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 expanding 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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
Essential oils are routinely extracted from plants by using steam
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.
Essential Oils Enter the Body: Although numerous ways exist to
administer essential oils, the most common are through the nose and the
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
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
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
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).
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.
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
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.
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,
Oils such as chamomile, geranium, juniper, lavender, marjoram,
myrrh, rose, and tea tree diminish pain through anti-inflammatory
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.
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.
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.
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.
When inhaled, a variety of oils - including lavender, melissa,
peppermint, basil, chamomile, lemongrass and marjoram - can relieve
headaches of different origins.
Some oils - including bergamot, chamomile, lavender, lemon melissa,
marjoram, neroli, petitgrain, rose, sandalwood, and valerian – relieve
stress (even slowing brain waves).
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).
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
Pressure: Oils have been shown to lower blood pressure, including
neroli, orange, melissa, tangerine, rose, ylang ylang, geranium, and
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
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.
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!
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
Co-author Pamela Parsons is founder and
Editor of Aromatic Thymes
Adapted from article in Paraplegia News,
July & August, 2000 (For subscriptions, contact www.pn-magazine.com).