Interview with Valerie Cooksley, R.N., on Aromatherapy and Essential Oils

Author of Aromatherapy: A Lifetime Guide to Healing with Essential Oils

by Lily G. Casura

© 1997. All rights reserved.

Valerie Gennari Cooksley, R.N., is the author of Aromatherapy: A Lifetime Guide to Healing with Essential Oils,” published by Prentice Hall in 1996. (Update: Four and a half stars out of 45 reviews, as of this writing.) A former cancer nurse, she holds an international certification in aromatherapy through the Pacific Institute of Aromatherapy, and a current nursing license in the state of Washington, and has lectured widely on aromatherapy and related subjects. She has two more books in the works with Prentice Hall, including one called “Comforting Sense,” which was published in 1998.

(Update: In addition to Aromatherapy: A Lifetime Guide to Healing with Essential Oils,” and Comforting Sense,” Cooksley has since also published Aromatherapy: A Holistic Guide to Natural Healing with Essential Oils(2015); “Seaweed: Nature’s Secret to Balancing Your Metabolism, Fighting Disease, and Revitalizing Body and Soul,” (2007); Feel Good Remedies: Pleasurable Solutions to More Than 100 Health Problems (2007); and Aromatherapy: Soothing Remedies to Restore, Rejuvenate and Heal,” (2002).)

In this interview, she talks with us about aromatherapy, and specifically how she was able to introduce it into the traditional hospital setting, through her work at Tacoma General Hospital’s cancer unit, in Tacoma, Washington.

What was your background like as a nurse before you got into aromatherapy?

I’ve been a nurse since 1981. I started off as an isolation, infectious-disease nurse. The youngest head nurse on the unit (in Boston), right out of school, I was 21. I had a family history of cancer; and they say, “nurses, doctors, psychiatrists, etc., they become something because they’re trying to figure out their own family issues.” Partly that was true for me. But I loved cancer nursing. I loved the variety there was in it, and the high end of it that I got to practice, where I felt that I could really see it doing some good.

Then I went to San Jose, California, to a private, Catholic hospital called O’Connor Hospital, and became the charge nurse there, the youngest charge nurse. I was in charge of a 36-bed cancer unit. This was in the early 80s, but we had pod units with computers on each pod — very modern, even by today’s standards. And there was when I started working with experimental chemotherapy. In those days, the doctor didn’t need the patient’s permission to even give chemotherapy. Some people who were getting chemotherapy wouldn’t even know they had cancer. It gives me goosebumps now to think that I was involved in something like that. These people, many of them were on their way out. I did like the “life and death” kind of thing, running “May Day”s and saving people’s lives, and the very strong chemotherapeutics, using unusual strategies to save people lives.

When I moved up here, I really wanted to work in a clinic, and I got a job at the Tumor Institute of Swedish Hospital (in Seattle) and really enjoyed the outpatient work. Because people were walking, they were still in charge of their lives, to some degree. I worked out of the Swedish Hospital, and then was involved in starting the Northwest Hospital satellite unit, and worked there for about a year before my twins were born. But there I stopped doing the chemotherapy, and specialized in radiation (outpatient) treatment. I was involved with some of the first prostrate implants, and breast implants, where the patients came into the hospital for these and I would assist the doctors in the OR implanting these. And I taught “I Can Cope” classes for the family, did a lot of teaching on skin care, worked with the nutritionists and the people who gave the radiation (external beam-type) treatments.

I really enjoyed that, but it wasn’t until I got pregnant with my twins, and I stayed home and started taking care of them, that I started to think that maybe all those years when I thought I was doing the best I could for all these patients, maybe really I wasn’t. Sometimes drug companies would come in and leave a case or two of drugs for us to give out to the patients. I was involved in some research protocol studies, for Naprosyn, etc. I thought that I was doing these patients a favor, by giving all these drugs out to them that they didn’t have to pay for; but sooner or later, they did have to pay for them. They were very strong drugs, and they would be wiping out other systems, and the side effects were so strong.

So your attitude started to change, to become less “conventional”?

I started seeing that, wow, I couldn’t really say that I was doing the best thing for these patients, after all. Or they’d come in and they’d ask about alternative treatments, they’d ask what I thought of a certain natural herb, or of hypnosis, or whatever. And some of the doctors were open to it, but basically, they were mainstream, they wanted to cut it out, radiate it, whatever.

But I did see that people from certain cultures, or who ate a certain diet, or even certain personalities — I saw correlations after working for so many years with cancer patients. I remember I could tell by the breath of someone that they had lung cancer. Or in their sweat, if they had a certain type of cancer, or if they were diabetic, or something like that.

And this led to an interest in aromatherapy?

