By Kayla Jacobs
The power of scent to consciously shift mood, improve well-being, and support healing has never been more palpable. Hello, aromatherapy! The often misunderstood and undervalued holistic therapy isn’t a new thing, but in the past decade the use of oils and fragrance for self-care has blown up.
HOW AROMATHERAPY WORKS
The School For Aromatic Studies describes aromatherapy as “the holistic therapeutic application of genuine and authentic plant-derived essential oils for enhancing the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health of the individual.”
The body’s limbic system connects to the part of our brain that controls everything from heart rate to memory to hormone balance, explaining why smells can trigger such visceral emotions. While we perceive five different types of tastes— bitter, sweet, salty, sour, umami —we can recognize thousands and thousands of different kinds of smell.
Our skin covers an average of 18 square feet and serves as our first line of defense against disease. Aromatherapy works via a myriad of different pathways into the body. Figuring out what’s best for you depends on what you want to treat. For instance, blending a massage oil is excellent to enhance immunity and reduce aches and pains, while infused facial creams can target and influence skin health through localized circulation. Baths aid detoxification and soothe mental anxiety, while scrubs can energize immediately and enhance lymphatic flow.
There’s not a huge body of research around the effects of aromatherapy, but there have been significant studies that cite the healing potency of essential oils. There are quite a few reviews and studies on the effects of odors on the human brain and emotions, which have shown that scents produce positive effects on neuropsychological and autonomic nervous system function.
On the other hand, we have to acknowledge that there have also been studies that suggest only transient impacts of aromatherapy or absolutely none at all. One such review published in 2000 focused on six studies treating anxiety with aromatherapy massage in which the authors concluded that the research was not consistent enough to prove the claims as mentioned above. The National Cancer Institute’s Summary of the Evidence for Aromatherapy and Essential Oils is a fascinating look at 15 clinical studies that again point to mixed conclusions on whether a meaningful scientific evaluation can be made about aromatherapy’s effectiveness on health.
A brief history of aromatherapy
The history of aromatherapy is captivating. Since the dawn of time, plants, herbs, and flowers have supported us in a myriad of ways. From the Ancient Egyptians who developed the first distillation machines that extracted oils, to the Greeks who believed that the gods knew of a fragrant realm, and Hippocrates who is said to have practiced aromatherapy (before it was dubbed so), our ancestors seemingly knew how to tap into an aromatic power.
The actual term “aromatherapie” was coined by the prolific French chemist Rene-Maurice Gattefosse. In 1920, Gattefosse was involved in an explosion in his laboratory that left both of his hands severely burned. He put lavender essential oil directly on his hands and his burns healed without scarring or infection. That turned him on to studying the flowering plant.
Hot on the heels of Gattefosse’s discovery, French doctor Jean Valnet used aromatherapy to heal soldiers’ wounds in World War II, and Marguerite Maury pioneered their dermal application along with the psychological and physiological benefits.
But it wasn’t until the 1980s that aromatherapy garnered attention here in the U.S. A plethora of scented lotions and fragrances to “relax” and “heal” were consciously marketed as “aromatherapy,” but most were synthetic. Flash forward to 2018, and essential oils are much more accessible (have you checked Whole Foods lately?).
Research is still being done into how we perceive aromas, but today’s aromatherapy as a holistic modality owes much to British educator Valerie Wormwood. She’s considered an authority on aromatherapy and essential oils and has pioneered research on aromatherapy and its effects on endometriosis and infertility, along with scientists Richard Axe and Linda Buck, who were awarded the Nobel Prize in 2004 for their groundbreaking work that clarified how our olfactory system works.
5 ESSENTIAL OILS FOR WELL-BEING
Essential oils come from every single part of a plant (think leaves, flowers, roots, bark, and peels), but extraction and distillation is still a kind of crazy process. For example, it can reportedly require as much as 2,000 pounds of rose petals to create just one pound of essential oil. (That’s why rose is so expensive.) Here are a few to try!
The granddaddy of aromatherapy and the most widely used essential oil in the world, lavender is incredibly versatile and a first-aid kit must. It soothes inflammatory skin conditions like eczema, takes the sting out of burns, and can be used to treat grief and insomnia. Lavender can also be diffused to help lift depressive states, headaches and stress. Buy it: Now Organic Lavender Essential Oil.
The inspiration for all of the greatest love poetry, sensual rose oil has fantastic soothing, confidence-boosting, and rejuvenating properties and also treats PMS symptoms and irregular menstrual cycles. Buy it: Alteya’s Organic Bulgarian Rose Essential Oil.
Sandalwood, like rose, can be an aphrodisiac, but it’s also real balancer and calmer. In aromatherapy, its rich, sweet aroma is used to infuse emotional stability, and to treat stress and urinary tract infections. Buy it:
Literal and metaphorical sunshine in a bottle, orange helps increase energy and spark, while dispelling fatigue and dreary sensations in the body and mind. It’s also a great decongestant and can be used to stimulate the lymph and treat cellulite. Buy it:
Eucalyptus is best known as an upper respiratory tract protector for colds or bronchial congestion, sinusitis, and practically all icky symptoms associated with flu. Buy it: