“I should like to raise the question whether the inevitable stunting of the senses of smell as a result of man’s turning away from the earth, and the organic repression of the smell-pleasure produced by it, does not largely share in his predisposition to nervous diseases.” - Sigmund Freud
Research at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York indicates that people who work in pleasantly scented areas show a 25 percent increase in performance over those not exposed. They also found that those employees carried out tasks more confidently, efficiently, and with fewer errors. Freshly cut flowers and aromatherapy candles can also be employed to refresh and renew your mood at home and work when mental fatigue and boredom strikes.
Smell is now recognized as one of the most important senses in humans, and a key determinant in behavior. Like drugs, smells can act directly on the brain. With every breath we take, nerve receptors in our noses are fired by the air molecules we effortlessly breathe in. Over five million cells in our nasal cavities then activate the olfactory area of our brains, triggering the hypothalamus and limbic system, or the mission control room of our emotions. Some scents can even elicit pronounced changes in the part of our brain responsible for memory, the hippocampus. This is why an odor can sometimes vividly bring back past memories.
When you took those eight moon breaths, what smells did you notice? If the smell was pleasant, did you notice yourself taking slower, deeper breaths? Did you notice your body become more relaxed? Which natural scents do you find calming and relaxing? Are there any scents that elicit peaceful or joyful memories for you?
HOW ESSENTIAL OILS WORK
The limbic system can also be influenced by specific scents thanks to the amygdala, which is the alarm center of this system. Most people are familiar with lavender helping to promote a deeper, more restful sleep, allegedly, by activating the neurotransmitter serotonin. You may already practice using lavender essential oils on your pillow or nightstand through a diffuser or potpourri to help you sleep through the night.
However aromatherapy is not solely about smelling anything because it is defined by the inclusion of aromatic essences of plant extracts, called essential oils, for therapeutic use. In fact, physicians in France define aromatherapy as the inclusion of essential oils via oral, rectal, and vaginal routes. We have found evidence of early aromatics being used in the form of steams, smokes, inhalants, fumigants, snuffs, salves, lotions, compresses, poultices, waters, colognes, perfumes, and baths.
HISTORY OF AROMATHERAPY
In Egypt the Ebers Papyrus manuscript is one of the most famous manuscripts concerning aromatic medicines. Later manuscripts written while the Great Pyramids were being built, show that frankincense, myrtle, and myrrh were used to treat flatulence, lung infections, and hay fever, respectively. In France, medicinal herbal drawings dating back 17,300 years were found in a cave in Lascaux. There are records of the Sumerians who lived in Syria using caraway and thyme with pots that are believed to have been used in plant distillation. In China, the method of soaking a cloth in herbs (compress) and placing it on the skin demonstrates their acceptance of transdermal delivery of medicine far before it was accepted in Western medicine.
There are many countries with documented histories of using aromatic plants in healing traditions, so it is suggested that nearly every part of the world has some history of the use of aromatic plants in its healthcare system. My favorite story is about how Jewish women in Essene communities infused wine with myrrh and frankincense for their anesthetic effects to offer to those people being tortured. Our ancestors understood how easily essential oils can be incorporated into our everyday lives because of their ease of turning from liquid to a gas at room temperature when warmed.
RENAISSANCE OF AROMATHERAPY
Thanks to modern drug development from the revolution of synthetic copies of perfumes and aromatics, essential oils and herbal medicine began to lose out to the profits of synthetic drugs. The salicylate in willow bark (Salix alba) was transformed into aspirin. Digoxin, an antiarrhythmic and blood pressure medication, was synthesized from Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea).
Drug companies soon became major underwriters of medical colleges in the United States, the main funders of the American Medical Association, and 90% of all medical research. A 1910 Flexner report on the nation’s medical schools, which was funded by the Carnegie Foundation, changed medical training in the United States by mostly eliminating homeopathic and naturopathic medical schools in the United States. Herbal medicine, including the use of aromatics, were soon excluded from all medical school curriculum. Then in 1930 the petrochemical pharmaceutical industry became a major economic and political force, thanks to a partnership between Rockefeller in the United States and Faben in Germany. Also, the emergence and promise of manufactured antibiotics, like penicillin, almost extinguished essential oil use. All was not lost. The renaissance of aromatherapy arose from the contributions of chemist Rene-Maurice Gattefosse; physician Jean Valnet; and a woman nurse by the name of Marguerite Maury.
Gattefosse was one of the first people to use the term aromatherapy. He used essential oils like thyme, chamomile, clove, and lemon to sterilize surgical instruments and disinfect the wounds of World War I soldiers. He discovered that it takes between 3 minutes and 12 hours for essential oils to be absorbed completely by the body after being applied topically. Through his work, French physicians used essential oils on infected wounds and as a treatment for gangrene throughout World War II. Valnet went a step further by writing and publishing the first aromatherapy book written by a doctor, titled Aromatherapie or The Practice of Aromatherapy. In an interview for the International Journal of Aromatherapy, Valnet stated, “it is not necessary to be a doctor to use aromatherapy. But one has to know the power of essential oils to avoid accidents and incidents”. Marguerite moved to France to train as a nurse, and utilized what she learned to classify the use of essential oils into various clinical departments - general medicine, surgery, radiology, spa treatment, gynecology, psychiatry, cosmetics, dermatology, and sports. Her internationally prized research on unique ways to apply essential oils to the skin with massage led to her establishing aromatherapy clinics for students to learn the rejuvenating properties of essential oils on the skin.
