Emotional, mental and muscular tension and stress, along with a few forms of depression, are perhaps the most prevalent problems we face today. These tend to be self-perpetuating problems that build upon themselves, often producing chronic and seemingly unrelated symptoms or diseases. Most people have within them the power to break such cycles, but they may need a push to get them started. Many psychological and psychiatric therapies are offered for this purpose, and lifestyle changes often are called for, but a growing number of people are turning to herbal essential oils and aromatherapy to provide a catalyst for change in their lives.
Throughout recorded history, the ability of fragrance to induce responses and enhance moods has been a powerful theme in virtually every culture. As modern science has trained its analytical eye on herbal subjects, many old practices have been judged ineffective and misguided, but the therapeutic uses of fragrance have borne up well under such scrutiny.
The Essential Oils
Except for a few aromatic oils secreted by animals such as the musk deer, sperm whale, and beaver, natural aromatic substances come from plants. Essential oils are found in every family of the botanical world, but most of the aromatic essential oils used in commerce are extracted from about 100 plant species. The amount of essential oil in the tissues of some plants is minute—it takes about a ton of rose petals to produce just a pound of rose oil—but oil can be extracted from many plants in significant quantities, either by pressing of the fruit peels (as with citrus fruits), by solvent extraction, or, most commonly, by steam distillation.
Essential oils, like other oils, will not mix with water. However, unlike fatty or aliphatic oils, essential oils will not leave a grease stain on paper or fabric; they evaporate completely because they are volatile at room temperature. (“Volatile” comes from the Latin word for “flying”.) You can take advantage of this volatility to fill a room with your favorite herbal scent: simply leave an open vial of the essential oil on a table, and the molecules of the oil will slowly “fly off” as a gas.
Suspended molecules of aromatic essential oil are perceived as fragrance or flavor, which are really different aspects of the same sensory experience. Fragrance is the nasal or olfactory aspect; if the experience also involves taste (the bitter, sour, sweet, and/or salty messages that come from the tongue), then fragrance is transformed into flavor.
What is Aromatherapy?
Aromatherapy involves the direct use of essential oils for their healing effect. A person can experience some of this effect simply by inhaling the oil’s fragrance; in the practice of aromatherapy, inhalation usually is supplemented by massage, talk, perhaps a hot cup of tea, even a warm bath.
Further, many essential oils are valuable for topical application to skin irritations and wounds. An essential oil not only is the source of a plant’s fragrance and flavor, but generally is the component that causes healing or other benefits when the herb is consumed as food or in a tea.
The term “aromatherapy” dates to 1938, the year of publication of L’Aromathérapie, a book by French perfumer Jean Gattefossé. While at work in his laboratory, Gattefossé was burned by a caustic chemical, and having nothing but lavender oil on hand, he splashed it on his injury, hoping to dilute the chemical solution. The burned skin healed so rapidly that he began investigating the healing properties of other aromatic oils when applied externally.
Most plant-derived oils (and synthetic oils that imitate the molecular structures of these oils) are powerful antiseptics, either applied to the skin as a liquid or inhaled as a gas. This was discovered during the latter half of the nineteenth century, before Gattefossé published his work. France’s Pasteur Institute began studying the antimicrobial action of essential oils when it investigated the rumor that perfumery workers of Grasse in Provence, the headquarters of the essential oil industry, had significantly lower rates of cholera and tuberculosis than did the rest of the European population. They discovered that the oils of clove, thyme, mint, marjoram, pine, and oregano, among others, strongly inhibit many major microbes, including those that cause tuberculosis, cholera, and staphylococcus infections. In fact, their findings indicate that, taking the germ-killing power of phenol (a common disinfectant) as 1.0, several common essential oils possess these relative germicidal powers: ylang-ylang, 2.8; lavender, 4.4; rosemary, 5.4; rue, 6.4; rose, 7.0; cinnamon, 7.8; clove, 9.2; and thyme, 12.2.
The healing and other beneficial effects of plants are largely attributable to their essential oils. For example, in Mediterranean folk medicine, fennel tea is taken to aid digestion and even is given to colicky babies, and in India, fennel seeds are chewed for the same purpose. The active ingredient in both cases is found in the essential oil. The anesthetic and antiseptic properties of cloves have been known in both East and West for centuries, and modern dentists still use eugenol, a component of clove essential oil, for those purposes.
The “Aroma” Of Aromatherapy
The modern concept of aromatherapy is concerned not only with the antimicrobial and internal healing qualities of essential oils, but with their aromatic properties: fragrances alone can have significant physiological and emotional effects. Ammonia salts, though not an essential oil, offer a powerful example of fragrance’s effect on the hormonal system: one sniff triggers an almost instantaneous release of adrenalin that is sufficient to “bring around” a person who feels faint and queazy.
Of the 500 cubic feet or so of air we draw into our lungs every 24 hours, about 2 percent passes over two olfactory pads at the top of the nasal passage. Each pad is an area of mucus-covered epithelial tissue about the size of a dime, and together they comprise about 5 million nerve cells or neurons. Each of these neurons terminates in 6 to 12 hairlike receptors which actively comb the passing air, somewhat like the antennae of an insect. When fragrance molecules in the air engage these receptors, the neuron sends a message to the brain.
The “Smell Brain”
The part of the brain that receives and processes olfactory information is known as the limbic system. In evolutionary terms, the limbic system is the primal brain, the core around which the higher brain functions have evolved. It was long called the rhinencephalon, or “smell brain”, because the olfactory neurons connect into it directly, but we now know that it includes the primary control systems for most of our vital bodily functions, including hormone secretion and the autonomic nervous system, and is intimately associated with short- and long-term memory.
