Aromatherapy mixes the art of aroma with the science of chemistry. According to Nature.com, the human nose can detect about 10,000 odors. Your sense of smell is closely tied to your limbic system, a part of your brain that controls emotions and motivation. When activated by scent, your limbic system can send chemical messages to other parts of your brain and body.
The basis of aromatherapy correlates how the scent of something affects you emotionally and physically. Because your sense of smell is extremely sensitive, just getting a whiff of something can bring back memories from years, even decades, ago. The scent of lavender might bring back joyful memories of your grandmother’s handkerchiefs while the smell of musk might bring back sad memories of the boyfriend who jilted you in high school.
Beyond affecting you emotionally, some scents can affect you on a physiological level. Scents are made up of chemicals, such as aldehydes, esters and terpines. For instance, pine is made up of chemicals called monoterpines, which include limonene and pinene, while chamomile is made up of chemicals called esters, which give it a softer scent. When you inhale these chemicals, they can cause physiological reactions, including the reduction of pain, inflammation and anxiety, or an increase in circulation or mucus production.
While aromatherapy uses both synthetic and natural fragrance, some of the most effective and therapeutic benefits come from the use of essential oils. Essential oils come from the roots, stems, leaves, bark, flowers, and fruit of trees and plants. The oil, or “essence” of the plant, is extracted and concentrated for use in food, beverages, medicine, cosmetics and household products. These essential oils are the purest form of the plant and contain concentrated and potent chemicals. Most essential oils must be mixed with a carrier oil before they can be used because they can cause irritation to your skin.
Some of the most popular essential oils in aromatherapy include chamomile, cinnamon, clove, eucalyptus, lavender, lemon, patchouli, peppermint, rose and sage. Many of these precious liquids are used in some of the world’s most famous perfumes. The essential oil, bergamot, is the main flavoring in Earl Grey tea. Essential oils are used frequently in facial cleansing products, shampoo and other beautifying products.
Some of the main actions of essential oils and other forms of fragrance include analgesic, calming, sedative and stimulating. Many essential oils have the ability to ease inflammation, a biological action useful in healing, but usually quite painful. A sore muscle or sprained ligament might benefit from soaking in a bath of chamomile, lavender, eucalyptus or rosemary. Some of these oils are also used for their calming or sedative effect. Perhaps the most well-known essential oil, lavender, has soothing properties that can help with insomnia or nervous tension. Other oils are prized for their stimulating properties. Cinnamon, lemon and pine can help improve concentration and increase circulation to the muscles and organs.
Aromatherapy, while once widely used, has largely been replaced with man-made drugs that mimic the effect of nature’s bounty. Understanding the benefits and uses of these healing, natural chemicals can help your body heal itself while you enjoy the pleasure of fragrance.