The Fragrant Art of Aromatherapy

Free yourself from pain, fatigue, strain and more with the ancient herbal art of aromatherapy.

| January/February 2003

Smell is a potent wizard that transports us across thousands of miles and all the years we have lived,” wrote Helen Keller, who was blind and deaf from birth, in The World I Live In (1908). “Odors, instantaneous and fleeting, cause my heart to dilate joyously or contract with remembered grief.”

Most of us are less attuned to the importance of our sense of smell—in fact, studies have shown that the majority of people consider smell to be the least valuable of the five senses. And yet, smell is the most highly developed of all of the senses at birth. We choose our friends and mates in part because of their particular odors, and our enjoyment of food is dependent on our sense of smell. Whether or not we are consciously aware of it, the effects of scents reach deeply into the body and psyche.

Our early ancestors understood the powerful effects of aromas. They used the smoke of woods, resins, and plants to induce calmness, relaxation, and even euphoria. Essential oils (the concentrated, aromatic components of plants) have been a precious commodity throughout history and have been used extensively in India, China, the Middle East, and Europe. The Egyptians were skilled in using essential oils and employed fragrances such as cedarwood, frankincense, myrrh, and juniper in cosmetics as well as for healing and in the elaborate process of embalming.

The Greeks enthusiastically adopted the use of essential oils from the Egyptians, perfuming their food and drink in addition to their bodies and clothing. The famed Greek physician Hippocrates had a delightful prescription for longevity: a daily soak in a scented bath, followed by an aromatherapy massage. He might have been on to something. Researchers today are finding that essential oils have measurable effects on both the body and the emotions.

What are essential oils?

Essential oils give many flowers, herbs, spices, and fruits their characteristic scents. The pungent scent of peppermint, the spicy aroma of cloves, and the sweet fragrance of jasmine are all the result of the plants’ essential oils. Plants produce these fragrant oils for a variety of reasons: to stimulate growth and reproduction, to attract beneficial insects and discourage harmful ones, and to protect the plant from diseases. Some of these properties are useful for us, too. For example, citronella, cedarwood, and lemongrass are essential components of natural insect repellents, and tea tree, eucalyptus, and thyme are added to common household products such as disinfectants and mouthwashes.

Aromatic oils are found in all parts of plants—the fruit, seed, flower, root, leaf, resin, bark, and wood. Peel an orange, and you’ve released the abundant essential oils found in the fruit’s skin. But not all essential oils are so easily obtained. Most require distillation, a process of heating the plant in water, capturing the steam, and separating the droplets of essential oil from the steam as it condenses. The result is a highly concentrated oil that captures the fragrance of the plant. It takes approximately one ton of rose petals (close to 60,000 roses) to produce just one ounce of rose oil.

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