French Aromatherapy: The Ternary Concept

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on February 20, 2016


The Ternary Concept

When you start to dive into the world of Aromatherapy it is very likely that you will often see the same reference books recommended time and time again by aromatherapists.  One of these books, often cited by French and English aromatherapists alike, is L’aromatherapie exactement by Pierre Franchomme and Daniel Pénoël.  Oddly enough, this book has never been translated to English so if you’re lucky enough to read French you can reference this book yourself.  I, however, can barely speak American bastardized English, let alone read French or any other language.  I am lucky enough though to be taking a French Aromatherapy certification course at East-West School for Herbal and Aromatic Studies taught by Cathy Skipper and Jade Shutes who have shared with their students some of what this book has to offer.

One of the teachings of Pierre Franchomme and Daniel Pénoël that Cathy Skipper often references is “The Ternary Concept.”  Ternary basically just means divided into three parts.  Thus, the Ternary Concept divides essential oils into three aspects: Energetic, Molecular, and Electrical.

Energetic Aspect

The Energetic, or Informational, Aspect of the Ternary Concept pertains to the information about an essential oil that we can perceive through our five senses, with a particular emphasis on our sense of smell. For example, when you open up a bottle of Lavender essential oil and inhale it’s aroma, what do you sense? Most people experience a sense of calm, or peaceful relaxation. This would be an example of the energetic aspect of Lavender.  But the other senses are also important.  What you taste when you eat the plant or ingest its essential oil and the visual characteristics or structure of the plant also gives us information about the possible application and its therapeutic uses.  Cathy Skipper emphasizes the energetic over the informational aspect because essential oils are so powerful that just a sniff can activate our senses, influence our psycho-emotional state and/or spiritual states, even align our chakras all while still having a profound impact on our overall health and well being.

Molecular Aspect

The Molecular, or Substance Aspect refers to the chemical constituents that make up an essential oil.  Remember from my Chemistry post where we discussed hydrocarbons and oxygenated compounds?  Every batch of essential oils will vary slightly but the overall molecular makeup of the oil should be similar from batch to batch.  You can find out the exact molecular makeup of your batch by reviewing the Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry (GC/MS) report.  Many essential oil suppliers offer this information on their webpage.  Others, like Young Living, view this information as proprietary.  However, if you are fortunate enough to visit one of Young Living’s farms you can view their GC/MS reports in person.  But reading and interpreting a GC/MS report is actually a pretty specialized skill, one which I don’t have.  If you’re like me and it just gets overwhelming looking at all those chemical constituents and teeny tiny percentages you are in luck, because most essential oil reference books (like the Essential Oils Desk and Pocket References by Life Science Publishing and Evidence-Based Essential Oil Therapy by Dr. Scott Johnson) provide you with a handy breakdown of the most common compounds found in each of the single essential oils with a range of acceptable percentages.  It is these chemical constituents that give the essential oil its therapeutic properties (e.g., sesquiterpenes tend to have anti-inflammatory and sedative qualities).   By studying the therapeutic properties of each of the constituents commonly found in essential oils and examining the chemical makeup of specific oils, we can then make educated assumptions about the ways in which each oil can help support the different body’s systems and our overall health and well being.

Electrical Aspect

The third aspect of Franchomme and Pénoël’s Ternary Concept is the Electrical Aspect.  The Electrical Aspect of an essential oil is determined by taking the oil and placing it in a refined aerosol generator. During this process, the essential oil’s components are broken down into very fine particles that tend to have either a positive or negative charge.  What they found is that the chemical compounds that have a positive charge tend to be warming, stimulating, and more humid than drying.  They tend to be good general tonics (providing a feeling of vigor or well being) and help provide overall support to the immune system. In contrast, negatively charged compounds tend to be more cooling, calming or sedative, and more dry than humid.  They tend to be good for “conditions of excess” (e.g., excess heat in the body) and help calm the nervous system.


