Scent and healing: The benefits of aromatherapy
Isn’t it amazing how a familiar scent transports us back to a significant memory, a specific person or a place? Smells seem to be capable of bringing memories into our present, with the power to make us feel happy, sad, or nostalgic.
For some people, the whiff of pine trees or cinnamon is enough to bring them back to early family Christmas reunions. In my case, the scent of eucalyptus brings me back to my Colombian roots; as a young girl, I grew up surrounded by these lush and fragrant trees. The aroma of a flower like sampaguita immediately triggers memories of landing in Manila during my college holidays, and lavender oil makes me sleepy, calm, and somehow nostalgic because my dad used to rub it on me when I was a child.
This reaction of connecting aroma to a specific memory is called the “Proust Phenomenon” (from the author Marcel Proust’s reactions to a madeleine in Remembrance of Things Past).
Recent studies have demonstrated that odor evokes autobiographic memories that are more emotional than those elicited by other sensory stimuli because of the direct neural communication between the olfactory system and the amygdala.
“Odors take a direct route to the limbic system, including the amygdala and the hippocampus, the regions related to emotion and memory,” according to studies done at Harvard University. This close relationship between the olfactory and the amygdala is one of the reasons scent can cause a flood of emotions, and sometimes a spark of nostalgia.
To better understand how we, as humans, are so receptive to scent to the point that it can affect our state of mind and physical well-being at many levels, let us explore aromatherapy and how it can help us heal pain, release stress, and invigorate our mind and body.
Aromatherapy and well-being
Aromatherapy is defined as the practice of using plant-based essential oils for therapeutic benefits, improving the health of the body, mind, and spirit, and enhancing both physical and emotional well-being.
Studies show that all positive emotions, elicited by certain scents, have been proven to lower stress levels and improve overall mental outlook. And according to Stephen Warrenburg of Oxford University, “an aroma can significantly promote stress reduction, improve mood, and decreased anxiety and depression.”
When you get home after a long day at work, kick off your shoes, put on some soothing tunes, inhale a few drops of your favorite essential oil and allow the scent to transport you into a space of wellness.
The concept of aroma healing has been around for centuries. Ancient India was one of the first civilizations that aimed at treating people holistically. Traditional Indian medicine, known as Ayurveda, is the oldest form of medical practice in the world using plants and plant extracts, being in continuous use from at least 5,000 years ago. But it is the Egyptians who are generally regarded as the pioneers in the use of aromatic plants. Not only do they use fragrant oils for medicine, incense, massage, skincare, and cosmetics, but also in their highly refined process of embalming, where they use plant-based oils extracted through soaking, heat, and maceration to extract their full essence.
How is it used
There are three main ways that essential oils can be used for aromatherapy: indirect inhalation, direct inhalation, and skin application.
The indirect inhalation method disperses the oil through a room, mixing it with the air so that each breath involves low concentrations of the scent. The oil can be spread with a device known as a diffuser or by applying it to an absorbent material like a tissue.
The direct inhalation method involves breathing in air or vapor with a more concentrated level of compounds from the essential oil. In clinical research studies, this is done with special nasal devices, but at home, most people put drops of essential oil into hot water and inhale the vapor.
The skin application method mixes an essential oil with a more neutral oil, known as a carrier oil, that is then rubbed or massaged onto the skin. This allows the smell to be perceived by the nose as well as by olfactory receptors in the skin.
Essential oils should never be ingested. Avoid oral ingestion and internal application, such as in the mouth or other mucus membranes.
Each essential oil has an array of unique healing properties, uses, and effects. Combining essential oils to create a synergistic blend creates even more benefits.
Because they come from plants, many people opt for essential oils rather than using chemically charged, over-the-counter or prescription-based medications.
Aromatherapy can benefit you if you suffer from muscle and joint pain, headaches and migraines, anxiety, stress, menopause, insomnia, indigestion, menstrual issues, depression, and chronic fatigue.
Most popular oils and their uses
There are over 100 different types of essential oils to choose from, but start with some of the most popular ones below.