I’ve always been interested in scent, but never really gave it any medical credibility, until I started reading on my own articles here and there (about aromatherapy). Then, my cousin, who’s a medical doctor in France, started sending me some articles, and I started getting literature out of France, out of England, directly, because at the time there was a very slow trickling of information about aromatherapy.

In the United States, at the time, the uses of aromatherapy were pretty much limited to the beauty industry and massage therapy, but really, we had no medical basis for what was being discussed. With my nurse’s training, I wanted to hear “why” do these things work. So in 1991, I started studying with Dr. Kurt Schnaubelt, who’s a German chemist who runs Pacific Institute of Aromatherapy, down in California. I really liked his approach, because it was chemistry-based. He was from Germany, and Germany is considered by many to be way ahead of us, many of the European countries are. They have all the monographs on all the herbs that we in this country are now basing our information on; even (some of the) pharmacists here in the United States are being trained on the use of herbs. We can see it slowly coming in, because we can see that people are paying all this money out of their pockets (for natural medicine), there must be something to it.

But of course, the mainstream doctors, the allopaths — they still want to see the test studies. And what makes aromatherapy kind of “touchy” (to them and to others) is because the sense of smell is so personal, and it’s been so difficult to kind of track or map in the brain. We’ve figured out a lot of things, just the last ten years. So now we have the technical expertise and the measurement instruments that we can back things up with that we perhaps have known for a long time.

It wasn’t until I left nursing, started making baby food, I wanted to make the best baby food for my kids, started studying vegetarianism, nutrition, and of course, you have to get into herbs and spices. So really, I was about as mainstream as you could get, at that high end of nursing, but little by little, that started to change. It certainly didn’t happen right away, this 180º turn. I started to see herbs working, and got involved in making and using different herb teas. I took some classes at Bastyr in botanical medicine, and started making my own tinctures and ointments and things, and using herbs in cooking, and just started seeing the importance of nutrition, the importance of the fuel that we put in our bodies.

It kind of changed my way of thinking. I gave it a try. I was home for the first time, raising kids, so I could study things out that appealed to me. The beginning of it, for me, was trying things out and seeing that “we’re doing something wrong. We can’t always just attack the problem; we have to ask the question, ‘What got this person here?’”

Where did you take your training in aromatherapy?

I took the Pacific Institute’s international study course in aromatherapy, taught by Kurt Schnaubelt, in 1985. (It has a very scientific bent, lots of chemistry, and a very European slant to the teaching.) I found through gas chromatograph readings, all the components, studying the chemistry of essential oils, etc., like one essential oil can have anywhere from 150 to 300 chemical constituents. Well, man can isolate one or two of the main ones, like “menthol” and “menthone” in peppermint we’re very familiar with. They’re put in all kinds of dental flavorings and food, and cigarettes, etc. We know what menthol does. But aromatherapy goes back to using the whole plant, with its concentrated form — the essential oil — and we believe that that well-rounded oil will give you fewer side effects than one isolated constituent. Whenever you isolate one single constituent, much like with antibiotics, or anything else that you isolate, then there’s the chance that you can bombard the human system with that, and give way too high a dose for the person. That can definitely present problems.

Like with aspirin. The Native Americans chewed willow bark for their headaches, and we know that the active ingredient in willow bark, the methylsalicylate, is in wintergreen, it’s in birch essential oils, etc., but it doesn’t seem as toxic in them because we’re not isolating just the one component.

So these experiences are kind of what opened the door for me. I went with the certification offered by the Pacific Institute, because I thought that I really needed something to sink my teeth into, and that’s going to make sense to me. I don’t want to hear the mystical, magical “fluffy” stuff, although I know there’s something to it.

In the old days, doctors used to diagnose by way of smell. Almost every culture has used aromatherapy. Doctors used to carry a little cane, with a flip-top filled with essential oils, and before they went to see a contagious patient, they would flip the flip-top and smell some of the essential oils. During the plague years, they would find that the doctors and the glovemakers, and certain people who worked with the aromatic plants, weren’t getting sick as much. You can always tell, years later, when you go back and figure it out, that these were indeed antibacterial essences that they were working with. And even during the time of Hippocrates, who is after all known as the Father of Medicine, he would recommend that people would burn certain herbs and woods outside in the streets to “break up the air.” That was his thing. They didn’t have the language for describing this that we do now, but that means to us, some of those herbs and woods were antibacterial, antiviral, or antifungal, so they were actually killing germs with what they were doing. They would strew herbs on their floors, etc.

The essential oils are very concentrated forms of their plant, that carry all the important information of the plant. Some people refer to it as the “blood,” or the “life force” of the plant. I don’t like to get too far out there, but there’s something to that. I’m now studying a lot about bioenergetics, to learn more about this. As a nurse, I’m very physical and very practical. But I also know there are other planes to work on. Even studying Qi Gong and other energy forms, once you sense it, you know it’s there.

