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Healing with Essential Oils and Aromatherapy

Laurance Johnston, Ph.D. and Pamela Parsons, M.S.

  There's Rosemary, that's for remembrance - Ophelia in Shakespeare's Hamlet

A popular alternative medicine therapy, aromatherapy or essential oil therapy is a natural, gentle treatment that can be used as an adjunct and sometimes as an alternative to the many conventional pharmaceutical medications that people with physical disabilities, including spinal cord injury (SCI) and multiple sclerosis (MS), frequently rely upon. By expanAromatherapy and essential oils for spinal cord injury (SCI) and physical disabilitiesding the healing armamentarium available to us, these oils have the potential to reduce our reliance on these pharmaceuticals and exposure to their side effects.

Smells can trigger vivid memories, involving sights, sounds and emotional impressions of events in our distant past. A whiff of oatmeal cookies evokes in-depth childhood memories of my grandmother baking her culinary morsels of affection in a wood stove in her Northern Minnesota kitchen. In addition to such memories, smells can initiate a cascade of physiological responses affecting our entire body and mental outlook.

These responses form the basis for an ancient healing tradition now called aromatherapy -a term coined by Rene Gatfosee, a French chemist for the perfume industry.  He worked with volatile plant essential oils for fragrancing until one day he had an explosion in his lab and was badly burned.  He plunged his arm into the nearest vat of liquid, which happened to be lavender.  LavendarTo his amazement, the pain stopped immediately, and no blistering or scarring occurred.  As a result, he changed his focus completely to the medicinal effects of these oils. 

Aromatherapy can be confusing to the lay person. As “natural things” have become more popular and aromatherapy became a buzz word, commercial interests began to slap the term “aromatherapy” on everything that had a fragrance. 

A lay person tends to think, "Aromatherapy is everything that stinks."  Well, you cannot have aromatherapy without essential oils, but you can have essential oils without it being aromatherapy.  The difference is in the application and intent. Aromatherapy is the use of essential oils with the goal of causing a positive change physically, emotionally, mentally or spiritually.

For example, many shampoos contain essential oils. But that is not aromatherapy.  True aromatherapy would be when you choose particular essential oils to add to your shampoo for a specific intent, e.g., to encourage hair growth, fight a specific physiological condition of the scalp, help clarify the mind, encourage memory, and help center and relax yourself before a big day.

Ancient Origins: Alchemists labeled aromatic plant oils as essential because they believed that the fragrances reflected the plant’s true inner nature. Throughout history, the oils have been used for healing and are still key elements of many of the world’s non-Western healing traditions.

For example, India’s Ayurvedic healing tradition routinely uses essential-oil fragrances to obtain the right doshic balance needed for good health

Indian sages believed fragrances affected man’s consciousness, and encouraged rituals of worship that incorporated flowers.  To this day, flowers are an integral part of daily worship and activity throughout India.  Everywhere you go, you will see people making flower garlands used daily to adorn household, village, and field and temple shrines.  They are blessed at temple and then given back to the worshipper who wears it throughout the day.  It is believed the constant exposure to these highly evolved fragrances refines and elevates consciousness.

Ancient Egyptians really are to be credited for the most complex uses of the oils. To Egyptians, fragrance was of the utmost importance as the goal was divinity. Bathing, anointing and using fragrances would emulate and lead to holiness.  In death, people must smell of this holiness to be acceptable to the gods, and therefore the sacred oils that corresponded to each organ would be used on the body after death.

Their ancient wisdom receded due to history, politics and religion.  After Alexander the Great conquered Egypt, the victors wanted all essential oil formulas, especially aphrodisiacs and those that gave power over others.

Because the Greeks had no spirituality goal, the priests gave incomplete formulas with missing ingredients. The Romans took the abuse of oils to great heights having a fortune in oils go through their fountains, and using them in orgies of food and drink, etc.  Christian priests condemned this lasciviousness and forbade their use. The schism began between the holistic consciousness-influencing and specific medical and cosmetic applications of essential oils.

Modern Times: In recent years as natural, health-care alternatives have been sought out, aromatherapy has seen a remarkable renaissance. In Europe, it is considered an effective, reimbursable treatment that is increasingly being integrated with conventional medicine.

