when planting a stolen rosemary tree in the front garden. I am the opposite of a gardener – but I had picked up this bush thrown away in the trash – roots intact – and decided on a whim while on my bicycle to just have it, and haphazardly plant it with a metal cooking spatula that was to hand instead of a trowel (I also often take books – we have got some really good ones, that get thrown away in neat little piles sometimes tied up with kimono string: I have got bric a brac and DVDS and nice china and other bits and bobs in the carefully separated out gomi, but not usually plants). I love rosemary though: I love how it looks – with its reminiscences of ancient Greece; the roughness, the power of the plant and the resilience of it (like geranium – both of their essential oils reflect this strength in their ‘life essences’: rosemary is one I use in the bath if I am suffering from exhaustion – right now I am very yang, rather than yin, so it doesn’t feel quite right and will get my blood pounding perhaps too much; geranium is marvellous blended with orange and benzoin for an all round bodily re-tuning) —— even if somehow in the process of ‘digging’ I gave myself stigmata on my right hand that I could tell were quite quickly getting gnarly and infected (when the redness goes a bit pulpy and dark, and you feel it pulsating wrongly from within). Not in the mood for visiting our crowded local clinic, where god knows what is going down at this moment – I feel quite sorry for our lovely overworked doctor who is the only practitioner there – on this occasion I decided to treat it myself instead with botanicals: lemon essential oil initially, to clean out the wound – another of my go to-s, great to stop an incipient sore throat in the bud, just a drop on the back of the tongue- and then virgin coconut oil, one of the most useful things you can have around the house for a multitude of applications, particularly right now : to use as a chest oil blended with essences – preferably eucalyptus oil, which is anti-viral and brilliant for coughs, even pneumonia : if it got to a quarantine situation and we were stuck at home with no medicines, I would be administering such treatments to us both, knowing that even if it were not the same as a ‘cure’, it would certainly hasten the recovery time (and might even kill the virus). Tea tree is equally effective, possibly more so, but I despise the smell so much – like dill pickles squinting in gasoline – I almost find it unbearable as an odour despite its therapeutic genius, that – as an aromatherapist I spoke to recently told me, there is probably no point in having it for daily use, as the effect on the olfactive and limbic systems – whether you enjoy the smell of your medicine – is a vital part of an essential oil’s power.
In this regard, I decided instead, on impulse, to use pure vetiver oil on my wound, not knowing if this viscous, dark, earthen oil was officially known as a cicatrisant, or scar-healing oil or not – but using my intuition that it was (I am often curiously spot on in this regard, I can feel it), I applied the essential oil directly to my hand, letting it sink gradually under the ripped epidermis and into my skin. Immediately I could feel a tightening, a tingling from inside the cut that told me it was working: this morning I wake up to find that the skin has pulled together and is healing properly, almost mended, so I will continue with the coconut oil and vetiver just one more night and I am certain that by tomorrow it will be done and dusted, saving me doctor time and the agitation of sitting in a room with creepily warm, anxiety-permeated, contaminated air.
‘Aromatherapy’ is often, in my view, quite misunderstood (I always feel that the word often lends itself to contempt by non-converted lay people, who think that the practice of using active botanical essences as medicines is akin to just sitting next to a Glade ‘air freshening’ device or My Little Pony Vanilla Candle, with New Age ‘Healing Music’ (the Greatest Hits of Yanni and Enya) in the background with your eyes closed as you politely massage some betowelled, supine victim in lavender scented jojoba while simultaneously river dancing ) —— and speaking of lavender, by the way, this is also the ideal essential oil to have right now: highly antiseptic, stimulating to the white corpuscles to fight off insidious foreign bodies while relaxing to the spirits – – – – – but the usage of essential oils for medical purposes is really not the same as their uses – refracted, altered, chemically synthesised with other materials – in perfumery, where the goal is ultimately sensual pleasure, the naturals used in a fragrant composition just part of the orchestration necessary to create a hopefully poetic work of olfactive art that will take you away from yourself and the world for a while (while also bringing you closer to both). Now, I am obviously the last person to decry the joys of perfumery – and I do think that perfume, also, is more important than ever right now as a personal buttress and security blanket – but it must be said truthfully also that the physical benefits on the body, and mind, of ‘aromatherapy’ are quite significantly different.