What’s your perspective, then, as a nurse, even though you’re not practicing as one currently?

My big thing is to teach people how to use more natural remedies, and use them in prevention. Using things in the home, and the clean air plants, using essential oils mixed in with natural cleaners to clean, certain essences in the diffuser which calm and fragrance the environment naturally, and to help kill germs. So my whole book is based on giving people tools, safe tools — because not all essential oils are safe. That’s a big thing I have…about the safety issue. Aromatherapy is enjoying a lot of publicity right now, and people are making a lot of money from it. And the average person out there thinks that anything that smells is aromatherapy. I like to consider myself an aroma “practitioner,” because “therapy” can be such a fluffy word, or mean that we’re doing something hands-on for a person, which we aren’t necessarily doing (like massage). Because I don’t do massage. I strictly like to educate and encourage the person to heal him or herself, and to change lifestyle and diet, and things like that. That’s much more powerful than to do something temporary for someone.

The book points out certain ailments, and I cover what the ailment is — from my nurse’s background — so that we’re all talking about the same thing. But I try to carry it another step further, to get underneath the problem and ask, “What brought you to this point?” Most of what I talk about in my book are stress-related illnesses — even skin conditions we shouldn’t overlook, because that’s like the first indication on the outside that something inside is imbalanced or wrong, or we’re overstressed; or we need to slow down; or we need to find more beauty in our lives. But don’t run to the doctor for antibiotics when you could be doing three steam inhalations a day with eucalyptus oil for that sinus infection. It helps finding some research out there — a lot of it comes out of Europe, because they’re a good many years ahead of us in aromatherapy. Because aromatherapy is effective, and they’ve proved things about it over there, they use it in a medicinal way. I like to take that information and apply it to what we can do here. But even that gets tricky, because if you give it too much credibility, and treat it like a drug, then it could be taken away from us, because we’d be “prescribing” it. So that’s the big gray line.

“This week’s solution: Aromatherapy!” Actually, aromatherapy sounds like — as great as it is — that it’s just one part of the picture of all kinds of things that can help restore the body to balance.

And just because something’s a natural derivative and comes from nature doesn’t mean that it’s always good. Or it may be good for me, but not good for you. Or, if you’re allergic to the plant, you’ll certainly be allergic to its essential oils. Especially asthma patients and epileptics, pregnant women, small children and babies, even the elderly, if they’re on lots of medications or have blood pressure problems, they shouldn’t use it frivolously. These are special populations. A lot of my mission is to make sure that people get the right information, within safe guidelines. Stay away from experimenting with all these exotic oils. And not only that, the public needs to be educated about what’s genuine and authentic, because there are so many adulterated oils out there. We’re not even sure sometimes if something is coming from the plant they say it is, or how it is produced, or whether it’s been grown with pesticides and fertilizers. We’re talking about something that’s 99x a concentrated product from the live plant. The live plant has water and fiber, and different herbal properties — and we’re just taking the aromatic component, the essential oils that evaporate and are volatile. So you concentrate those, and then how do you use them? We would typically think, “the more the better.” But with aromatherapy, it’s similar — not exactly the same, but similar — to homoepathy and Bach flower remedies. It’s the same philosophy that just a little will trigger the body to do what it already knows how to do.

And my big thing now that I’m really excited about studying is the effect on the mind and the immune system, and how the immune system and the emotions are so closely linked, and the whole psychoneuroimmunology field. I tend to believe that everything that we need to cure our ailments and illnesses is here on the earth, whether we find it or not. You go back to the Bible, or any of the old cultures or religions; they all used some form of aromatics. So I believe it’s out there; it’s just a question of whether or not we’ll ruin it before we find it, and whether we’ll be smart enough to know how to use it. And I know there are people there who go by “intuition,” and they’ll blend a certain combination for a person, and all. But when I do a consultation with a person, I spend a whole hour with a person, going through what drugs they are on, what vitamins, what’s their diet like, give them a stress test, etc. Do a whole hour evaluation of even what’s their lifestyle, who’s their support system, etc. And have them identify and point out to me, what are the two or three main things you want to work on? I mean, people know. If they’re quite enough, they figure it out. But most doctors are in such a hurry — Andrew Weil talks about the “Two Minute Doctors” they have in Japan — they don’t communicate like this.

When I did consultations, I didn’t do hands-on. I’d come back one or two weeks later, have another one hour meeting with the person, and give them the blends that I’d made for them, but give them the recipes so they could make the blends the next time. And tell them how to use it, and have the whole aromatherapy treatment plan laid out — giving them tools and empowering them, showing them the research and the information to back it up. Because, “Who am I to listen to, and take anything from?”

