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Rubefacient Essential Oils and Herbs: Letting the Blood Flow

Rubefacient Essential Oils and Herbs: Letting the Blood Flow

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Rubefacient Essential Oils and herbs
Letting the Blood Flow
Rubefacient: what’s that?
IN HERBALISM and aromatherapy, there is a whole group of herbs and oils that are employed specifically for their ability to dilate the capillaries, which allows for increased blood flow to the area of the body where it is applied. These are called rubefacients.
A rubefacient is a substance or agent that increases the reddish coloration of the skin. The actual word 'rubefacient' derives from two Latin words: ruber meaning ‘red’, and facere that means ‘to make’ and indeed it does result in a warming sensation that causes the skin to redden.
In medical terms, the rubefacient action is a regulatory response that increases blood flow to different tissues in the body through vasodilatation and is called hyperaemia (or hyperemia). Clinically, a rubefacient would be described as a counter-irritant that produces hyperaemia in tissues and manifests as ‘erythema’, because of the engorgement of vessels with oxygenated blood.

Irritation is the desired action
Rubefacient herbs and oils actually work through this ambiguous action of irritation and by a mild but not unhealthy disturbance of surface tissues, fresh blood and energy is rushed to the body site.
This can provide real healing action, especially in painful areas that are distal parts of the body where circulation is poor and stagnation prevails.
The redness and prickly skin surface sensation that can be simultaneously warming and cooling is part of the healing process; however it is a fine balance to ensure that rubefacients do not cause excessive irritation or reactions that are counter-productive to resolving the pain.
This means that these particular essential oils and plant extracts should be well diluted and not applied to particularly sensitive skin regions or mucous membranes.

Skin is tougher than we think
Experienced aromatherapists emphasise how important it is to dilute the quite ‘hard-hitting’ rubefacient essential oils by putting them into carrier oil before use on the skin.
Studies have shown that rubefacients are well tolerated by most people with robust health and normal sensitivities and they don't cause permanent skin damage, even if used excessively.
It is advisable, however, to use an oil base for dilution, particularly for the bath because water and essential oils naturally separate, so using these could be hazardous.
The epidermis (outer layer of skin) and the layers beneath are designed to process sensation.
Feeling is transmitted to the body and brain through an elaborate network of touch receptors to form natural electrical touch charges.
The skin’s sensitivity as well as its ability to relay tactile messages is why massage can improve gland, organ and nerve function, while relaxing muscles and producing emotional feeling.
Rubefacients magnify this whole inbuilt sensory system to increase the sensitivity and healing efficacy of the massage.
Sometimes, when particular rubefacients have been used, subsequent showers or baths can reactivate the surface warm/cold sensations. 
How they help
Essential oils that deliver the rubefacient property are excellent additions to massage blends designed for musculoskeletal issues where pain or stiffness is present.
The increased circulation in the skin and muscle tissue creates relief from pain through an anti-inflammatory effect as well as helping to clear the tissue of by-products of prior inflammation.
They provide a comforting feeling of warmth as they accelerate metabolism in the area. Sometimes a stronger liniment style application is preferable, when general massage is less useful than an intensive treatment, rubbed in one area.
Rubefacient essential oils are used to treat conditions such as rheumatoid and osteoarthritis, back pain, bunion, bursitis (application to area without massage or manipulation), muscle cramps, sciatica, strain and sprain.
Frequently, they are paired with essential oils that increase detoxification, such as juniper, carrot seed and lemon, which is especially helpful for joint pain and arthritis.
They can also be blended with more relaxing anti-inflammatory analgesics such as lavender or german chamomile, where stress and tension is known to be a major cause of muscle pain.
Common rubefacients
Actually all essential oils are mildly rubefacient, but aromatherapists choose the more pronounced, stronger ones to use in blends when seeking this type of healing activity.
The rubefacient activity is particularly true of those essential oils rich in phenols (thyme, oregano, clove bud) and to a lesser degree oils rich in oxides (eucalyptus, cajeput, niaouli, rosemary) and terpenes (pine and juniper) .
Marjoram, black pepper, ginger, nutmeg and cypress are other fine examples. Many practitioners still use the very strong wintergreen and camphor oils, which modern-day aromatherapists have dispensed with because of its higher toxicity.
Lactic acid build-up in muscles
Lactic acid is a substance found in various foods and is also produced in the human body regularly in small amounts to assist with various biological functions.
Vigorous exercise is a common reason for excessive amounts of lactic acid within the muscles.
Lactic acid build-up causes discomfort, primarily in the form of burning sensations in your muscles, mostly in the legs, which can impact your physical performance.
Intense exercise sometimes means that your muscles need more fuel than is readily available, and when your body has run out of oxygen to fuel your muscles, lactic acid build-up occurs as a by-product of glucose being used as a fuel substitute.
The acid by-product does eventually dissipate, as the intensity of your exercise is decreased or stopped and the body begins to naturally remove the lactic acid.
This is because the need for the glucose fuel substitute has diminished, and in turn, the muscle discomfort associated with the acidosis also dissipates as your exercise pace decreases.
For serious athletes and those in training, this natural process often doesn’t have a chance to occur and massage, light stretching and hot baths to promote blood circulation and aid the release of lactic acid from the muscles after an intense workout is often indicated.
This is where the rubefacient oils come into their own, as they really catalyse removal of waste material with increased blood flow to stressed areas of the body.
Athletes’ aromatic friends
Essential oils are powerful anti-inflammatory healers and regenerators of skin, muscle and connective tissue as well as relieving stress and accordingly offer amazing healing support for athletes who too often sustain injuries such as sprains, strains and bruises common in many sports.
Pre- and post- exercise (or competition) massage with select plant oils and extracts plays an important part in warming up the muscles before exertion and removing lactic acid (thereby speeding recovery) after a high physical output.
Massage formulas can include invigorating essential oils to promote circulation and open the airways before a workout or performance.
One could include anti-inflammatory, pain relieving, and anti-spasmodic oils and those that calm the nerves and ease anxiety.
For massage, it is best to use light, quick invigorating strokes.
For post-exercise, a little deeper massage can be performed with longer strokes toward the heart, which will assist removal of lactic acid and other metabolic waste products.


