Not much has been written about this rather remarkable essential oil and so I thought I would write up a blog sharing the information I have accumulated over the years and my experiences using this essential oil in practice.
Plai (Zingiber cassumunar Roxb.) is a member of the Zingiberaceae family, as is Ginger essential
oil but unlike Ginger, Plai has been used in traditional Thai massage for many years to combat joint and muscle problems and it is more intense that using Ginger oil. It is native to Thailand, Indonesia and India and it is a pale yellow in colour, steam distilled from the fresh rhizomes unlike Ginger, which is distilled from the dried rhizomes, although this seems to depend on the producer - so always ask and request a copy of the GC analysis. The aroma is pleasantly fresh herbaceous and slightly peppery so has a nice zing! The main active chemicals are sabinene (27-34%), y-terpinene (6-8%), a-terpinene (4-5%), terpinen-4-ol (30-35%) and (E)-1- (3,4 -dimethoxyphenol)butadiene (DMPBD) (12-16%) (Sukatta 2009) and considered non-toxic, non-sensitizing and non-irritating when used externally. However, there is an oral toxicity warning and aromatherapists in the USA who have used the oil undiluted on the skin have reported redness and general sensitisation. When used diluted though, it is fine and this is confirmed in the Tisserand Safety Manual.
Let's explore the chemistry so that we can evaluate its therapeutic actions from the highest to the lowest constituents from the GC analysis below:
Terpinen-4-ol (30-35%), a naturally occuring monoterpene is actually the main ingredient in Tea Tree oil at around 42% (Hart et al. 2000), so it has been well researched in that we can see what Plai oil is good for. For example, we know that it has antifungal, antimicrobial (Carson, Riley 1995) and antibacterial (Loughlin et al 2008) properties. In fact this study reported that Terpinen‐4‐ol is a more potent antibacterial agent against MRSA than anything else. It is also antiseptic, anti-neuralgic and anti-inflammatory (Wells 1998). Another study shows that terpinen-4-ol had an enhanced anti-parasitic effect in killing Dexodexmites (Tighe, Tesng 2013). According to Calcabrini et al. (2004) in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology, an in vitro study showed the potential of terpinen-4-ol for anti-tumorial activity in melanoma cells in humans, so it is highly likely that Plai oil will exhibit similar actions. Another study concluded:
Terpinen-4-ol significantly enhances the effect of several chemotherapeutic and biological agents. The possible molecular mechanism for its activity involves induction of cell-death rendering this compound as a potential anti-cancer drug alone and in combination in the treatment of numerous malignancies. Terpinen-4-ol restores the activity of cetuximab in cancers with mutated KRAS" (Shapira et al. 2016). This is very interesting for anyone working with cancer patients.
Sabinene (27-34%), is a natural bicyclic monoterpene found in various essential oils including Black Pepper (17.9%) and Carrot Seed Oil (9.44%). It also appears in Tea Tree but at a much lower concentration, and also in Nutmeg (15%) (Goodscents Company TGSC System). In Black Pepper oil (Piper nigrum), sabinene is the reason behind the hotness and spicy element of its essential oil; however, Plai does not possess the classic heat that Ginger has despite having a high concentration of sabinene. Contrastingly, it has a more cooling effect on inflamed areas, be they joints and muscles or kidneys and lungs (Wells 1998). It no doubt accounts for the spicy aroma of Plai oil as well as its herby woodiness. According to AyurvedicOils (2016), sabinene "exhibits anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial and antifungal properties". Sabinene also possess anti-bacterial properties and has been witnessed by various studies. According to Raveendrakururp et al. (2014) sabinene showed a strong anti-microbial activity against Salmonella typhi, which causes food poisoning. Sabinene also proved to contain anti-fungal potency. Sabinene exhibits strong to moderate anti-bacterial activity against gram positive bacteria and anti-fungal activity against pathogenic fungi (Glisic et al. 2006)