How did you get involved in writing the original book for Prentice-Hall? Did they approach you?

Yes. I had been on television a few times, out in Minneapolis, working with a company that produces a pain-relief patch that some professional sports teams use. I was one of their distributors, before they went multi-level. They’re an aromatherapy and herbal- and aloe-based type of company. That was way in the beginning, before I even got my aromatherapy certification. So I’d done some TV education for them; and then I did some public television here in Seattle quite a while ago on aromatherapy, being interviewed — shown late at night, where hardly anybody saw it, but still. And I’d done some lectures at some major conferences. So Prentice-Hall already knew the book they wanted to print. They knew they wanted a common ailment book for aromatherapy; they didn’t want something fluffy, they wanted something of substance, but that was going to be relatively affordable, for everybody. They had heard my name from several different companies and place, which kind of surprised me, but nevertheless. So the editor called me and asked me if I’d ever thought about writing a book, and asked me some questions about my background, and he loved the fact that I was a cancer nurse, and was really into education. He liked my perspective of aromatherapy, that I wasn’t doing this to earn a ton of money, but that my mission was really to teach people the safe ways to use herbs and essences, whatever. They gave me the parameters. As a first-time author, they were taking a risk on me, but the book has turned out to do very well.

I’ve been asked for the second year in a row to lecture to 800 primary care physicians — this year it’ll be the 14th annual primary care practitioners’ conference, at the Washington State Convention Center. Last year I presented on “The Scent of Health: The Therapeutic Benefits of Aromatherapy,” and it was very well-received. This year I will talk about aromatherapy and easing the effects of stress.

I get all this direct mail stuff, and people wanting me to do infomercials and endorse their products. I believe in aromatherapy, but I’m not going to say that “this one product is better than all the rest.” Certainly, the quality of essential oils is what we have to be talking about, because you can’t expect any good results from potpourri perfume oils. [Potpourri in French means “rotten pot.”] It may please you because you like the scent, but you can’t say that it’s going to be antibacterial, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, and going to help a certain condition, because there’s no guarantee.

You say you’re interested in aromatherapy and psychoneuroimmunology. Can you tell us a little about that?

The emotions and the immune system are so intimately connected, that if you’re relaxed, and you feel good, you’re sending out certain pharmaceuticals into your body. I look at the brain as the whole pharmacy for the body. And what better way to stimulate the brain than through aromatherapy? Because there’s a direct link through the limbic brain. You inhale the substance through your nose, it gets diffused into your lungs, and gets into your bloodstream, crosses the blood/brain barrier — which is so important. When they come up with pyschoactive drugs, the big thing is to get it into the bloodstream. And aromatherapy gets directly into the bloodstream. So it’s affecting the brain, and it’s triggering certain portions of the brain, via the limbic system, to regulate sexual libido, heart rate, respiratory rate, where moods and memory are stored, etc. When we inhale certain essences, it can relax us, it can make us feel good, it can actually slow our heart rate, it can help with blood pressure, it can help with anger states or panic states, anxiety, etc. Aromatherapy is very useful when it comes to stress. So if we get onto stress again as a topic, it’s not just about covering up the symptoms or just making you feel good, it goes deeper than that. Because it’s triggering the portions of the brain to release the hundreds of hormones that it produces. As laypeople, we’re only familiar with a certain number of these hormones, but there all types of enkephalins, and endorphins, things that make you feel good.

One study that I’m not done with is that I’ve been using the euphoric essential oils (a lot of them are the aphrodisiac ones) — that trigger certain portions of the brain to release opiate-like chemicals. And there’s a theory that I mention briefly in my book that chronic pain sufferers may not be producing enough enkephalins and endorphins; that already they have a very low level of these hormones. So then they have to live with this chronic pain. My theory is to use some of these euphoric essential oils that trigger the brain to release its own hormones to bring up that level; and I’ve seen a 50/50 response, because the people I’ve been working with are still on their pain medications, and you don’t know if everyone’s using the aromatherapy correctly, but, my hunch is that that’s gotta help. And if you can bring them up to feeling better, they’ve going to be more active — it’s a cycle. Then they start sleeping better, and they have hope. A lot of times, it’s just about “hope.” That’s what I did in my “I Can Cope” classes with cancer patients is to encourage people: “Still plant your garden. Still be around your grandchildren. Stay in the living sector. Don’t just check yourself out.” Because that’s when people go downhill.

The other thing related to pain and stress, emotions and the immune system is depression. I look at depression like it’s anger turned inward. You’re not doing what you want in life. It’s a “pushing down.” I’ve been through, not a severe depression, but mild bouts of depression. God, if you live in Seattle, you’ve got the Seasonal Affective Disorder as well (laughter) — which lemon essential oil helps with, by the way, because it’s that bright, sunny, lemony-citrus essential oil. I haven’t figured it out, but maybe that triggers a certain portion of the brain to have a “brighter outlook” or something, but there’s definitely this link between the emotions and the immune system, and scent.

