Learn the Fragrant Art of Aromatherapy

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The scent of a rose, a freshly baked cinnamon
roll, mint tea brewing or an orange as it’s peeled — all of these
are distinctively delightful and all come to us thanks to herbs.
When you stroll through an herb garden or open a bottle of herbal
lotion or shampoo, the fragrance is often what most captures your
attention and imagination.

Our sense of smell is powerful, yet underappreciated. Rudyard
Kipling wrote, “Smells are surer than sounds and sights to make the
heartstrings crack.” However, most of us aren’t very attuned to how
important our sense of smell is — studies have shown that most
people consider smell to be the least valuable of the five

Researchers now are finding that essential oils have measurable
effects on both the body and the emotions. Use the suggestions in
this article to help you get reacquainted with your all-important
sense of smell.

Basil “taketh away sorrowfulness, which cometh of
melancholy, and makes a man merry and glad.”
— John Gerard


Essential oils are the source of herbal aromas. Formed in all
fragrant plants, essential oils are as medicinal as the herbs that
produce them. These oils provide most of the taste in the herbs and
spices used to flavor food. And they add their scent, as well as
their healing properties, to cosmetics and body-care products.
Considering all they offer, it’s no wonder that essential oils are
the basis of the healing art known as aromatherapy.

Each type of essential oil has a unique chemistry that dictates
its medicinal properties. Some of the simplest aromatherapy
remedies treat common complaints, such as indigestion, swelling and
infection. For example, adding eucalyptus to a steaming pot of
water and inhaling the steam helps combat a bacterial or viral
sinus infection. Peppermint in a liniment warms muscles and eases
away pain. The essential oils of many herbs, such as peppermint and
chamomile, are used to relieve indigestion. Essential oils also
penetrate through the skin easily, so applying a lotion that
contains an anti-inflammatory and antiseptic herb, such as
lavender, is an effective healing method.

Even more intriguing is how the various aromas of essential oils
affect emotions. Potent scents produced by various herbs can act on
the brain to relax us, energize us or even treat depression.
Herbalists have long known of these qualities — John Gerard, in his
17th-century herbal, observed that the fragrance of certain herbs
increased feelings of happiness and well-being. Lemon balm was said
to cheer the heart, and basil “taketh away sorrowfulness, which
cometh of melancholy, and makes a man merry and glad.”


Even if you’ve never purchased a bottle of essential oil,
chances are you have already incorporated aromatherapy into your
life. Every time you drink a cup of fragrant tea or flavor your
food with an aromatic culinary herb like basil or rosemary, the
aromas have an impact on your mind. In fact, we probably are so
attracted to pleasant scents because of the positive way in which
they affect our emotions.

While sniffing fragrant herbs may be a weaker remedy compared to
taking pharmaceutical drugs, aromatherapy can be used safely and
repeatedly without worrying about side effects. Many times,
aromatherapy is not potent enough to be used as the sole treatment,
but it makes an excellent adjunct approach when combined with other

Scientists, as well as aromatherapists, are interested in how
the power of scent increases emotional well-being. Researchers are
investigating if and how the scents historically used to alter
emotions actually work. They discovered that just smelling
chamomile produces a relaxing effect on brain waves: Simply
inhaling the aroma from a cup of chamomile tea is enough to relax a
person, before he or she even drinks the tea. Peppermint and
eucalyptus have been shown to stimulate the mind and make people
more attentive. Researchers even think aromatherapy may help slow
the progress of memory problems, such as dementia.

While we wait for research to verify the effectiveness of
aromatherapy, aromatherapists like myself continue to investigate
ways in which healing fragrance has been used for thousands of
years. It’s easy to put aromatherapy to practical use. For example,
rosemary and bay laurel stimulate the mind and particularly help
memory. One simple trick is to sniff a few leaves when studying for
an exam or trying to memorize anything important. Then, sniff them
again when you need to recall the information.

When you’re looking for a way to stay awake, make “energy” salts
by adding a few drops of peppermint to a couple tablespoons of rock
salt (available in grocery stores) in a small, lidded container.
Open the container and sniff as desired. I’ve included a simple
chart to help you choose the best aromatherapy scents for your
needs (see “Traditional Aromatherapy Oils and Their Uses” on Page

If you’re having trouble sleeping or simply need to relax, place
a drop or two of lavender oil on your sheets to send you off to
dreamland. (Because the oil may leave spots on your sheets, mix the
oil with a little water in a small spray bottle, then spritz the
sheets.) Another technique is to tuck a small lavender-scented
dream pillow in your pillowcase. I travel extensively, so I always
carry a lavender pillow in my suitcase, as well as a lavender-rose
aromatherapy spray (available at health-food stores) to ensure
restful sleep.