Lavender oil. This is one of the most useful and versatile oils used in aromatherapy. It can be blended with many other essential oils and helps with a wide variety of ailments and conditions. Lavender is well known for easing the symptoms of anxiety, stress, melancholy, and insomnia. It has a relaxing scent, which acts as both a sedative and a stimulant. Its aroma is relaxing and often used to promote sleep and relieve stress as well as anxiety.
Tea tree oil. Well-known for wound healing but also used for skin conditions such as acne, athlete’s foot, and insect bites. “This oil, an extremely concentrated extract from the leaves of the tea tree, is a popular ingredient in home, skin, and general health care products for its variety of uses,” says Rachelle Robinett, herbalist and founder of New York-based functional nature company Pharmakon Supernatural. “The oil is most notably antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and antioxidant. Like most plants, it works in many ways; however, tea tree tends to be most popular as a topical antiseptic for preventing the growth of problematic microorganisms that can cause or worsen infections.”
Rose oil. Roses have a reputation for their appealing fragrance and rose essential oils have shown potential as aromatherapy for sleep. In a study conducted in a hospital’s coronary care unit, aromatherapy with scents from a type of rose known as damask rose (rosa damascene) showed significant improvement in sleep quality in patients.
Peppermint oil. It can help to enhance mood and mental performance, and relieve feelings of sadness. A study from Wheeling Jesuit University suggested that smelling peppermint could be linked to greater cognitive stamina, motivation, and overall performance. This essential oil also serves to ease stress, exhaustion, and irritability. Known for invigorating the mind, peppermint is also used as an aid for students when taking tests.
Lemon and grapefruit oil. Scents like lemon and orange may be well known for their vitamin C properties, but simply by sniffing the fruit, they also are energy boosters. Citrus oils can help reduce feelings of anxiety and irritability. Sometimes referred to as “liquid sunshine,” citrus essential oils are uplifting and ease stress and depression. Many people find the citrusy scents a mood booster. They can work wonders to perk you up when you are about to land after a long flight.
Sage oil. This oil has long been valued in traditional medicine. It has been used to treat a wide range of ailments including coughs, asthma, bronchitis, angina, inflammation, depression, digestive, and circulation disorders as well as other diseases in communities across the globe.
Cinnamon oil. One of the world’s oldest known spices, this sweet-smelling essential oil is known to boost brain power and improve cognitive functions. A study conducted at Wheeling Jesuit University concluded that participants experienced improvements in visual-motor responses, memory functions, and attention spans.
Here are some tips given by Hopkins Medicine to help you shop for the purest essential oils. The country of origin and manufacturer are important to consider if you decide to give aromatherapy a try. As in everything you ingest, inhale or rub on your skin, the purest and highest quality ingredients should be your aim.
Look at the label. It should include the Latin name of the plant, information on purity or other ingredients added to it, and the country in which the plant was grown.
Evaluate the company. Purchase products from a well-known and reputable aromatherapy company that’s been around for several years. I recommend Young Living, doTerra, Revive, Plant Therapy, and Rocky Mountain Oils.
Choose dark-colored, glass containers. Pure essential oils are highly concentrated. They can dissolve plastic bottles over time, tainting the oil. Most companies package essential oils in small brown or blue glass bottles to protect the quality.
Avoid fragrance oils. Fragrance or perfume oils are made from essential oils combined with chemicals or entirely from chemicals. They’re not suitable for aromatherapy—instead, look for bottles that contain a single essential oil in its purest form (100% essential oil with no other fillers).
Aromatherapy is today one of the most popular and effective forms of complementary medicine. The positive effects are finally being proven through clinical research in laboratories around the world, even though the use of these little oils has been empirical knowledge for thousands of years. Talk to your medical practitioner about essential oil therapy if you are concerned they might interfere with any treatment you are presently following.
There is plenty of information available online and in books if you wish to treat yourself at home. There are also courses you can take to learn more about aromatherapy.
Essential oils can make a positive impact on your health and well-being as long as you safely use them.
So when you get home after a long day at work, kick off your shoes, put on some soothing tunes, inhale a few drops of your favorite essential oil and allow the scent to transport you into a space of wellness.