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From the Ground Up

Saje plant-based wellness.

When he answered his front door, Jean-Pierre LeBlanc found himself put on the spot, a camera on him, and a woman with an eight-on-a-scale-of-10—and rising—migraine standing before him. His orders, as given by the television reporter also in attendance, with a chronometer in her hands, was to heal the woman using only a blend of essential oils.

“She heard I can remove headaches in four minutes or less, and I said ‘Hey, this is a migraine, this is maybe going to take longer,’ ” remembers LeBlanc with a laugh. “I put more Peppermint Halo on that woman’s head than I’ve ever put on anyone.”

Four minutes later, with the camera zoomed in tightly on her face, the woman rolled her eyes up to the right and then to the left, as though looking for the headache. “Then she said, in this very authentic way, ‘I don’t know—it’s gone,’ ” says LeBlanc.

For 24 years LeBlanc and his wife, Kate Ross LeBlanc, have been touting the healing power of plants. Today, their company, Saje Natural Wellness, spans Canada coast to coast, with 34 locations scheduled to be open by the end of 2015. (The most recent openings are in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and Oshawa, Ontario.) The business’s humble beginnings go back to the couple’s spare bedroom, where LeBlanc crafted his first oil blends. It was Kate, a passionate retailer who had grown up working in her family’s fabric store, who took on getting the product to everyday consumers.

Those who remember the first Saje shop in North Vancouver’s Lonsdale Quay are likely to recall purple—the colour of Saje’s former packaging—and patchouli. “We were a hippy-dippy shop selling to hippy-dippy clients and no wonder we were struggling. I was always interested in what was inside the bottle. I thought that the therapeutic properties on their own were enough, but I was wrong,” says LeBlanc. “Kate was really good at creating the retail concept, but then along came our daughter, Kiara, who told us what was cool and what was required to make it more accessible, so you want to put products on your counter rather than hide them in the back of your drawer. It’s no surprise that today she’s our vice-president of brand.”

While the Western world has finally begun to catch on to the efficacy of essential oils—phytomedicine, if you will—in treating everyday ailments, we’re slow to the party. Thousands of years ago the Egyptians used aromatic oils in a healing capacity, as did the Romans and Greeks following them. Oils are significantly referenced in healing practices in The Yellow Emperor’s Book of Internal Medicine, a historic Chinese work that explores the symbiotic relationship of humans and nature, and Indians have explored the subject, which they call Ayurveda, for many millennia.

The word aromatherapy is a 20th-century invention. “It’s a terrible word. It suggests that the smell is what makes you well, but it’s not,” says LeBlanc, who has a background in chemistry and a certificate in aromatherapy, and calls himself a holistic practitioner. “Anything you do that’s good for you, whether it’s yoga or massage or exercise or sex, your body rewards you with endorphins. So there is a smell component in that the oils do create the release of endorphins, but then a perfume would be healthy,” he says. “As it turns out, perfumes, a bunch of chemicals in alcohol with a fixative that comes from some part of an animal that you don’t want me to talk about, are actually hard on the immune system, while an essential oil is uplifting for the immune system. The smell is just the message you get from the plants, and you get it in a concentrated way through these essential oils. It’s actually the neuro-chemical reactions at the top of the nose that then speak to the system.”

Think instead, he encourages, of essential oils as herbal medicine that is the distillate of herbs for a therapeutic use.

In creating products for Saje, the LeBlanc family, all of whom now craft blends, identify a need, and then look to herbs that dig into the layers of the issue. Take the Saje Sleep Well Restful Sleep Remedy for insomnia, which includes chamomile, lavender, marjoram, and valerian, all 100 per cent natural ingredients free of parabens, petrochemicals, and the other things you can’t pronounce on medicine bottles. Each herb signals to different systems in the body to slow down and enter a natural sleep cycle.

Aromatherapy is “a terrible word,” says Saje co-founder Jean-Pierre LeBlanc. “It suggests that the smell is what makes you well, but it’s not.”

“You take a similar approach in creating these blends as you do in making music. You make sure there are base notes, middle notes, and top notes, and that way the blend is very pleasing to the nose and comforting to the body, and it acts on the human wellness systems in a very holistic way,” explains LeBlanc.

Humans, he continues, are capable of receiving many herbal messages simultaneously because each one addresses different systems in the body and is applied to a unique place. Take, for example, Saje’s five-product Pocket Pharmacy, which is a round-up of best-selling products (LeBlanc won’t travel without it). Peppermint Halo goes on the neck and shoulders, while Immune Remedy is commonly applied to the lymphatic gland beneath the chin, and Eater’s Digest gets rubbed into the tummy. The Soothing Stress Release Remedy goes on the back of the hand, where it can be lifted to the nose to breathe in deeply, while Pain Release goes directly on the area that’s inflamed or stiff.

Instead of the side effects attached to synthetic drugs, says LeBlanc, Saje products have side benefits. “Our Peppermint Halo Headache Remedy will remove your headache, but it also helps you breathe through the eucalyptus and relaxes your muscles through the rosemary, and you’ll get calm and grounded through the vetiver.”

Scientific evidence supporting the healing therapies of essential oils is, LeBlanc readily admits, nebulous. Yet no double-blind study, he emphasizes, can deliver the unquestionable results that his customers have, or that he’s personally experienced.

LeBlanc’s interest in essential oils began after a car accident left him with fibromyalgia and depression. “I was deluged with all sorts of pharmaceuticals,” he recalls; after “seven years of hell” he was inspired to try a different approach. He attended a traditional medicine symposium, where he encountered aromatherapists distilling freshly harvested herbs to an average 80 times more potency than dried herbs. When he discovered that the best PhDs in the world were studying the therapeutic effects of these herbs in Provence, he convinced his wife to move to the south of France. “That wasn’t too hard,” he remembers, laughing. There, he could study the science and learn how to treat himself. Next, the couple moved to England. “They have the best schools on how to do the full process of making someone well using essential oils,” says LeBlanc.

When they returned to Vancouver, LeBlanc began hosting symposiums, inviting the best teachers worldwide. “The best way to educate myself was to assist educators, because everyone gets their certification a little differently. Some are more into blending, some more into healing, some more into massaging oils into the body through the skin. It was a wonderful way to learn, very holistic.”

Since then, he has taught second-year medical students at the University of British Columbia about essential oils, and is working with medical doctors more regularly these days thanks to a movement known as “functional medicine”, where doctors work with patients and holistic practitioners, like LeBlanc, to better address and treat the depth of the patient’s needs.

“Don’t get me wrong, there’s a use for medical doctors in the case of acute medicine. It really is all about us collaborating. If someone walks in with pancreatic cancer I’m not just going to offer them a cup of our new Remetea. I’m going to make sure that we’re helping to detox things like the side effects of chemotherapy and to create some life comfort,” he says. Trusting one’s own intuition is crucial in the oils’ effectiveness, he continues. “We’ll give you an indicator to get you going, but only you know your body and your situation and only you can feel whether an oil is improving things or not.”

The company’s recent growth spurt—LeBlanc reports that existing stores are doing 30 to 40 per cent better than just a year ago—is largely thanks to the fact that wellness has become a far-reaching ideology.

“We can’t keep polluting our bodies unnecessarily,” LeBlanc says. “There’s all sorts of consumers waking up every day to the fact they don’t want to be full of chemicals, and we wondered, what was the replacement for pharmaceuticals? Lo and behold, nature was there, quietly waiting for its turn.”