Many investigations demonstrate aromatherapy’s effectiveness, including double blind studies designed to eliminate the psychological placebo effect. Unfortunately, the U.S. medical establishment has not accessed many of the studies because they have been published in other languages or represent proprietary information of the flavor and fragrance industry.

Studies have yielded many interesting findings.  For example, keypunch-operator errors were cut in half after piping lemon scent through the ventilation system. As a result, Japanese corporations use various scents to increase worker performance.

In another example, New York subway passengers became less aggressive when the cars were scented with pleasant food aromas.  And finally, eucalyptus oil keeps truck drivers as alert as does caffeine.

Isolation:  Essential oils are routinely extracted from plants by using steam distillation. Still 5.jpg (547918 bytes)As the steam percolates through the plant material, it pulls off volatile oils, which are then condensed. Huge quantities of raw plant material are often needed to obtain a small amount of oil. In the case of rose oil, it takes 2,000 pounds of petals to produce one pound of oil!

Essential oils are highly concentrated. For example, the chemicals in one drop of oil are equivalent to thirty cups of a tea prepared from plant material. These oils are also highly complex, containing from 100 - 400 different chemical compounds in one oil, giving it a wide range of seemingly improbable properties within the same oil.

Because of the cost of making essential oils, most commercial product fragrances are chemically synthesized. Although such synthetics may superficially smell like the real thing, synthetics do not work in the body in the same way, are not readily eliminated, and tend to provoke more allergic reactions.

How Essential Oils Enter the Body: Although numerous ways exist to administer essential oils, the most common are through the nose and the skin.

Nose: Volatile oils can affect the body through the highly sensitive olfactory system. When cells located in the upper part of the nose capture odor molecules, signals go to the brain’s limbic region, a primitive portion of the brain. This region controls the body’s basic survival functions, in part, by influencing key hormone-secreting glands affecting the entire body. Hence, a smell can quickly influence your entire body.

These actions are below the threshold of consciousness. Hence, the most important functions necessary to our survival are powerfully affected by smell - and we don't know it. You don’t need to be aware of the smell at all to be affected. 

The same is true for odors that bring disharmony and imbalance. For example, the pheromones of fear and violence can trigger the same in another, increasing violence.

You can inhale essential oils in many ways:  Several drops can be placed in bath water, in a nearby bowl of warm water, on a humidifier or light bulb, in the melted wax surrounding a lit candle, or on a handkerchief. You can also purchase inexpensive diffusion devices.

Skin: Oils absorbed through skin pores and hair follicles enter bloodstream capillaries and circulate throughout the body.  Because you smell the fragrances as the oil is rubbed on your skin, it is difficult to separate from inhalation the synergistic effects due to topical administration.

Unlike many chemicals or drugs, essential oils do not accumulate and are quickly excreted from the body. Furthermore, unlike medications that must be swallowed and systemically absorbed, locally applied essential oils bypass the stomach and liver and, therefore, are not compromised by metabolic alteration. They go directly to the spot (e.g., sore muscle, bruise, etc.) where they are needed the most.

Because essential oils are highly concentrated, they are usually diluted before being applied to the skin through oil-based mixtures, such as salves, creams or lotions; alcohol or water-based tinctures; or with a compress (a water-soaked cloth).

Applications:  In psychoaromatherapy, essential oils are used to either stimulate or relax the brain. Some oils can have calming and tranquilizing effects; others are energizing and can help relieve depression. These oils can relief stress and anxiety and promote a general feeling of well being.

In therapeutic aromatherapy, essential oils treat medical conditions. For example, they can fight infections, promote wound healing, reduce inflammation, affect hormonal levels, stimulate the immune system, heat the skin in a liniment, promote blood circulation and digestion, and lessen sinus or lung congestion.

Aesthetic aromatherapy focuses on beauty issues such as hair and skin care.

Aromatherapy can treat many ailments, including those frequently associated with spinal cord dysfunction.  For example, Aromatic Thymes magazine (spring 1999) published a case study in which aromatherapy was used to enhance the health of a quadriplegic in the acute injury phase.  Specifically, essential oils were used to prevent respiratory infections, promote mucus clearing, fight depression, and promote sleep.

Although a few applications are listed in the attached table, readers are encouraged to look at the resources referenced below for particular remedies relevant to their needs.