The Super actives: menthol and capsaicin
Frozen peppermint
Quality, natural menthol is actually crystalised peppermint essential oil (although some menthols are derived from other mint oils) and is a waxy, crystalline substance, clear or white in colour that is solid at room temperature.
Cold-extraction peppermint oil is immediately frozen, which forms the menthol crystals that look similar to smaller oblong rock crystals.
The best menthol crystals are a natural product that has a strong, natural minty odour.  They have a variety of uses when added to healing blends as they are soluble in alcohol and are miscible in oils.
Menthols are not all made the same
Synthetic menthol is commonly used in many industries such as oral hygiene, sweets, pharmaceuticals, personal care, perfumery and even tobacco. 
Being such a strong substance, its usage percentage in a product can vary anywhere from 0.2 per cent to 10 per cent depending on the end product that is being formulated.
Many topical analgesics containing menthol are available on the market today; but these tend to use synthetic menthol.
Naturally derived menthol will always deliver more efficacious and potent healing action and especially a menthol derived from an organic high quality peppermint to start with.
The use of a real pure botanical menthol in body products brings safe anti-pruritic, analgesic, antispasmodic and anti-irritant qualities.
Menthol contains a type of local anaesthetic that can actually engage the cold sensitive receptors in our skin and provide a cooling sensation.  Inhaling menthol, or ingesting it, can produce the same sensation.
Common ailments that can be treated
Menthol is best known for its effectiveness at relieving pain caused by inflammation.
Inflammation is present in nearly all skin, tendon, muscle, and joint conditions such as arthritis, lupus, bursitis, tendinitis, and more. Some of the most common ailments and injuries that can be treated with a topical analgesic containing menthol include: bursitis, many different forms of arthritis, lupus, multiple other auto immune disorders, neuropathy, tendonitis, tennis elbow and many others that impact quality of life by causing pain in your skin, muscle, tendons, and joints.
Pain is subdued
When applied to the skin through a topical analgesic, menthol helps the body relieve pain, not by actually lowering temperature but by chemically activating the cold-sensitive TRPM8 receptors, which brings a cooling response to the skin, muscles, tendons, and joints.
Less pain is felt because the cooling effects help to reduce inflammation.
Menthol topical applications may be paired with a chill pack, to numb painful areas and decrease inflammation and swelling.
Topical products containing organic menthol could also be effectively used to relieve headaches, including cluster headaches, when applied to the neck and forehead (avoid sensitive skin areas).
The extract of chilli
Another really intense and effective active is capsaicin, the extract from a type of chilli that brings deep heat that penetrates into the area of pain.
The tiniest amounts must be judiciously measured to ensure a skin response that is not too extreme in its burning sensation. 
Heating agents such as capsaicin can be quite comforting and when combined with naturally warming and stimulating essential oils, they tend to work best for soothing stiff joints and tired muscles.
Capsaicin generates much healing activity at the site of injury or discomfort; the heat is especially good for getting your body limber and ready for exercise or activity. Sometimes the skin has difficulty defining whether the effects are actually hot or cold, so similar can they be.


Pre-Sports Rub
warming up to improve performance
Pure essential oils:
5 drops cypress
5 drops ginger
4 drops black pepper
4 drops lemon
5 drops rosemary;
20mL carrier oil

Post-Sports Rub
sore muscles from overexertion
Pure essential oils:
4 drops pimento
4 drops eucalyptus
5 drops chamomile
5 drops rosemary
10 drops lavender
3 drops peppermint;
20mL carrier oil

for very sore spots
Pure essential oils:
6 drops peppermint
5 drops ginger
5 drops niaouli
5 drops lavender
4 drops chamomile
5 drops marjoram
2 drops clove
2 drops thyme;
0.2mL organic menthol;
20mL carrier oil

Aching Joints Rub
Pure essential oils:
6 drops frankincense
4 drops manuka
5 drops pine
4 drops eucalyptus
4 drops ginger
4 drops chamomile
5 drops juniper;
5mL St John’s Wort infused oil;
20mL carrier oil
* Tinderbox recommends use of a cold-pressed
vegetable oil as the carrier oil

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