(E)-1- (3,4dimethoxylphenol)butadiene (DMPBD) (12-16%), believe me, this is where my research started to get rather tricky! I managed to find information on its GHS classification (PubChem Open Chemistry Database) and as you would expect it is highly flammable and there is also a acute toxicity warning to show that it is very harmful if swallowed - another reason to know your chemistry if you are an advocate of internal use of essential oils (which I am not!!). I read a very interesting blog on Plai oil on the Aromahead website that states that DMPBD is known for its analgesic effects but the original source of this information is not cited. The same article states that Plai is considered to be great for reducing pain and inflammation and that "these properties are often associated with DMPBD" (Butje 2009)
ƴ--terpinene (6-8%), is another chemical compound that has demonstrated antimicrobial properties against various human pathogens (Tais et al. 2013). A study was also carried out to understand the cytotoxic and antimicrobial properties of Satureja intermedia C.A.Mey essential oil which contains γ-terpinene (37.1%) as one of its active ingredients. In this study, the essential oil was used to identify the antimicrobial effect on oral pathogens, and its cytotoxicity on human cancer cells. The results proved that the essential oil displayed antifungal and antibacterial activities on S. salivarius, Enterococcus faecalis, Streptococcus mutants, Candida albicans, Staphylococcus aureus, and C. glabrata (Sharifi-Rad J, et al. 2015)
Others essential oils Plai blends well with:
Plai blends well with other oils high in terpinen-4-ol such as Juniper (the high levels of terpinen-4-ol allows Norwegian farmers to build fences with Juniper as the wood does not rot (Ayurvedic Oils Website 2016)), Marjoram and Tea tree. Terpinen-4-ol is also found in high concentrations in Nutmeg essential oil. I like to sweeten it with Orange oil and Neroli too.
It is used increasingly for management of pain, especially for any chronic conditions such as arthritis, inflammatory digestive disorders, inflammatory skin conditions and inflammatory respiratory conditions. It is also great for helping torn ligaments, tendonitis, muscular spasm, menstrual cramps and basically any chronic joint pain (Worwood 2016). It can also be used for general colds and flu blends and can be used alongside or instead of Tea Tree.
It appears that Plai is also very helpful for some asthma sufferers. In Vancouver, Canada, some clients found benefit from using Plai oil blended with Tarragon or Rosemary and Cypress oils which caused their attacks to diminish greatly in intensity. The types of asthma tested were exercise and allergy induced and they found that the aroma, although a little overwhelming at first, even just smelling the blend caused the attack to reduce (Wells 1998). Daniele Ryman also agrees that Rosemary can help asthma attacks in her Aromatherapy Bible.
In research Plai oil has shown antioxidant activity that inhibited some free radicals (Leelarungrayub et al. 2017) and very interestingly, this research was conducted to see if Plai essential oil could be used intead of neurofen in physical therapy with ultrasound in the gel applied to reduce inflammation. The study showed that on rats at least, Plai was as effective as neurofen. It would be great to see natural agents used in medicine as neurofen and voltarol that are used for local pain relief and to reduce inflammation do have adverse effects (Wilkens 1985). According to a paper written by Charles Wells in 1998, on inflamed joints Plai has been found to ease pain for up to 18 hours, which is impressive when compared to other essential oils. On joints inflamed due to injury, Plai was best combined with Piper nigrum, Citrus limon, Cedrus deodora and Citrus aurantium (either or both the fruit and the flower). These combinations worked to take down the swelling, eased the pain and considerably sped up the healing time. Used in a small rollette bottle, the 10% dilution in a base oil is probably higher than that to which we are used to in the UK. These oils were blended in equal parts.