Shikimic acid, for example, is the active ingredient found in Tamiflu (which, though controversial, is thought to be one of the best forms of treatment for serious influenza infections), but is derived from the Chinese star anise plant, killing viruses at the early stage and priming the body to fight against them – which is why I am making my nightly rooibos tea each night right now with a few star anise pods infused in the pot along with straight cinnamon bark that I picked up from my Indian grocery: both are relaxing and help you sleep, and are excellent adjuncts in the fight against getting sick. Ginger is another one (I personally prefer to use spices in a culinary way like this rather than their essential oils, which I find too potent – with the exception of cloves and black pepper- but this will depend on personal preference). And personal preference is very much the key with aromatherapy, up to a point: if you don’t like the smell of an oil, it is unlikely to work in its full holistic potential. When I apply vetiver – which I have a very natural, and instinctively deep connection to – it is like coming back into myself, it feels right: other oils – basil, aniseed (different to star anise); petitgrain, give me headaches; thyme, much as I adore the herb in cooking, feels too aggressive and gives me skin reactions; oregano is the same (but I adore its calmer relation, sweet Spanish marjoram, which dulls anxiety in the most beautiful way); immortelle makes me nauseous; as does chamomile; and Helen and I almost once vomited on smelling the horrendous asafoetida —— you will have your own natural inclinations as well (smell the oil, and trust in how you react to it).
But only up to a point. At the end of the day, aromatherapy is not perfumery, and sometimes the medicinal benefits of an oil are undeniable even when you are not quite in tune with its smell: the best case in point in my personal history being the aforementioned dreaded tea tree, which I have the strongest admiration for as a general panacea against infection (thousands of years of aboriginal knowledge and usage by those societies for a variety of ailments and problems in Australia cannot be wrong (which is why the much more enjoyable smelling eucalyptus is almost equally miraculous)).
For the skeptical, this is what happened to me.
In the first, very stressful and difficult months of coming to Japan – though the problem had started a long while before in London, I developed – and it embarrasses me to admit it – a disturbing array of warts and verrucas, like an afflicted old hag from a Grimm Brothers fairy tale, eventually to the extent that my feet were completely covered with them and my fingers – all around my nails and on my knuckles – encrusted with warts, which I covered, constantly, self-consciously, in Band-Aids, feeling like a monstrous freak in the classroom when I turned the pages of text books and saw the eyes of students, getting frantic with self-awareness at how hideous they were (usually my skin is one of my better physical attributes, and it was horrible to feel so put upon in such an unsightly manner). I had of course been to doctors and dermatologists and given acid treatments to melt the warts down, but this had just left me with sore skin and eventually, lymph problems – throbbing armpits- because there was so much chemical poison going into my bloodstream…..
Eight months later, one day in London, during my summer holidays, no improvement in my condition whatsoever, I decided – out of the blue – you know what, I am going to drown these fuckers in tea tree. Not just ‘apply’ a little diluted tea tree oil as you are recommended, no: douse my socks in the stuff, unpleasant smells be damned (I couldn’t have done this in my daily existence with work and everything but it was fine when I was on holiday with nothing to do), and I bought a giant bottle of the stuff from Holland & Barrett in England, and did just that. For the rest of the week, I would be walking around in tea tree soaked socks, damp with it but I was determined, so busy with whatever else I was doing that I eventually stopped thinking about the fact I had it on, but at the end of this week I began to feel different somehow and then looked closely at my feet and….could hardly believe my eyes. It was gross, unsightly, but where the hard, stubborn funguses had been before, red, like studs – was white tissue – soft, like aliens that have been killed at the end of a science fiction movie – and I knew that the little invaders were finally on their way out. Within another week, they had completely died: I had removed the foul skin, and watched my skin tissue grow back to its normal, smooth pink healthy self.