The nerve pathway followed by fragrance messages is more direct than that for visual or auditory messages and therefore bypasses many of the thought processes that filter and adjust our reactions to sights and sounds. The fragrance message goes first to the olfactory bulb, which sorts complex fragrances and distinguishes relative strength and the basic type of the fragrance, such as acrid or sweet. The modified message goes to the amygdala, an almond-shaped organ at the base of each side of the brain that generates memory associations and makes further distinctions—safe/dangerous, pleasing/disgusting. From there, the message goes to the hypothalamus, the central regulator of heart and breathing rates, blood pressure, appetite, and many reflex responses. The hypothalamus also orchestrates the activities of the endocrine system, whose glands control and respond to changes in nutrition, metabolism, body temperature, emotion, and sexuality. Finally, the message goes to the thalamus, which relays it to the higher, more conscious thought processes of the brain.
By this process of message transfer, simply inhaling a fragrance can stimulate the release of hormones which cause euphoria, relieve pain, stimulate sexual response, calm anger or fear, induce sleep, or mitigate stress.
Three Limbic Messages
I like to classify the effects of essential oils under three main headings: uplifting, bracing and sedating. Usually, oils are applied to the skin in small amounts, but no matter how light the application, they make a statement to the limbic brain unless the olfactory cells have somehow been damaged.
Lavender, pine, eucalyptus, rosemary, and marjoram oils are all uplifting essences. Because of their low molecular weight, these oils volatilize quickly, delivering a sharp, tonic, stimulating message to the brain and thence to the entire organism. They are wonderful for alleviating depression, morbidity, and fears. They have an herbal or “green” character and give an impression of brightness and health. I have often sprinkled a little oil of lavender on the floor of the New York subways in the hope of bringing a sense of sunshine into the dark atmosphere of the underground.
Oils of the rose and many other flowers brace and hold us. Their character is that of the flowers, more relaxed and opulent than the green, herbal scents and very comforting and reassuring. I have found, for instance, that jasmine and/or orange blossom oil enhances the appetite, not only for food, but also for life. In my practice of aromatherapy, I often suggest the use of a floral oil for someone who is nervous.
Among the quieting essences, sandalwood has long conveyed a feeling of peace. A familiar scent in Buddhist temples throughout India, Indonesia, China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, its message is that one has stepped into a sanctuary, a protected zone, another world. I find that patchouli, with its strong, earthy note, is also a bringer of peace, and patchouli is often blended with sandalwood. Musk is also a quieting scent. It is unusual in that it comes from an animal—the musk deer of the Himalayas—rather than a plant. However, a vegetable “musk oil” derived from pine is chemically similar and, like musk, is slow to volatilize. Animal musk, used in perfumes worldwide, is esteemed as an aphrodisiac in Chinese traditional medicine, and the pine-based musk oil used alone can induce a pronounced mood of erotic indolence. Musk is supposed to resemble more closely the natural bodily perfume of men than that of women, but I find that it blends with and enhances the scent of anyone who wears it, whether male or female.
Choose pure oils of good quality; I avoid oils that have been diluted with propylene glycol, which is harmless but oily and inodorous. Your nose and some experience are the best gauge of how much essential oil is in a bottle.
When working with essential oils, keep them away from the eyes and mucous membranes. This goes for such unusual “oils” as pure menthol (produced from distilled mint oil) and natural camphor (from the distilled leaves and wood of the Chinese camphor tree, Cinnamomum camphora), which are actually crystalline at room temperature. To clean hands covered with essential oils, simply wait a few minutes, and the oils will quickly evaporate from your skin.
Aromatherapy is an art, and practicing it is more complex than consulting a simple chart that matches oils with their effects. People vary, associations and memories vary, and each moment is unique. After assessing your circumstances and selecting a likely oil, take a sniff, and don’t use it if you find the fragrance unpleasant. If you are giving someone else a massage, proffer the selected oil for a sniff, and don’t use it if he or she recoils.
Skins also vary, and you must watch carefully for adverse reactions. Put a little of the pure oil in the crook of the arm, flex the arm at the elbow, and hold it that way for a few minutes. If redness occurs, do not use that oil, or else test the other arm with a much smaller quantity of the essential oil diluted with a fatty oil such as almond or apricot kernel. Olive oil, though beneficial for the skin, has such a distinct odor that it is not a good choice.
Although just inhaling a fragrance can be therapeutic, the effects can be enhanced by massage, and in this I have borrowed much from my extensive travel and study in China. The Chinese way is to deliver a mini-jolt at key places on the body, whether with a needle, a heated taper, or simple finger pressure. I use finger pressure, but I enhance the stimulus with a small amount of pure essential oil. This combined with the effects of fragrance has yielded gratifying results.
A famous Japanese gardener was once asked what gardening was all about; his response was to hold up his pruning shears. If someone asks me what aromatherapy is about, I usually hold up a vial of French lavender oil. It’s the most versatile oil I’ve ever encountered. It can be used undiluted on the skin; a drop of it is wonderful in the bath; and I have never found anyone to be allergic to it. It is uplifting because it is bright, antiseptic, and herbal; but because it comes from a flower, it is also bracing.
Aromatherapy is not a cure-all, but it is an invaluable emphasis to pursue. I believe that people somehow know instinctively that herbal essential oils are germicidal and healing, and inhaling the fragrances—whether in the garden or from a bottle of distilled oil—therefore reinforces a feeling of safety and well-being. After you begin to experience with your nose, you’ll wonder how you could have lived without the hovering, invisible presence of these potent essences in your life.
Edwin T. Morris is a practicing aromatherapist in Pelham, New York, a teacher of aromatherapy at the New York Botanical Garden, and author of Fragrance: The Story of Perfume from Cleopatra to Chanel (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1984).