We have seen that Plai oil is antimicrobial, antiseptic, anti-neuralgic, anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, anti-tumorial, anti-parasitic, anti-fungal and analgesic from the four main chemical components discussed above. Other authors state that it is also antispasmodic, antitoxic, anti-viral, carminative, digestive, diuretic, febrifugal, laxative, rubefacient, stimulant, tonic and vermifuge. Whether these additional claims are correct or not, from my research the oil certainly is one every aromatherapist should have in their kit as it is an excellent oil for the everyday issues our clients present with, such as muscular aches and pains, stiff joints, sprains, strains and torn ligaments and arthritis. In fact, this would be a good oil to use in Sports Massage as well and Sports Therapists can contact their local aromatherapist to make up a blend for them to use with certain clients.
Some case studies using Plai oil
Menstrual Cramps - Try blending Plai with Linden Blossom Absolute, Marjoram and Orange in a 3% dilution in whatever base oil you deem relevant. The Linden Blossom is not essential but it helps to calm the person and reduce anxiety. It has anti-inflammatory properties and has the most beautiful aroma too. It is often adulterated though so do be careful when purchasing. You can always substitute this for a different anti-inflammatory and calming oil, such as German Chamomile, but it won't smell as good! Just for clarity, a 3% dilution is 3 drops of essential oil to 5ml of base product. Anyway, this blend was successfully used by rubbing over the lower back and abdomen every 15 minutes until the pain subsided. It was found that after three applications all cramps ceased and blood clots diminished.
Joint and Muscle Pain from osteoarthritis - a cream was made up for self-application in a 3% dilution containing Plai, Black Pepper, Juniper and Lemon oils. We used slightly less of the Black Pepper oil as it is rubefacient and can cause sensitisation and irritation in high amounts. Within 2 days, the client reported a huge amount of pain relief and did not need to take his NSAIDS.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome - again mix this in a 3% dilution in a base lotion with Plai, Black Pepper, Orange and Peppermint and apply the blend across the abdomen following a bowel movement or anytime there is any cramping or pain in the abdominal area. In one case study, it only took 3 applications of this blend for the symptoms to recede.
Replacement Knee Surgery - Plai was blended with Nutmeg and Lemon oil as a postoperative blend for a total knee replacement in a 5% dilution in a rollette bottle above and below the surgical area. Tissue inflammation and swelling was significantly lower than in the area that had the same surgery without the use of the blend. With the Plai blend, no pain releif medication was required to control post surgical pain.
You can purchase Plai essential oil from our preferred essential oil company Base Formula, who are registered with the Aromatherapy Trade Council. Here is the direct link to their page and the Plai oil. It currently costs £8.90 for 10mls and members of my professional association, Complementary Health Professionals (CHP), get a whopping 15% off all aromatherapy related products with this company - which is one of the many reasons to join if you are a practising aromatherapist in the UK, and as it is a multi-disciplinary association, we can cover all your therapies under one roof.
The information in this article is not intended for the lay person but for professional clinical aromatherapists who will take a full medical consultation prior to blending any oils for their clients. It is not intended to replace any medical advice and you need to consult a properly qualified aromatherapist or essential oil therapist if you would like to try using essential oils, especially if you are on medication or if you are pregnant. They are made up of complex chemicals and just because they are from natural sources do not mean they are without hazards and safety issues arise if misused. In the UK, a properly qualified aromatherapist will have completed a course that is recognised by the CNHC - the voluntary self-regulatory body in the UK. You can also contact CHP to find an aromatherapist/essential oil practitioner in your area from the database of members.
If you would like to train in aromatherapy, you can visit the CHP website here for our accredited schools and colleges who offer courses all around the UK at the agreed national standards all. I also have an online Essential Oil Practitioner Diploma course for people who want to use essential oils in practice but do not want to learn to massage. It contains everything in the UK national standards minus the massage elements and you can join the association and gain insurance to practice but obviously not call yourself an aromatherapist. The course will teach you to safely and effectively blend bespoke essential oil products or use in treatment other than massage following a full client consultation. You can view the course details by clicking here.
Ayurvedic Oils Website 2016 Terpinen-4-ol available at http://ayurvedicoils.com/tag/health-benefits-of-terpinen-4-ol <accessed 20/08/2018>