Of all the human senses, the sense of smell is by far the most powerful. We link smells to memories. We never forget smells, either. There’s a common saying about something or someone “passing the sniff test” – meaning, “Does my informal, common sense tell me that this something is authentic, credible or ethical?”
For thousands of years, human beings have appreciated good-smelling plants and cultivated them for the pleasure and balm of having them perfume the air. The healthcare term used to describe inhaling scents to promote health and well-being is aromatherapy.
Aromatherapy became popular in the United States during the Psychedelic ’60s, brought over from India and China. This mysterious Eastern practice was easy enough to understand: smelling or rubbing on the skin certain essential oils is thought to do medicinal good.
The first aromatherapy book published in English appeared in 1977. Titled “The Art of Aromatherapy,” it was written by Robert Tisserand and became the foundational work for a budding alternative, naturopathic, holistic health industry.
In its simplest form, aromatherapy is the use of any aromatic compound derived from plants. When you think about it, plant odors waft through the air all the time – and they certainly are noticeable when you sprinkle an herb mix onto a fresh green salad.
Some scientific studies have linked aromatherapy with reduced levels of anxiety and depression, improved sleep, and an overall improvement in quality of life, especially for people with chronic health conditions.
Doesn’t inhaling lavender oil make you feel good? Some people claim that this scent relieves osteoarthritic pain of the knee and kidney stones, and improves the quality of life for those with dementia.
In Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic medicine from India, plant-based oils have been used to treat leprosy (with chaulmoogra oil) and to make a patient’s mood improve. Hippocrates, the “father of modern medicine,” endorse aromatherapy massage in his holistic healing treatments. The Romans, famous for their public and private baths, suggesting a preoccupation with cleanliness and hygiene, also adopted the artful science.
Essential oils are made by extracting them from various parts of plants prior to distillation, which is the process of “separating the components or substances from a liquid mixture by using selective boiling and condensation.”
The result is a highly concentrated oil which can be used in its liquid form or added to massage lotion, cosmetic products or bath salts. Very few people ingest essential oils, preferring to apply them externally to the body.
A famous alchemist named Avicenna by Europeans (but more properly Ibn-Sina in his native Arabic) lived from 980 AD to 1037 AD. He is credited with inventing the refrigerated coil. This might not seem like much, but this component was crucial in improving the way our forebearers extracted plant oils to be used in aromatherapy.
The method used today to distill plant essences has changed very little since it was first introduced hundreds of years ago.
Some oils are potent enough to irritate or redden sensitive skin, particularly around the nostrils, mouth, and ears – so use caution with any new substance or product.
In theory, aromatherapy works by stimulating olfactory (smell) receptors in the nose, which, in turn, transmit signals via the central nervous system to the limbic system, the part of the brain in charge of emotions and emotional behaviors that include intimacy, feeling passion, and sex.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not stepped in to regulate the essential oils used in aromatherapy.
A “Systematic Review” of the “Effectiveness of Aromatherapy for Depressive Symptoms,” published in January 2017, revealed that two out of five (40%) scientific studies which tested inhalation aromatherapy found that subjects reported positive effects to relieve their symptoms of depression.
That number went up to five out of eight (62.5%) for studies that showed beneficial effects of aromatherapy, when it was combined with massage, on subjects who showed mild or higher degree of depressive symptoms.
There are far too many essential oils to list here but to give you an idea of what scent therapy helps people with, here a short list taken from an excellent Aromatherapy Essential Oils Chart:
- Peppermint clears nasal passages, eases indigestion and nausea, and reduces headache pain
- Cinnamon makes you less nervous, improves circulation, and reduces joint pain
- Chamomile is an antidepressant that reduces nervousness and tones skin
- Jasmine relieves muscles spasms, reduces scars, and lessens PMS symptoms
Another comprehensive Aromatherapy Essential Oil Reference Chart includes recommended dosages and directions for treatment.
Also really useful is a table that shows which oils to use for what ailments. For example, for temporary relief from backache pain, use lavender, rosemary, and juniper. Nurse a hangover with fennel, juniper, and rosemary.
Is it any wonder that smelling good things makes people feel better?
“Our sense of smell is 10,000 more powerful than any other sense and the recognition of smell is immediate. (Other senses like touch travel to the brain via the spinal cord.) Smell is also the strongest link to the subconscious mind and also to our collective unconscious mind where memories are stored,” according to an article from Science Behind Aromatherapy.
Revel in your sense of smell. Enjoy all the scents that make you feel good and relaxed, and especially those that remind you of fond memories. It’s easy: just close your eyes and breathe in deeply…