Essential oils and aromas extracted from plants have long been used in medicine. The Egyptians buried their cats and kings in antiseptic oils of natural essences such as myrrh and cedarwood to arrest putrefaction. Treating patients with incense was practiced throughout the Middle Ages, and the Arab physician Avicenna is known to have first developed the technique of distilling, or extracting, the essential oils of plant.
Aromatherapy uses essential oils derived from the leaves, barks, roots, flowers, resins, or seeds of plants to treat physical and psychological health problems. Typically the oils are inhaled for respiratory and nervous problems or applied topically or added to a bath for skin and muscle problems. The sense of smell, according to Marcel Lavarbre’s Aromatherapy Workbook, acts mostly on a subconscious level; the olfactory nerves are directly connected to the most primitive part of the brain. “In a sense,” says Lavarbre, “the olfactory nerves are an extension of the brain itself, which can then be reached directly through the nose.”
The pathways by which aromatherapy heal are not fully understood. Some plants contain compounds which act as pesticides, bactericides, and fungicides, and their aromas perform these functions on humans with observable effects. Other plants are stimulants or aphrodisiacs, and their aromas, presumably, have the same effect. Lavarbre’s thesis is intriguing: that the olfactory nerves are connected to the brain’s limbic system, which also regulates sensory motor activities and affects sexual urges and behavioral mechanisms.
Olfactory nerves affect memory and aromatherapy has been particularly useful for treating psychological disorders. French psychoanalyst Andre Virel, for example, has used fragrances effectively to bring out patients’ hidden memories. Like smelling salts, different odors wake up the brain, evoking images and feelings associated with each smell. Alternative Medicine: The Definitive Guide reports on one study conducted at Warrick University in England which found that inhaling beach aromas, for example, induced the relaxation response. Aromatherapy is primarily useful, according to Alternative Medicine: The Definitive Guide, for combating wrinkles, acne, and other skin problems as well as for treating poor circulation, obesity, broken capillaries, rheumatism, sinusitis, depression, anxiety, and stress. It may also be effective for bacterial infections of the respiratory system, immune deficiencies such as Epstein-Barr virus (the form of herpes believed to be the causative agent in infectious mononucleosis), and numerous skin disorders.
Dr. Kurt Schnaubelt, director of the Pacific Institute of Aromatherapy, states in Alternative Medicine: The Definitive Guide, “the chemical makeup of essential oils gives them a host of desirable pharmacological properties ranging from antibacterial, antiviral, and antispasmodic, to uses as diuretics (promoting urine production and excretion), vasodilators (widening blood vessels), and vasoconstrictors (narrowing blood vessels). Essential oils act on the adrenals, ovaries, and thyroid gland, and can energize or pacify, detoxify, and facilitate the digestive process.”