What are some of the ways you personally use aromatherapy, at this point?

I have a diffuser here, in the kitchen (a big, open kitchen). I use an electric diffuser, which is the most therapeutic way to use essential oils, because there’s no heat involved. There are quieter models, there are big models, if you need to diffuse a whole area like a clinic. I usually have an electric timer with it, so it goes off and on at certain times of day.

I also make herbal vinegars, and when I use grapefruits and oranges, I chop things up and use the rinds, because the essential oils are in the rinds, and then I’ll get distilled vinegar, and soak the rinds in that, and then use that to clean the counters (of my kitchen). Along with Dr. Bronner’s soap, that’s got real essential oils in it as well. I use clean air plants. I’ve got orange trees in the garden. I like to have so many plants in each room to clean the air. NASA researched the clean air plants that help to gobble up toxins (look for an article about this in a forthcoming issue of the Townsend Letter). I grow a lot of my own herbs and vegetables, and a lot of my own cutting flowers. I like to grow whatever I can. I truly believe that whatever we can grow ourselves, and use as our own medicines, the more powerful they’re going to be. I make my own soap, and natural cleaning products, using the diffuser. In the wintertime I make aromatherapy candles to scent the air. You can tell I like a lot of flowers here! I grow only the scented roses, and I usually have a couple of big plants in each room. I try to keep my house as clean as I can, without all the chemicals usually used to clean with.

A big aromatherapy thing would be in the bath. We have a big soaking tub. I use some of my aromatherapy vinegars in the bath, because it balances the pH of our skin. I custom-blend a lot of things. And then I custom-blend my own facial care; make my husband’s mouthwash, etc. He twisted his ankle the other day playing basketball, so I mixed blue chamomile, which is anti-inflammatory, with arnica massage oil, and he played his second game last night, and it’s only been two days. It’s not a miracle, but…

Tell us about the consultation you did with Tacoma General Hospital, and their cancer ward. That sounded pretty interesting.

My largest consultation was for Tacoma General Hospital (in Tacoma, Washington), their whole cancer unit. I went in and trained the nurses — I’m going back to do a day training, and three lectures throughout the day — but I went in and trained the nurses. They have massage therapists, they have Jacuzzi on the floor, they have two rooms on the floor that are specially-designed for radiation patients. I designed a plan for what clean air plants should be in the rooms to help with the radiation byproducts. I came up with room misters that the nurses can make. I designed a cart that has all the essential oils that they work with, that has all the safety precautions and ways to use it, so the nurses can wheel it into the patients’ rooms, like they do it in Europe. They can diffuse certain blends, for example if they’re having a spinal tap, or some other very stressful test, they can use it that way. Or they can use it in the Jacuzzi, or the massage therapists can use it in their massages of the cancer patients.

There was one woman patient there, who was a very sad case. They were running out of antibiotics to use on this woman, and her biggest thing was that she was losing hope. So I worked closely with the counselor there, I forget what type of counselor she was — a pastoral caregiver, I guess, who was also a nurse. I designed several aromatherapy blends for this patient. One was something I called “joyful hope,” which was to get some euphoric oils into her system, to make her feel hopeful. And she misted the room, all the time, with her little blend. And we put clean air plants in her room, because she loved to garden — and here she was, in this sterile room. It was so depressing to look at, and the smells and everything. So we got rid of the Lysol, and we did all these natural things. And I also formulated a salve for her abdomen, to help kill the very bad germs, that even our modern antibiotics couldn’t deal with. And she got — I’m not going to say it’s a miracle case, or anything — but she definitely was feeling better. And once she felt better, and felt hopeful, she was able to leave the hospital for a few hours and come back, and then they’d re-hook her up on the machines, and her IVS and everything. That was about a year ago, and I haven’t kept up with her, but it was a very positive thing for the nurses to see, and her family felt pretty good about that.

Tacoma General Hospital’s goal

When I went in with Tacoma General Hospital, I asked them what their goal was. They’re interested in aromatherapy, and they’re thinking that they’re going to make their patients more comfortable. Plus, because they’re a cancer unit, they have money, and funds, where people will donate money to that unit, and they’re pretty much free to use it however they want. So the primary goal was to encourage a healing environment, centered around wholeness and caring. I spent maybe two hours walking through their unit, finding out what it was like, talking to the nurses, seeing the layout of the whole thing. Figuring out where we could put a diffuser, we had to put them up on walls, with timers. I had to get large models, because we didn’t want kids up there. We would have them in the lounge area, where there would be visiting hours. We would have the diffusers go on three times a day, when the visitors were there, a lot of information like that. Another goal was to promote relaxation in the nurses’ station. I mean, you have to take care of the nurses who were taking care of the patients. Purify working environments with the use of essential oils and the clean air plants. Provide recommendations for aromatherapy in the patients’ rooms. We did the aromatic room sprays; the portable cart so we could wheel it from room to room (since everyone can’t have their own), make it cost-effective. We had aromatherapy massage oils, and patient-billed items. There was a small pocket inhaler, and like little night-time diffusers that could sit at the end of their beds. These could be personally-billed items, so if there was a patient who was having all kinds of diarrhea, or was having lots of discharge and there were many odors going on the room, if I had a choice between something natural and that smelled good, instead of …


