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The Therapeutic Value of Sesame Oil

by Anne McIntyre(more info)

listed in ayurveda, originally published in issue 81 - October 2002

Almost on a daily basis I extol the amazing healing benefits of sesame oil to my patients and feel that it is time to write about it so that I can spread my enthusiasm a little wider! The principal way I use sesame oil in my practice is in external application and if I had not received such positive feedback of its therapeutic value from my patients over the last few years I would have found it hard to believe just what an incredible remedy it is.

Traditional Uses and Healing Properties

The sesame plant (Sesamum indicum) is a lovely annual shrub with white bell-shaped flowers tinged with a hint of blue, red or yellow. It is grown worldwide, particularly in India, China, South America and Africa. Its present popularity is nothing new, for it has been cultivated for over 4,000 years in Mesopotamia and was found in Tutankhamun's tomb. The seeds were ground for flour and today they are still used to make tahini, a delicious paste that has a long reputation for increasing longevity. Apparently the women of ancient Babylon would eat halva, a mixture of honey and sesame seeds, to prolong their youth and beauty, while Roman soldiers ate sesame seeds and honey to give them strength and energy.[1]

The rich, almost odourless oil expressed from the tiny seeds is very stable and contains an antioxidant system comprising sesamol and sesamolinol formed from sesamolin, which substantially reduce its oxidation rate.[1] If properly stored, sesame oil is not likely to go rancid, making it popular as a cooking oil in India and China. It is also highly nutritious, rich in vitamins A, B and E as well as the minerals iron, calcium, magnesium, copper, silicic acid and phosphorus. It contains linoleic acid and alpha linoleic acid as well as lecithin, and this may go some way to explaining its benefit to the brain and nervous system. Like olive oil, sesame oil is considered good for lowering harmful cholesterol levels.[2] White seeds produce the most oil, but in India they say the best oil for healing is extracted from black sesame seeds.

Sesame oil is immensely popular in India where its use in oil massage (abhyanga) is part of everyday life and an important aspect of Ayurveda. It is the favourite oil for massage as its chemical structure gives it a unique ability to penetrate the skin easily, nourishing and detoxifying even the deepest tissue layers. In fact it is said to benefit all the seven tissues (Dhatus). It is the best oil for balancing Vata but can also be used sparingly for Pitta and Kapha.

People with high Vata can be prone to anxiety, nerve and bone disorders, poor circulation, lowered immunity and bowel problems such as wind, constipation and irritable bowel. They tend towards excess dryness both externally and internally. Used regularly, sesame oil is wonderful for reducing stress and tension, nourishing the nervous system and preventing nervous disorders, relieving fatigue and insomnia, and promoting strength and vitality. Those patients who use sesame oil daily have reported feeling stronger, more resilient to stress, with increased energy and better resistance to infection. Its rejuvenating properties certainly do revitalize those feeling tired and run down, while its warming effects enhance the circulation. Its relaxing properties ease pain and muscle spasm, such as sciatica, dysmenorrhoea, colic, backache and joint pain. The antioxidants explain its reputation for slowing the ageing process and increasing longevity, and certainly regular oiling of the skin restores moisture to the skin, keeping it soft, flexible and young looking. It also lubricates the body internally, particularly the joints and bowels, and eases symptoms of dryness such as irritating coughs, cracking joints and hard stools.

Research into the healing effect of applying sesame oil is beginning to emerge. Those who practise it daily have found that they have less bacterial infection on their skin and that it helps joint problems. This may be related to the linoleic acid that makes up 40% of sesame oil and has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory effects. It stimulates antibody production and enhances immunity. It also has anti-cancer properties and has been shown to inhibit the growth of malignant melanoma.[3]

Ayurvedic Applications

Daily abhyanga is best done in the morning. Rub the oil all over the body and leave it to soak in for five to fifteen minutes before taking a warm bath or shower. This allows time for the oil to be absorbed and to nourish and detoxify the tissue layers. The warm water is important for it opens the pores, allowing the oil to permeate further into the body. To ease tension and relieve insomnia, the oil application is best in the evening before bed and should include oiling the soles of the feet. The oil should be room temperature in the summer but needs to be warmed in the winter. Herbal or essential oils can be added to enhance a specific desired effect, e.g. lavender oil for stress and tension, frankincense for arthritic pain, or ginger to increase the circulation.

Oil therapy (snehana), using oils internally and externally, is also important in Ayurveda, particularly as a prelude to detoxification (pancha karma). Warm oil is applied in large amounts over the patient's body. According to Ayurveda, applying sesame oil to the skin in this way has a significant detoxifying effect. Interestingly, a sesame seed is used as an offering in Hindu religious ritual to remove every particle of sin. By stimulating the tissues in the body it helps to prevent toxins from accumulating in the system and to drain into the gut for elimination.

For external use, sesame oil is prepared by heating the oil with one or two drops of water until the water evaporates. Heating the oil has been shown to increase the antioxidant effect.[3] When taken internally, cold-pressed sesame oil is used to moisten dry Vata membranes and tissues and soften and loosen dry and hardened toxins. It is best taken raw 1-2 tablespoons daily.

Caution

NB: Abhyanga should be avoided immediately after administering enemas, emetics or purgatives, during the first stages of fever or if suffering from indigestion.

References

1. Price LP and Smith I. Carrier Oils. Riverhead. Stratford-upon-Avon. p129. 1999.
2. Patnaik N. The Garden of Life. Aquarian, Harper Collins. London. p48. 1993.
3. Sharma H and Clark C. Contemporary Ayurveda. Churchill Livingstone. London. pp100-01. 1998.

Comments:

  1. Mahbobur Rahman khan said..

    This article will be very very helpful to the people specially over 40 and also to the children. In our country (Bangladesh) both white and black sesame seed are little bit produce. I will be grateful if you inform me which is the best for massaging and for joint pain. Best regards, Mahbobur Rahman khan.


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About Anne McIntyre

Anne McIntyre FNIMH MAPA is a fellow of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists and a member of the Ayurvedic Practitioners' Association. She has been practising as a herbalist for 30 years and has also trained in remedial massage, aromatherapy, counselling, homoeopathy and Ayurvedic medicine. She is the author of several books on herbal medicine, including The Complete Woman's Herbal (Gaia), The Complete Floral Healer (Gaia), The Herbal Treatment of Children (Elsevier), The Top 100 Remedies (Duncan Baird), The Complete Herbal Tutor (Gaia) and Healing Drinks (Gaia). Anne's latest book Dispensing with Tradition: A practitioner's Guide to using Indian and Western Herbs the Ayurvedic Way has recently been published. She teaches regularly in the UK and USA and spends as much time as she can in her herb garden which she opens to the public by appointment. She practises at Artemis House, Great Rissington, Gloucestershire, (Tel: 01451 810096) and in London and Wales once a month. She may be contacted on Tel: 01451 810096  www.annemcintyre.com

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