Shop around to find the many aromatherapy massage oils, bath
oils, and skin- and hair-care products that are available these
days. You also can buy pure essential oils to make your own
creations. When you go to buy essential oils, you’ll notice that
they vary greatly in price. Their cost is reflected in how
difficult the plants are to cultivate and the oils to produce. When
you consider that it takes about 600 pounds of rose petals to
produce a single ounce of rose oil, it’s no wonder rose oil is so


One simple way to use aromatherapy is as a bath oil. Add 3 to 6
drops of pure essential oil to the bathtub (or to a Jacuzzi or hot
tub — it won’t corrode if it’s pure essential oil). You also can
make a massage and body oil by adding 6 to 8 drops of essential oil
to 1 ounce of any vegetable oil or a commercial, unscented massage
oil base. Because they are so light, sweet almond oil and jojoba
oil are especially good as massage oils. Be careful when using
peppermint, cinnamon and citrus oils, especially orange, in skin
products. These are “hot” oils that can redden skin and produce a
burning sensation.

Fill a room with fragrance by gently simmering a pot of water
and adding a few drops of essential oil, which will dissipate into
the air. You also can purchase an electric aromatherapy diffuser to
which you can add your own essential oil. Place water in the
receptacle and add a few drops of essential oil. A candle diffuser
also will work, although the scent usually will last only an hour
or so. Combine different oils if you’re feeling creative.


Although they’re often less expensive, avoid synthetic versions,
which also can be labeled “essential oils.” The increasing
popularity of aromatherapy means there are many products available,
but even some of those sold in health-food stores are made with
synthetics. Aromatherapists worry about the effect of these oils’
synthetic ingredients, especially since many of them contain
petroleum compounds and other potential toxins.

When you purchase essential oils or aromatherapy products that
contain them, be sure the essential oils are pure and made from
plants. Look on the label for the botanical name of the plant from
which the oil was derived. Unfortunately, many favorite scents are
very expensive or not possible to produce. The scents of magnolia,
carnation and lotus are a few examples. Also, rose and jasmine —
two of the most popular, as well as expensive, essential oils — are
probably synthetic or diluted if sold for less than $120 per

I’m wary of using the many “aromatherapy” candles that are
scented synthetically. I find it worthwhile to spend a little extra
on candles or other products that state they contain only natural
essential oils. Not only are they better for your health, they
smell so much better!


Another safety consideration is that essential oils are very
potent. They are far more concentrated than herb teas or tinctures,
so be careful with how much and how often you use them. Do not take
essential oils internally without the guidance of a qualified
aromatherapy practitioner. Keep essential oils away from your

As a general rule, don’t apply essential oils directly to your
skin undiluted. However, some oils are perfectly safe to apply to
your skin — for example, lavender oil on burns or insect bites and
tea tree oil on pimples.

Remember that these oils go into your skin and eventually your
bloodstream, and use caution. Your liver and kidneys are
responsible for clearing essential oils, along with other foreign
substances, from your body, and an overdose strains them. If you
ever feel dizzy, nauseous or develop a headache while using or
working with essential oils, your body is sending you a warning to
back off. This can occur just from inhaling too much essential

Allergies or sensitivities to essential oils always are
possible. Yet people who are allergic to fragrances often find only
synthetic fragrances bothersome. Many times I’ve seen students in
my aromatherapy seminars enjoy inhaling the fragrance of a natural
rose oil when they believed they were allergic to all rose oils.
People who are more familiar with synthetic oils are surprised to
find how closely the scent of most essential oils resembles the
plants from which they came, and how much more pleasant they are.
Of course, they also are amazed when they see how effective
aromatherapy is as a healing art.

Kathi Keville is an herbalist and aromatherapist with 35 years
of experience. She is the author of 12 books, including
Aromatherapy: A Complete Guide to the Healing Art (The Crossing
Press, 1995), with Mindy Green. She teaches seminars at her farm in
Nevada City, California, and throughout the United States. Visit
her website at www.Aha Herb.com.

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