If this had been the end of it, I would have still been singing hallelujah, but what was far more miraculous for me – you have to remember, this problem had been probably going on for six months or a year or longer before I was able to properly deal with it – but then one day I then looked down at my hands some time after and did a double take: suddenly realizing oh my god, the skin around my fingers is clear…..normal. What? Where are they? Seriously? They had disappeared. Incredibly elated, I realized that the Australian tea tree oil I had been using had truly delivered the goods, stimulating my immune system from the inside and fighting off the malingering fungus, whether I hated the smell of it or not. To me this experience was incredibly eye-opening, and like I say, something of a miracle. D and I now swear by this as well for cold sores as well, although I have discovered that a combination of coconut oil and bergamot smells much nicer and nips them in the bud and eradicates them from the system more quickly – this is a tried and tested formula now. Lavender also works very nicely (oh lavender, eucalyptus and bergamot how I love thee…..these should be pumped out in hospitals and medical clinics everywhere in the air conditioning systems; it is so obvious that in-house infections would decrease as a result), and these are the oils I would most recommend in these contagious times of apprehension.
Also, frankincense ( let me have just one more story). D had come down one year with a nasty case of bronchitis so serious it was starting to alarm me. The doctor in Kamakura had bizarrely prescribed amphetamine patches for his chest, which I can imagine might work for the smoking, high cholesterol, overweight type patient who needs to get things moving and decongesting again, but for someone sensitive and slight like him it was like mainlining on speed every night, revving him up into almost hysterical levels of panic and insomnia and hacking coughs all night long. I was getting quite worried by this point and decided to take things literally into my own hands. My instincts told me on this occasion – FRANKINCENSE. I don’t know why, I just felt that this was what he needed, checked online, and voilà – I saw that it was highly recommended for lung issues and coughs.
Now, there are of course many different brands of essential oils available, some cheaper and of lower quality than others – sometimes I will compromise if I don’t have the money, but on this occasion I decided to go for a very high quality frankincense oil I had smelled by The Aromatherapy Associates that was being sold at a department store in Ginza. Just smelling it from the bottle was mind altering, and I had high hopes that this would have some effect on D’s traumatic breathing.
I brought it home, took some olive oil, poured some frankincense oil on my hands like a Mary Magdalene and applied it liberally to his chest – and the effect was astounding. I remember clearly that first, there was a second or two of palpable change in the air (this oil has a pronounced effect on the nervous system and the brain, but at this moment it was like entering an alternate reality) : his coughing stopped. Immediately. It was as though his whole body were being given a magical reprieve from the racking that had become reflexive and unavoidable – the frankincense oil a natural intervention that stopped the condition in its tracks and took him quickly on the road to recovery.
In short, from effective, natural treatments for chest conditions – exactly what we need right now given the nature of the global danger at hand – to the pronounced effect on mood, psychological state and general well being (and skin – my goodness, in my case, a bergamot or eucalyptus bath can honestly take years off me when I am in a tired or stressed out or haggard state – the mirror doesn’t lie), I really do think that one thing that people could be stocking up wisely on now in these times of rising panic, is not just toilet roll, Pringles and liquor while we wait for a vaccine or treatment to be created, but, also, to maintain a healthy natural bodily defence, a stash of therapeutic essential oils and high quality spices like star anise, cloves and cinnamon for herbal teas to kill bacteria and possibly viruses (to prevent other nuisances like colds and the regular flu that no-one needs right now); boost the immune system, lower anxiety, sleep better, look better, all with the readily available and relatively inexpensive, effective, and concentrated elixirs and essences of nature that have been utilised for millennia by our ancestors – THE BEAUTIFUL BRILLIANCE OF PLANTS