Are you familiar with camphor and the healing properties of this essential oil?
Used since time immemorial for its healing and aromatic properties, the health benefits of camphor are not only well known but wide ranging; from being used as an expectorant, antiseptic and analgesic to having anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and insect-repelling properties. According to folklore, a lump of camphor was worn around the neck, in what were known as burlaps, to help protect against infection. Though its precise effects may not then have been fully understood, it’s use in modern medicine is firmly established; here we’ll look at how you can make use of it as a home remedy in the treatment of many ailments.
Where does camphor oil come from?: The white, waxy crystalline substance was traditionally obtained through a distillation process from the wood and branches of the fragrant evergreen Cinnamomum Camphora tree. Most natural camphor today however is distilled from the leaves in order to preserve the life of the tree. That said, since 1930, the majority of camphor on the market today is synthetically produced from turpentine oil. Though the Cinnamomum Camphora is native to China, Taiwan and Japan it has since been introduced to many countries including North America.
Sacred use: Renowned for its pungent aromatic odour, the tree is identifiable by its distinct smell when its leaves are crushed. Valued as a sacred scent in early Christianity and Islam it is still used in Hindu pooja ceremonies today. The Persian Šāh-nāma text, speaks of how highly prized it was for it’s scent and confirms the use of kāpūr (Camphor) for embalming corpses during the Sasanian Empire, the last pre-Islam Persian empire.
Expectorant: Its firmly established use as an expectorant in modern medicine would explain why, according to folklore, our ancestors wore it round their necks. It is identified in the apothecary of Henry Hughes, who was born in 1825 and a pioneer in natural medicine, as being an effective chest rub when mixed with olive oil for the treatment of croup. Now approved by the FDA for such purposes, it is one of the main ingredients in Vick’s Vaporub. When a cream or ointment containing camphor is rubbed onto the body, camphor vapors are released as a result of body heat, which when inhaled help to loosen mucus and clear the lungs. It can also be inhaled through use of a steam vaporizer to help control coughs by producing a local anesthetic action to the throat.
Anti Bacterial: One study has shown camphor essential oil to have an anti-microbial effect on Streptococci bacteria, which can cause a range of infections which vary in severity from mild throat infections to life-threatening infections of the blood or organs. It was also found to inhibit Enterococcus faecalis, a bacteria which can sometimes cause intestinal problems. What’s more, a study in 2015 found camphecene a camphor derivative, to be effective in inhibiting influenza A and B viruses paving the way for further investigation of its use as a potential antiviral and further validating why our ancestors might have worn it to ward off illnesses.
Analgesic: Having been approved by the FDA for topical use as an analgesic and anesthetic in concentrations of 3% to 11% it is widely used as an ingredient in many topical products from treating pain related to cold sores, insect stings and bites to minor burns and hemorrhoids. Tiger balm for instance combines camphor with menthol both having the effect of triggering the skins cooling receptors and thus masking the underlying pain. Despite being used as an analgesic for centuries and studies confirming its effectiveness in desensitizing sensory nerves, its precise mechanism of action is not known. Studies do confirm however that it increases blood flow in both skin and muscle. From this we can draw the conclusion that it is beneficial for circulation.
Insect repellent: Camphor can also used as an insect repellent and in particular is used to keep mosquitos at bay. It acts in a way similar to citronella by masking the smell of the carbon dioxide and chemicals produced by our body, which is what attracts mosquitos in the first place. To keep a room mosquito free, simply place a few tablets in a bowl of water or alternatively burn the essential oil. Another of its uses is as an all-natural alternative to mothballs for protecting clothes, thereby avoiding the chemical naphthalene and its harmful effects. To do this you can dilute 1 drop to approximately 6ml of carrier oil and dispense onto cotton wool balls.
Anti Fungal: In addition, camphor oil has been found to be effective as an anti-fungal agent. It is thought to be effective in treating nail fungi by increasing blood flow which in turn brings more fungus fighting cells to the infected area, with the added benefit of its analgesic effects bringing relief.
Dose & Toxicity: Although there is a history of it having been used in medicine internally to treat hysteria, epilepsy and heart-related ailments it is highly toxic and ingestion is to be avoided. It is not considered to be safe for use in pregnancy. Only white essential camphor oil should be used, the brown and yellow camphor oils are considered to be not only highly toxic but also carcinogenic. Potentially a skin irritant it should always be diluted in quantities of approximately 1 drop to 6ml of carrier oil. 5 to 10 drops can also be placed in your bath.
Growing your own Camphor Tree: Native to China, Taiwan and Japan, Cinnamomum Camphora trees now thrive in other areas of Asia as well as Egypt, Formosa, Madagascar, the Canary Islands, Argentina, Brazil, southern Europe and in the pacific coast and gulf areas of the U.S. If you live in one of these areas you might consider growing a tree on your land and investing in a distiller for essential oils which can be sourced online. Alternatively, you can find out more about creating your own distiller at home here.
This evergreen produces shiny green oval leaves with distinct yellowish veins and a mass of cream colored flowers in the spring. To grow, it needs fertile sandy soil with a pH of between 4.3 and 8 and benefits from full sun or partial shade. Although it needs water when first transplanted, it can survive droughts once established.
Be warned though, they grow very big, between 50 -150 feet tall (depending on the region) and are capable of spreading twice as wide, with rapid expansion of roots! For this reason, they have been declared an invasive species in Florida. The thousands of berries, much loved by bird-life can result in thousands of seedlings on your land. Also, bear in mind that although the leaves can be used readily, the wood from the trees can’t be harvested until they are at least 50 years old.
Making your own camphor solution: If distilling your own camphor oil is not an option, the oil/tablets can be sourced from health food stores. To make your own camphor solution, you can place the equivalent of 2 tablespoons of ground camphor crystals and add to a saucepan of two cups of coconut oil; the liquid will be flammable, so take care to gently heat until the crystals have dissolved. Alternatively, you can simply leave balls of camphor tablets to infuse in a carrier oil and store in a dark glass jar.
Making your own Camphor Salve: Melt half a cup of coconut oil with approximately 2 ounces of bees wax. Once melted, mix in 10-15 drops of eucalyptus essential oil with 5-10 drops of camphor essential or homemade oil and store in a glass jar. Pour into containers and it should harden in around 15 minutes.
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