The use of essential oils to help improve well-being has been around for thousands of years, since Egyptian times when they used plants and herbs for spiritual and therapeutic purposes to aid the healing process and calm the mind. It was much later in the early 1900s when Gattefossé, a French scientist re-discovered the psychological and physiological healing power of lavender oil on burns he suffered on his hands. This prompted him to analyse the chemical properties of essential oils and how they were used to help treat burns, skin infections and wounds suffered by soldiers during World War I, and in 1928, Gattefossé founded the science of aromatherapy as we know it today.
There are many definitions of what aromatherapy is. Aromatherapy has been described as the use of fragrance to enhance health and promote feelings of well-being; a type of alternative medicine that uses essential oils and other aromatic plant compounds which are aimed at improving a person’s health or mood.
So how does this work?
Well, we have our limbic system to thank for this. It is believed that the inhalation of essential oils stimulates the part of the brain connected to smell – our friend, the olfactory bulb. This sends a signal to the limbic system of the brain which controls emotions and retrieves learned memories, in turn causing chemicals to be released which make the person feel relaxed, calm, or even stimulated (of course, in the case of nasty smells or smells with bad associations for the individual doing the smelling, these emotions or retrieved memories might not be so positive).
As discovered by the Egyptians, essential oils each have therapeutic properties, in that they are stimulating, calming, balancing and so on, but what actually happens when we smell these oils?
When we inhale an essential oil molecule, it travels through the nasal passage to a receptor neuron that transports it up to the limbic brain, especially the hypothalamus. Remember that some of the functions of the hypothalamus are to regulate blood pressure, control heart rate and adjust hunger and thirst. So, if you smell an essential oil that has a calming effect, the hypothalamus will receive the input to relax, creating neurochemicals which are sent through the body to relax and calm. Think lavender pillow sprays and getting to sleep. Likewise, if an essential oil is known to stimulate and refresh, then the limbic system will conform by sending the message to the body to energise and become more active. Think citrus shower gels and wakening up.
But is it all mumbo-jumbo?
Scientists and the medical profession would say so. They argue that aromatherapy will only make you feel good mentally but the effects are short term and it will not make you better physically in the longer term.
The debate between body and soul continues but I’d say anything that makes us feel better and less anxious as well as improving our mood and overall well-being has got to be a good thing!