Right, Lysol, or bleach or something! Then we also provided aromatherapy recommendations for the soaking tubs and footbaths. A lot of patients, if they incisions and stuff on their bodies, they can’t be taking baths, or even showers, often. So I taught the nurses about footbaths. Maurice Messegue was an herbalist, not professionally-trained or anything, but from France, and he would go out and pick herbs out of the countryside — he learned it from his dad, who learned it from his dad, etc. — his information applied to aromatherapy. His book was great. It’s very old. He treated all kinds of royalty, and even Winston Churchill was one of his patients. Although he didn’t get any formal training, he would do hand and footbaths, and he claimed that because — in reflexology, we know all the trigger points, and how areas relate to the rest of the body — but he believed, and he proved, that he could take care of kidney problems, blood pressure problems, all sorts of problems, by soaking the feet and hands in certain temperatures of water — no, that’s not right, he didn’t even get into hydrotherapy, that was the priest, Father Kniep — I was so intrigued by how he could take care of all these tough cases that the doctors couldn’t handle, by absorbing the herbs through the skin (via these hand and footbaths).

Aromatherapy and hydrotherapy

So I thought, why don’t we use hydrotherapy — which is the use of water temperature — along with aromatherapy — because these are potent herb forms, we don’t have to use very much, more like four to six drops (of essential oil) in a footbath — and that’s a good way for these patients, who can’t get their whole body into a bath. There’s something very nice about having footbaths. Just a hand or a foot massage is very relaxing. So I taught a lot of this to the nurses. And the aromatherapy plan that I came up — I mapped out the square footage, designed how things would be laid out, defined what their goals were, etc. — The number one goal was to purify the working environment, because of course there’s tons of germs. The staph germs are very prevalent in hospitals, and now we have a certain name for that, secondary infection, that you get when you go into the hospital. It’s interesting to note that Dr. Jean Valne, a French medical doctor, found that eucalyptus essential oil kills up to 70% of staphylococcal bacteria. So over in Australia, over in France, somewhat in England (although they use more subtle aromatherapy there, not strictly medicinal) they pipe a lot of the eucalyptus and the antibacterial, antiviral essential oils into the air conditioning systems or use it in the hallways.

That sounds great — a lot better than getting Legionnaires’ Disease from the air-conditioning system!

Now some eucalyptus smells medicinal. There are like 300 varieties of eucalyptus, and we’re only familiar with a few of them, tea tree, etc. But most of the eucalyptus varieties will handle these nasty germs. So we highlighted that. I installed the professional diffuser in the nurses’ station, in front of the med room, on an existing table that was there, recommended relaxation blends, connected the diffuser to an electric timer so that it went off every so many minutes during the shifts, for five to ten minutes’ duration. Then for the night shift, I made a blend to help the nurses stay awake, much like what they do in Japan. So it’s nothing new, it’s just applying it to a hospital setting.

And when we brought this in, we said it was to make it more pleasing and to purify the environment, and you know, some of the doctors didn’t buy into it. But that’s fine, because then they slowly, by experience, learned that it was working. We also tried to document if the nurses weren’t sick as much, because there had been a lot of nurses out sick, and we were hoping to prove that this lowered insurance premiums and all this kind of stuff, but…

Yes, talk their own language! (Laughter).

And then we introduced the clean air plants. I gave them a list, and recommended two plants per 100 square feet, which is optimum according to NASA. And for all-purpose pollution, easy maintenance (non-poisonous, in case there were children), these were plants that could be hanging from planters, etc. Not only that, but something living in their rooms was kind of nice, instead of these silk plants that we’re all getting used to.

And we worked to purify the air of the family room, which was the visiting room that the families used. I put the diffuser there up on the wall, and recommended that a shelf be built to house the diffuser, used the large bottle with the timer so they didn’t have to change it so often, and then had periodic diffusions of scent into the room. We also used about four plants in the room to cover the square footage. And they had this beautiful aquarium, and they had the nice, soft muted colors in the decoration of the room already, but really, when we added the aromatherapy and the plants, aah, it was just so much better. And then the patients knew that these nurses and the people in charge, the managers, were going out of their way to make it a nicer atmosphere for them in the cancer ward.

