Healing from the Outside In
Topicals as Useful Health Tools
Modern medicine has made huge strides in identifying and treating disease and illness. It wasn’t that long ago, however, when physicians used leeches and maggots to help hasten the healing process. Don’t forget about bloodletting, where blood was drained from a patient to help balance the four humors of the body. Salves, ointments and poultices made from herbs and plants were also used to stave off infection and help in the recovery process.
It may be hard to believe, but some variation of these practices are still used today. Bloodletting, leeches and maggots are used seldom, but are, under professional medical supervision, still used for some rare conditions. Topicals including lotions, oils, tinctures and poultices are not only still being used today, but are making a comeback in the holistic community. Topicals are a wondrous alternative to mainstream pharmaceuticals.
It’s easy to imagine how medications are absorbed into the body when taken internally. They’re absorbed into the bloodstream through digestion or by being injected directly into the bloodstream. Swallowing or injecting medication delivers compounded chemicals directly into the body, which targets specific symptoms caused by disease. It’s perhaps a little more difficult to fathom the idea that effective medicine can be absorbed through the skin, the largest organ of the human body. Natural plant topicals are growing as an alternative means to administering medication.
Everyone has at least one experience of putting something on the skin. Moisturizer, sunscreen, cosmetics and shaving cream are just several products that are used on a regular basis. We rarely think about the absorption that occurs when a substance is applied to the skin. When it comes to treating disease or illness, rubbing something on the skin is probably one of the last solutions people think of doing.
Because the skin is so porous and absorbent, most of what is applied is quickly taken into the cells and enters the bloodstream. There are numerous topicals available for medical treatment on the market today, but unfortunately many have man-made chemical compounds that can sometimes result in a dangerous product—especially the narcotic transdermal patches.
In a time when millions of people are seeking safe and natural alternative medicine, organic, age-old topical treatments seem to be a perfect match. Ask any grandmother about homemade poultices and remedies that were used on them when they were young. One memory might be that of having a warm towel filled with fried onions and placed on their chests to help relieve congestion.
A poultice is a paste-like substance typically made with plants, herbs and other organic material. The paste, normally warm, is wrapped in a cloth and placed on different areas of the body. Poultices have been used for thousands of years, and have been shown to relieve pain, reduce inflammation, draw out poison and other toxins and can enhance circulation to damaged areas of the body. Most kitchens have an inventory of items in the pantry that can be made into a poultice. A little water, vinegar, milk, olive oil and flaxseed, when prepared properly, can be made into a treatment that helps keep swelling and inflammation at bay. For injuries where severe pain is accompanied with the swelling, several heads of the poppy plant can be added to the poultice. Some poultices may not have the best smell, but when beneficial results are the desired outcome for treatment, it’s worth it.
There is a topical treatment which has an array of wonderful scents: essential oils. Inhalation is considered a topical because the inhalants are absorbed into the mucus membranes within the nose or mouth. The popularity of essential oils over the last few years has been staggering. Using the essence of plants and flowers, oils are transformed into a medicinal treatment for many different diseases, illnesses and conditions. Smelling lavender, chamomile and basil can help calm the body and mind. The scent of rosemary can help with memory and clarity of thought. If an energy boost is needed because of a long, hard day, the crisp aroma of lemongrass will help. There are close to 100 different essential oils. Each has its own medicinal values and unique scents, usually pleasant. Essential oils can be applied to pressure points on the body, or they can be inhaled by diffusing them.
The rising star in the holistic, alternative medicine movement cannot be forgotten either. CBD oil is the essence of the marijuana plant. When made into a salve, tincture or lotion, CBD can help with a number of different ailments. The non-psychoactive CBD agent enters the bloodstream, but is absorbed locally at the place of application first, and then interacts with the cannabinoid receptors located throughout the body. By stimulating the cannabinoid receptors, the body starts its balancing act of the endocannabinoid system. This is where the physiologies affecting the immune system are triggered, giving the body an added edge when fighting disease. There are studies that show CBD oil can help stop seizure activity in the body, fight certain types of cancer, eliminate anxiety and minimize depression. One of the most beneficial effects of CBD oil is the ability to lessen pain—even chronic pain.
Research for alternative medical treatments continues in laboratories throughout the world. This is indicative of the direction that the population is moving toward: a time and place where natural, holistic treatments are mainstream.
Jeffrey Green, MA, is an educator, having taught in elementary, middle and high schools and at the University of Arizona. Currently, he is a freelance writer, reiki practitioner and a light and energy worker. On staff for Natural Awakenings, Green enjoys educating the public on all things positive, natural and metaphysical.