ESSENTIAL OIL USE TODAY
Essential oils are created through either steam distillation of aromatic plants or abrading the peel of citrus fruits. The plants used can be synthesized into two types of oil. Olive and walnut oils are considered fixed or carrier oils, while highly volatile aromatic plants such as rose and lavender have to be diluted with a fixed oil before being topically applied to our skin. Be advised that absolutes and resinoids, which are solvent extracted materials, and carbon dioxide extracted oils are not classified as essential oils.
Today, aromatherapy is used in herbal medicine in botany curriculums; mind body medicine to create healing environments that demonstrate the ways plants can lift the spirits of their clients; the massage and bodywork industries through the use of essential oils in massage oils and lotions; and the energy medicine branch of alternative medicine. Aromatherapy can be classified into three categories: aesthetic, clinical, and holistic. Aesthetic aromatherapy is about using a single or combination of essential oils simply to experience the pleasure of the aroma. Clinical aromatherapy is about targeting a specific clinical symptom, like nausea, and measuring the outcome. While holistic aromatherapy is used by aromatherapists to describe the use of a mixture of essential oils to treat the mind, body and spirit. You can seek out a knowledgeable holistic aromatherapist to make a mixture for your individual needs.
Essential oil components can be absorbed through inhalation, topically, and ingestion. Topically, essential oils can be applied via massage, “M” technique, compress, or a bath. Through inhalation they can be absorbed using a steam diffusers, cotton balls, aroma ribbons, fans, humidifiers, candles, aromasticks, patches, and nostril clips. They can also be absorbed internally via mouthwashes and suppositories. Oral consumption of essential oils are facilitated through gelatin capsules; diluted in honey, alcohol, or dispersant; or on a vitamin C tablet. Some essential oils, like palma rosa, can be added to a teaspoon of honey to relieve a sore throat.
Inhaled essential oils can be used for upper and lower respiratory tract infections, hay fever, anxiety, sinusitis, headache, asthma, prevention of cross-infection, depression, fatigue, nausea, insomnia, nervous tension, nicotine or drug withdrawal, and posttraumatic stress. Controlled brain-wave studies by researchers at Toho University in Japan have shown how specific scents tend to stimulate or relax. Smelling jasmine improves performance by keeping people alert, reenergizing the body, and lifting the mood. This has been found to correlate with increased beta waves in the frontal cortex of the brain, while the scent of lavender induces relaxation and is associated with increased alpha waves in the back of the head. According to the International Journal of Aromatherapy, Nurses at Churchill Hospital in Oxford, England use vaporized lavender or apply it via massage techniques to help reduce anxiety and induce sleep in patients without the use of sedatives.
SOOTHING ESSENTIAL OILS FOR STRESS RELIEF
Lavender - ease physical tension
CALMING ESSENTIAL OILS OF INSOMNIA
Lavender - stop mental chatter
Vetiver - improves brain function
Clary Sage - calming
Marjoram - balance
Valerian - deeply comforting
These oils can be used alone or in combination to relieve stress and help calm hyperactive children. Make a 1-10-percent dilution of the essential oil of your choice in an ounce of a carrier oil like sesame seed, safflower, olive, or sweet almond oil.
ESSENTIAL OILS FOR CONGESTION
Eucalyptus - decongestant
Sage - antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties
Spearmint - decongestant
Peppermint - decongestant
ESSENTIAL OILS TO BALANCE THE CHAKRAS
Patchouli - also stimulates second chakra
Neroli - also stimulates the fourth chakra
Solar Plexus Chakra
Pine - also stimulates the fourth chakra
Third Eye Chakra
Be an informed consumer by always purchasing your essential oils from a reputable manufacturer that specializes in pure plant essential oils. Many essential oils on the market are adulterated or stretched with less expensive or synthetic oils. Support organically grown plants to promote sustainability, higher potency, and ensure that they don’t contain harmful synthetic pesticides. It is also recommended to research the origin of the essential oil, so that you aren’t supporting the overharvesting of endangered plants. Here’s a list of popular essential oil brands for you to begin your shopping research:
Bloomfield, Harold H. Healing Anxiety with Herbs. HarperCollins, 1998.
Buckle, Jane. Clinical Aromatherapy: Essential Oils in Healthcare. Churchill Livingstone, 2016.
Grande, Marian. “Essential Oils to Balance Chakras.” Medium, Healthcare in America, 13 Sept. 2018, healthcareinamerica.us/essential-oils-to-balance-chakras-7a2bd1c07f78.
Swanberg, Sarah. Aromatherapy for Self-Care: Your Complete Guide to Relax, Rebalance, and Restore with Essential Oils. Rockridge Press, 2020.