Specific Aromatherapy Applications

Pain: Often applied through massage oils, lotions, liniments, or compresses, essential oils reduce pain by different mechanisms:

Numbing: Some oils - such as clove bud, frankincense chamomile, lavender, and lemongrass - dull pain by numbing nerve endings,

Anti-inflammatory:  Oils such as chamomile, geranium, juniper, lavender, marjoram, myrrh, rose, and tea tree diminish pain through anti-inflammatory actions.

Heat:  Some oils – e.g., as bay laurel, bay rum, black pepper, cinnamon, clove bud, ginger, juniper, peppermint, and thyme - relieve pain by producing heat and increasing circulation.

Brain: Some oils - such as frankincense, ginger, and lemongrass - interfere with the brain’s processing of pain signals.

Neurotransmitters:  Oils such as birch (containing aspirin-like compounds), cayenne, and ginger hinder the production of neurotransmitters that carry pain messages from nerve endings to the central nervous system.

Relaxation: Using chamomile, clary sage, lavender, lemon, lemon eucalyptus, lemon verbena, marjoram, melissa (lemon balm), myrtle, and petitgrain (a citrus-related plant) may help relieve pain through relaxation.

Insomnia: Sleep-promoting oils  - including bergamot, chamomile, clary sage, frankincense, geranium, lavender, melissa, mandarin, neroli (orange blossom), rose, sandalwood, and tangerine - can be inhaled, rubbed on the skin with massage oil or lotion, or used in bath water.

Headaches: When inhaled, a variety of oils - including lavender, melissa, peppermint, basil, chamomile, lemongrass and marjoram - can relieve headaches of different origins.

Stress: Some oils - including bergamot, chamomile, lavender, lemon melissa, marjoram, neroli, petitgrain, rose, sandalwood, and valerian – relieve stress (even slowing brain waves).

Depression: Antidepressant qualities are found in some oils such as angelica, bergamot, cardamom, chamomile cinnamon, clary sage, clove, cypress, lavender, lemon verbena, lemon, melissa, orange, neroli, petitgrain, rose, and ylang-ylang (a tropical Asian tree).

Stimulation: Many oils - including angelica, basil, benzoin (from a southeast Asian tree), black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, clove, cypress, ginger, jasmine, peppermint, rosemary, and sage - will stimulate and keep you alert.

High Blood Pressure: Oils have been shown to lower blood pressure, including neroli, orange, melissa, tangerine, rose, ylang ylang, geranium, and clary sage.

Bacterial Infections: Oils isolated from bay laurel, cinnamon, clove bud, garlic, oregano, savory, and thyme are powerful antibacterial agents (albeit potential skin irritants). More gentle antibacterial oils include bay rum, benzoin, cardamom, eucalyptus, frankincense, geranium lavender, lemon, lemongrass, marjoram, myrrh, myrtle, pine rose, sage, and tea tree.

These oils can treat infections of the skin, bladder, bowel, ear, gum, sinus, skin, and throat. The nature of the infection will determine whether the oils are inhaled or rubbed on the skin.

Urinary tract infections (UTIs) can be treated with baths, sitzbaths, and massages using certain essential oils. For example, a massage oil containing niaouli, cajeput (both a type of tea tree oil) or sandalwood can be rubbed into the abdomen and kidney region of the lower back.

Cuts and wounds can be treated with sprays or salves that contain essential oils isolated from eucalyptus, lavender, lemon, thyme, marjoram, rosemary, tea tree, or basil.

Viral Infections: Often ingredients in cough drops and cold and flu medications, many oils also have antiviral properties. These oils include bay, bergamot, black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon bark, clove bud, eucalyptus, garlic, geranium, holy basil, juniper, lavender, melissa, lemongrass, lemon, marjoram, myrrh, oregano, rose, rosemary sage, tea tree, and thyme.

In conclusion, get well with smell!

Resources: For more information, consult the following: Aromatherapy: A Lifetime Guide to Healing with Essential Oils by V. G. Cooksley, Prentice Hall (1996); Aromatherapy: The A-Z Guide to Healing with Essential Oils by S. R. Masline and B. Close, Dell Publishing (1997); and Aromatherapy for Dummies, K. Keville, IDG Books

(1999). Co-author Pamela Parsons is founder and Editor of Aromatic Thymes magazine.

Adapted from article in Paraplegia News, July & August, 2000 (For subscriptions, contact 

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