My Interpretation of the Referential Chart

The Referential Chart

The Referential Chart is Franchomme and Pénoël’s graphical representation of The Ternary Concept and helps merge each of the three aspects addressed above into an easily understandable picture.  The chart can be divided several ways:

Top & Bottom: Those molecules that fall above the middle line in the top half of the graph are more negatively charged and tend to be calming to the body’s systems, somewhat sedative in nature, and grounding or relaxing.  Those molecules that fall below the middle line are more positively charged and tend to be stimulating to the body’s systems and good general tonics.

Left & Right: Those molecules that fall on the left half of the graph are more polar and tend to be humidifying and more soluble in water those on the right.  Those molecules that fall on the right half of the graph are nonpolar, tend to be more drying and are not as water-soluble, preferring instead to be drawn to the body’s lipids or fats.

Cathy Skipper and Jade Shutes added Hippocrates Four Temperaments and Yin & Yang of traditional Chinese Medicine to the graph (I overlaid the Yin & Yang for an easier visual representation of where the molecules would fall with regards to Yin and Yang energy).  So if you’re unfamiliar, here’s a crash course in what those mean:

Hippocrates Four Temperaments:

The Greek physician Hippocrates postulated that there were four main temperaments based on the medical model of humorism (that the four main bodily fluids – blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm – impact personality and behaviors).  He thought that certain emotions or moods were based on an excess, or lack of, bodily fluids and believed that there was a physiological basis for certain human behaviors.  Hippocrates classified these as either hot/cold or wet/dry based on the four elements. Ideally, there is a state of balance between each of these four temperaments.

Sanguine – Sanguine temperaments are associated with the element of Air and tend to be more social, lively, talkative, carefree, etc.  They tend to be imaginative, artistic and creative, make friends easily, and have lots of ideas.  Usually they tend to be somewhat flighty and may struggle with task completion and tend to run late or be forgetful.

Choleric – Choleric temperaments are associated with the element of Fire and tend to be extroverted and egocentric.  They may be impulsive, easily excitable, restless and energetic, passionate or even somewhat aggressive.  Usually they tend to be very task-oriented, like to plan, tend to be solution focused, and often take on leadership roles in order to get the job done.

Melancholic – Melancholic temperaments are associated with the element of Earth and tend to be more introverted, serious, cautious or even suspicious at times. They may be filled with angst and tend to dwell on tragedy and cruelty in the world.  These individuals are often moody and may be prone to depressive and anxious tendencies.  Usually they are more solitary and prefer to keep to themselves.

Phlegmatic – Phlegmatic temperaments are associated with the element of Water and tend to be calm, thoughtful, and caring in nature.  They often seek peace and contentment within themselves and tend to be reliable and consistent in their routine.

What to know what your temperament is? Check out this Personality Quiz to find out!

Yin & Yang in Chinese Medicine:

Yin – Yin is associated with female energy, is more passive, and a negative principle in nature.  It is affiliated with the moon, the direction North, and is the shaded portion of the Yin & Yang symbol.

Yang – Yang is associated with male energy, is more active, and a positive principle in nature.  It is affiliated with the sun, the direction South, and is the white portion of the Yin & Yang symbol

Four Aspects of the Yin and Yang Relationship:

1.  Yin & Yang are opposites but neither is fully positive or negative.  Their relationship is relative and must be understood on a continuum of energy.  So, for example, “water is Yin relative to steam but Yang relative to ice” and like water this state is fluid and an ever changing balance.

2. Yin & Yang are dependent upon one another and neither can exist without the other.  Nothing is totally Yin or totally Yang.  Just as there is no night without day.

3. Yin & Yang are in a constant state of flux, seeking balance.  When Yin and Yang are out of balance they affect one another.

4. Yin & Yang can change into the other but only when the time is right.  Just as spring can only come when winter is finished.

So, taking all this into account, the Referential Graph can also be viewed in terms of its quadrants:

Upper Right Quadrant: Molecules in this quadrant tend to be associated with the Melancholic temperament.  This quadrant represents the Earth element.  Earth is grounding, relaxing and calming.  Esters dominate the upper right quadrant and as such tend to be calming to the nervous system.  This quadrant is represented by the Fall/Autumn season and tends to be mostly Yin in energy.

Lower Right Quadrant: Molecules in the lower right quadrant tend to be associated with the Choleric temperament. This quadrant represents the element of Fire and is molecules that fall within it tend to be characterized by a dry, fiery heat.  Monoterpenes dominate the lower right quadrant which tend to be heating and stimulating.  This quadrant is represented by the Summer season and tends to be more Yang in energy.

Lower Left Quadrant: Molecules in the lower left quadrant tend to be associated with the Sanguine temperament.  This quadrant represents the element of Air and molecules that fall within it tend to be characterized by a more explosive heat, fire fueled by air.   Monoterpenols dominate this quadrant but share it with phenylpropanoids and phenols, all of which tend to be stimulating to the immune system.  This quadrant is represented by the Spring season and tends to be mostly Yang in energy.

Upper Left Quadrant: Molecules in the upper left quadrant tend to be associated with the Phlegmatic temperament.  This quadrant represents the element of Water and molecules that fall within it tend to be characterized by humidity or dampness.  Aldehydes and ketones share this quadrant and tend to be mucolytic, influencing and promoting movement within the body’s mucous.  This quadrant is represented by the season of Winter and tends to be more Yin than Yang.

The lines represent balance between the quadrants and molecules that fall along the lines tend to be balancing, harmonizing compounds.  For example, sesquiterpenes are dry and lipophilic molecules but can either be cooling and/or heating, stimulating and/or relaxing and as much Yin as Yang in energy. Sesquiterpenols and sesquiterpene lactones have similar properties but are more hydrophilic and water soluble than sesquiterpenes. In contrast, Oxides are balanced between wet and dry but tend to be more warming and stimulating.

Ultimately you want to achieve a state of homeostasis or balance, more of a neutral energy than either hot/cold or wet/dry.  Both Yin and Yang.  The Referential Chart is used to help determine what molecules would help bring balance to an individual when choosing essential oil remedies in French aromatic medicine. For example, if a person tended to be very hot, or dry, one might incorporate an oil(s) rich in aldehydes and/or ketones into the mixture to help bring a humid, cooling quality to the remedy.  I tend to be more of a Sanguine personality and equally balanced in Choleric and Phlegmatic characteristics so oils rich in Esters and Sesquiterpenes and/or those that are more cooling, relaxing/grounding, or dry would tend to be more balancing for my personality or temperament.   I find this interesting because I’ve always been drawn to the Earth element and oils rich in esters (like Black Spruce, Frankincense, Lavender, and Neroli) and sesquiterpenes (like Cedar, Myrrh, and Patchouli) have always really resonated with me.  In contrast, someone who tended to be more lymphatic, maybe pale or even clammy would fall within the upper left quadrant.  These individuals would tend to have slower constitutions and would be balanced by oils rich in monoterpenes, or those with a drier, warming effect.

Cathy Skipper points out that the Referential Chart is really just a basic outline and one that is flexible and can easily be looked at from different perspectives to help formulate essential oil remedies.  I’ve really enjoyed taking the time to really sit with this chart but have really only started to grasp these concepts.  I’m hoping that as I move forward with the different essential oils in the class I’ll gain a better understanding of how I can use this chart in my own practice.  So hopefully this helps you better understand what to do with all the information from my last post on essential oil chemistry and how it all relates to picking the best essential oils to help support your specific areas of need.  As I move forward with sharing profiles of the essential oils I’ll be studying I’ll relate these oils to the referential graph so you can see how they all start to fit in.

So, where does your temperament fall in the graph?  Which oils tend to resonate with you? Are they the ones that the graph suggests would be balancing for your temperament?  I’d love to hear how it relates to you!



Note: These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. I am an aromatherapy student but I am not a medical doctor.  Products and techniques mentioned here are to help support your specific areas of concern and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. Information here is in no way intended to replace proper medical help. Consult with the health authorities of your choice for treatment.

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