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How does aromatherapy work?

Smell is a primary determinant of basic behavior since the beginning of the evolutionary cycle, yet exactly how aromatherapy works still remains a mystery to even the most astute scientist. Researchers do know that when you inhale aromatic molecules, it is received by the cilia or fine hairs that are linked to the olfactory nerve and then to the brain. Olfaction refers to your sense of smell. Olfactory cells are found in a tiny piece of tissue high up in your nose. They connect directly to your brain, and let you distinguish the fragrance of homemade bread, baby powder, and fresh brewed coffee--that is, when you can breathe through your nose! This message is received in the limbic system, the oldest or most primitive part of the brain, which has been called the "emotional switchboard of the brain." Your emotions and memory are processed in the limbic system of the brain and stimulation of this system is considered a direct pathway to influencing your mood, emotions, and overall alertness. Because the limbic system is directly connected to the parts of the brain that control heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, memory, stress levels, and hormone balance, scientists have learned that oil fragrances may be one of the fastest ways to bring about physiological or psychological effects. Either stimulation or sedation of body systems or organs may occur.

When used in a bath or massage, some believe the oils are absorbed through the skin and carried by body fluids to the main body systems; such as the nervous and muscular systems for a healing effect.
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Aromatherapy is a term coined by the French chemist Rene Maurice Gattefosse in the 1930s from his clinical experiments with the use of essential oils from aromatic plant sources. He found that certain oils produced specific and reproducible effects when used in certain ways. Much research has been done since then to understand more about how essential oils work.

When we open a bottle of essential oil and smell it (called olfaction), the aroma molecules initiate coded electrical changes in specialized cells in the top of the nose that are then sent to an area of the brain called the limbic system. Certain parts of the limbic system are responsible for many important functions such as hormone messaging, excitement, relaxation, temperature control, appetite and immune function. The message of the essential oil molecules when it reaches the limbic system can have a profound effect on mood and behavior, as well as producing a sense of well-being that is amplified to the rest of the body. Quite amazing how this happens!

A woman with bulimia came to me on 80 mg of Prozac per day. She said it helped her not open the refrigerator and eat when she was upset or anxious, but the medication caused side effects. I gave her some lemon balm essential oil to smell when she felt anxious. Three months later she reported that she felt so calm each time she smelled the lemon balm that she was able to reduce and then stop the Prozac. She no longer was having to resort to food and her anxiety was well controlled.

Essential oils have hundreds of individual chemicals that have marvelous properties. D-limonene found in some citrus oils has been studied for its ability to help shut down cancer cell growth. Terpene-4-ol in tea tree oil has shown strong action on certain resistant staph bacteria. Methyl chavicol, a molecule in tropical basil, has been helpful in alleviating menstrual cramps. These are just a few effects of essential oil chemicals.

As an aromatherapist, I greatly respect the power of essential oil therapy. Some things we know, but there are unanswered questions that remain. All of us come to the experience of scent with individuality. A scent that pleases one person may be disliked by someone else. The key is to experience this modality for yourself. A change of mind (and heart) may only be a sniff away!

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.