The Nose Knows: Aromatherapy for Good Health
“Aromatherapy” means using essential oils from plants for improving or maintaining health or beauty. Like herbology, it is based on the idea of using a plant for medicinal purposes. Essential oils (EOs) are the ingredients that give the plant its aroma, but the chemicals in them can have powerful effects on the body. The question “what is an essential oil” seems to have two common responses. The first is scientific: EOs are a mixture of organic compounds (ketones, alcohols, etc.) and other molecules. The second is more romantic; EOs are the life force, or spirit of a plant, and that is why they have such power. These two definitions lead to aromatherapy being classified as both an art and a science.
Use of aromatherapy in ancient Egypt and India can be traced back about 5000 years. Ayurvedic medicine uses massage and essential oils. The Vedas, one of the oldest books on plants mentions aromatic substances such as sandalwood, myrrh, ginger, coriander and cinnamon. The Egyptians linked perfumery with religion. Priests formulated aromas that would be used for anointing. They were also used in temples as offerings. In 4500 BC they used myrrh and cedarwood oils for embalming, and the perfectly preserved mummies we see in museums today testify to their skill. Research now shows that cedarwood contains a natural fixative, and myrrh has strong antibacterial and antiseptic properties.
The First Nations of our own continent have long used burning herbs in ritual ceremonies and to treat illness. The sick are often “smudged” with sweetgrass, which smells like vanilla when burning. A strong herbal infusion could be brewed, and then poured over hot rocks in a sweat lodge to produce steam, and form a cure for ailments such as rheumatism, congestion, headaches, and fainting. Many tribes have used plants such as echinacea, goldenrod, fleabane, and pearly everlasting for therapeutic purposes.
Aromatherapy is effective because the limbic system of the brain is directly affected by the olfactory system, or the sense of smell. The limbic system is the oldest part of the cortex. It is the center of instinctive emotional behavior including anger, fear, sorrow, pleasure, affection, and sexual desire. Memories of odors and experiences associated with odors are stored in this area. Because of this, our sense of smell has a very real and powerful effect on our emotions. Though each negative emotion has oils that should help overcome it, a blend that is particularly appealing to the individual will have the best therapeutic results.
Essential oils can be used to help the body physically as well as emotionally. They can be antibacterial, reduce inflammation and pain, lower blood pressure, combat obesity, and aid sleep. Almost any physical problem can be improved with the right essential oil blend. Essential oils are very powerful, and many can be dangerous when combined with certain ailments. Consult a health practitioner, or a good aromatherapy book before using EOs. Aromatherapy is used in conjunction with other sessions to achieve maximum health.