In the conference rooms, we did a whole model diffuser, and I came up with a lavender-lemon antiseptic general room. (Because there were food smells in there as well, we also wanted it to be antiseptic.) We also used some clean air plants.

We gave the patients some aromatic room sprays, and taught them how to make their own. It’s so inexpensive to do. You get some distilled water, a little fine mister, and you add 20 drops (of pure essential oils) for every four ounces of liquid. So the patient can mist anyway he or she wanted. And oftentimes the area there in the patient’s room is dry, because everything’s closed up, and it’s a closed unit; so this was adding moisture. I came up with a purifying blend, an anti-depressant blend (this was the “joyful hope” blend that I made for one of the woman patients), and then one to two clean air plants per room because these are small rooms. And then four clean air plants for the radiation treatment rooms, because they needed extra plants to help clean up the radiation byproducts.

Early hospitals were missions

The early hospitals, after all, were missions. They were healing centers. You didn’t go there because you were sick, as we do today, but to stay well, or for a little retreat, or to meditate or something. So we’re going back to that. They should be pleasant, they should be welcoming, they should have healing gardens, or even have the patients help take care of these gardens, or to grow something. That’s all tied in with staying in the life-cycle, it’s so basic.

We also had a portable cart, to be wheeled from room to room for specific situations. It was a metal cart, with two levels and a locked cupboard, because these essential oils, some of them smell good, kids might like to get into them, but everything was under lock and key, with a notebook up on top, to explain some of the blends that were available. Some of the blends I designed for the patients were kind of general, like “grief and bereavement,” especially for the dying patients and their families; a respiratory blend, a “pure for sure,” which is antiseptic, an insomnia blend which was very popular, and just a general relaxation blend. Then there were different massage oils, and I recommended the pain relief patch (mentioned before) and a sports oil that is analgesic, a “serenity blend,” and these were things that the massage therapists could use in a 2% whole-body preparation.

Ceremonial oils

There were massage therapists that came in several times during the week and had a massage room, so the patients could get their massages once or twice a week. Then there was a ceremonial oil, and I realize I was kind of “getting out there” with that, but if in any place you’d need something like that, it’d be a hospital. It was kind of like an anointment, to help with feelings of fear, that the patients could apply on the solar plexus, or anoint the heads. Just to have something available like that somehow strengthens them. Frankincense has been used forever, and sandalwood, and many of the other essential oils. These are just calming and nurturing and peaceful kinds of blends, that the family could be in charge of, or the nurses. I know, I mean, I’ve held the hands of a lot of dying patients, where they didn’t have families, or they didn’t have any faith at all, and I’ve held their hands. At the time, not knowing what else to do, I would hold their hands, or just be with them. But how sad for them, if they had no belief system or no support system — and just by applying an oil (I can only imagine, because I haven’t done it personally — I’ve been out of the nursing field for a while — but I think that would be powerful) help people to feel better, just by using a small ceremony. Rituals have a place everywhere, for every life transition we go through. It doesn’t have to be a big mystical “to do” and have any cult significance to it, for sure, to be worthwhile.

Aromatherapy recommendations for footbaths and soaking tubs

We provided aromatherapy recommendations for the soaking tubs and footbaths. Then I had to go through, and the nurses knew much about this, but if the patients had any open wounds, the essential oils would be absorbed much quicker, and some are irritating, so I had to teach them all about that. We covered what the carrier options were — bath salts, Castille liquid soap — these are all things the nurses could use to mix the essential oils into, before they used them in the footbaths. We had sitz baths which were waist-high, and then the soaking tubs, and then footbaths that could be used at the patients’ bedsides. Some patients were so sick, that it took literally everything they had just to sit up in bed, or in a chair. So while a nurse is making the bed, or if a patient is up for a certain number of hours, he or she can sit in a different position, and be soaking their feet in an aromatic footbath. It could be plain lavender, to relax, peppermint to stimulate; for colds and flu, we use eucalyptus, etc. But see how simple this is. I didn’t want to make more work for the nurses, because I know they’re already overtaxed.

Then I had a list of all the supplies that were available on the portable aromatherapy cart. And I went in and taught the nurses, I think it was two sessions. We were all enthusiastic, and we were hoping to get a grant put together for me to continue to work with this, but I didn’t end up taking the time to write the grant application. But I’ve consulted medical offices, clinics, dentists…I worked with my dentist to diffuse some scents — a “relaxation blend” in the waiting area, and a mist for patients in the chair, who couldn’t move. I put a little drop of essential oil on that little bib that they use. It could be just basic lavender, or something like that.

I’m going to be teaching soon at Tacoma General Hospital. They’re having an all-day training on alternative training, which tells you that they’re trying to “infuse” the training into their system. But they want doctors and nurses to teach it, so that it has some credibility. I’ll try to bring in some of the newer studies, to try to bring in some more credibility, and empower the nurses to tell their patients that it’s okay to use these certain spices, but that it’s not okay to use the essential oils (listed on Valerie Cooksley’s safety/cautionary list) unless under a healthcare professional’s instruction, or if you have more knowledge. Some of them are phototoxic, some of them are skin-irritants, etc.

List of therapeutic essential oils

I’ve got a list here (see sidebar), and I didn’t devise this grouping, I think it was Robert Tisserand, many years ago, but most mints tend to be refreshing and cooling, etc. I go even further in my nursing lectures to say, “These are the anti-inflammatory oils. That’s why there’s peppermint in your Ben-Gay rubs, etc.” Floral (scents) tend to be relaxing and mood-elevators. Spices — in studying Ayurvedic medicine, they tend to use the warming, energetic spices for the Kappha body types that are slow and kind of sluggish. Trees are well-known to be respiratory enhancers. [I make the correlation in my book about the lungs, and that’s about as far out as I get in the book, that we have a bronchial tree, that’s what we call it, but it’s the exact opposite, inverse of a real tree. And not only that, we take in oxygen, and give off carbon dioxide. Trees are just the opposite: they give off oxygen, and take in carbon dioxide. It’s an easy way to remember that the tree essential oils are what purify the air, but also what purify our own respiratory systems, like eucalyptus, pine, fir, cedarwood — all those have been used forever. So we’re going to run into problems when we don’t have any forest left, because that’s what’s helping to purify the air.] Then, the grasses are “less exciting,” but they tend to be relaxing and toning for the skin. The citrus scents are the anti-stress mood elevators, but they’re also antibacterial. It’s no accident that you serve lemon with your seafood, even today. If you squirt lemon on an oyster, it takes 20 minutes, but it will kill all bacteria that might be growing on the seafood. I give safety guidelines, too, about how to use the oils.

Essential oils being absorbed through the skin

On some of these things, there have been no formal studies about essential oils being absorbed through the skin, so the argument is, we don’t want to keep passing information out that that’s true, until we know that it is. That’s something I want to make clear in my next book, that anything below 1,000 molecular weight can get into the skin. We know it works, but no formal study has proved it. They tested pine essential oil in a bathtub environment, to see how much got into the blood; and it did get into the blood, but the person’s breathing wasn’t studied at the same time, to see how much got into the bloodstream through the breathing vs. how much was being absorbed through the skin. In theory and in practice, we might see that something happens, but there have been no formal studies.

And what are your future plans?

I’d like to teach and certify other health professionals through the Atlantic Institute’s aromatherapy course, geared to health practitioners, beginning sometime this fall. And I’m still working on my two books, plus some other projects; and teaching classes at the Herb Farm from time to time (in Fall City, Washington); plus doing weekend intensives. But I really want to get involved in teaching and certifying other health professionals in aromatherapy, perhaps even see if there are some CEU credits available for this. I feel good about the Atlantic Institute course, because it’s a course I’ve been through, and I like the idea of certifying other health professionals to do this. I don’t mind teaching housewives, but this is a different caliber of student, with an anatomy and physiology background already there.

Editor’s Note: Valerie Cooksley, R.N., will be speaking at the Pacific Northwest Conference for Primary Care Practitioners, on Friday, October 24, 1997, at the Washington State Convention and Trade Center, 800 Convention Place (8th and Pike), Seattle, Washington. Her presentation is entitled “Easing the Effects of Stress Using Aromatherapy.”


Resources for further study that Valerie Cooksley recommends:


Pacific Institute of Aromatherapy

Atlantic Institute of Aromatherapy


Aromatherapy: A Lifetime Guide to Healing with Essential Oils, by Valerie Cooksley

Of Men and Plants, by Maurice Messegue

Health Secrets of Plants and Herbs, by Maurice Messegue

Plant Aromatics (several volume set) by Martin Watt, certified phytotherapy medical herbalist

The Aromatherapy Practitioner Reference Manual (in two volumes) (Geared toward health practitioners): A Complete Reference Book of Over 350 Aromatic Plant Extracts, Index of Biologically-Active Phytochemicals, Clinical Index and Taxonomical Index, by Sylla Sheppard-Hanger



Les Cahiers de l’Aromatherapie Records

ISBN 2–940115–02–8

(French and English, bilingual edition, published once to twice a year, from Lausanne, Switzerland.)

Focused on using data as a tool in research & policy decisions. IWMF grantee. NASW-TX and Tableau Public award winner. UTSA, Harvard honors grad. Ph.D. student.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store