What is Aromatherapy?

Article originally published as “The Nose Knows” in NAHA’s Aromatherapy Journal in 2001

Written by Nyssa Hanger


In the cycle of twenty-four hours, a person will take an average of 23,040 breaths; with each inhalation, we take in the smells around us. Odors are affecting us all the time, whether we will realize it or not. Aromatherapy is the use of these odors in the form of pure essential oils for health, beauty, and well-being. Some skeptics will ask, “Does it really work?” Growing up with a passionate aromatherapist for a mother, I have experienced the effects first-hand and would be compelled to reply with a definitive, “Yes.” These oils effect the body in three major ways: pharmacologically, physiologically, or psychologically.

An oil with a pharmacological mode of action will produce a cascade of chemical changes. My friend Shelby would run to my mother whenever she had a stomach ache, “Sylla, I need some peppermint and honey, please.” Going to the kitchen, my mother would take out a spoon and fill it with honey from the honey bear. She then would drop some peppermint from the bottle we had lying around on the counter (peppermint was an essential part of our kitchen tools) into the honey. Shelby would lap up the substance and sure enough, she would always feel better. The honey, used only to disguise the taste, acts as a carrier, and the menthol in the peppermint is what eases indigestion. Ever heard of the “after-dinner mint”? Well, that’s why.


Another pharmacological pathway is in case of congestion. I was always on schedule during winter to get a cold, right smack in the middle of Christmas break. Not wanting my vacation to slip away like soap in the shower, while I’m left still sniffling in bed, my mother would always come to the rescue. She would set up some eucalyptus in a diffuser and point in straight at me from my bureau, even encouraging me to go over and directly inhale the vaporized oil. By breathing it in, the oil would go straight to my lungs. In 1968, E.M. Boyd and E.P. Sheppard found the “eucalyptus oil may act by reducing the surface tension effects between mucus and lung surface.” This creates two effects: decongestant (thinning of mucus) and expectorant (expelling from lungs). Oils help mucus separate from lungs, very similar to Vicks Vapor Rub, which, consequently, includes eucalyptus.


Oils that are sedatives and stimulants of body systems fall into the category of physiological oils. These oils could affect either the nervous system or an individual organ or tissue.


As a child on some nights when the clock approached my bedtime, I would still be running around full of energy. Slyly, my mother would drop some lavender into my bath before I got in. She would listen from her bedroom as my splashes and high-pitched giggles turned into ripples and yawns. After I was clean, I would voluntarily lay down to sleep. Linool, a major component of lavender, is a proven sedative.


As I got older, I would turn to rosemary to wake me up. Some nights I would stay up way past what my bedtime should have been, studying. I would equip myself with Mozart (to stimulate the synapses) and some rosemary on a tissue. Rosemary has shown on cat scans to open the peripheral (outer) circulation of the brain, improving mental activity.


Some oils, if applied topically, can reduce the injury of a bruise or ant bite. Helichrysum is one that has the property of wound healing. Once when I had a bruise about the size of a golf ball on my knee, and experimenting, my mother dabbed some helichrysum on half. The next day we took a look at it and the treated side was no longer black and blue. The results were unbelievable! The helichrysum absorbed quickly to the top layers where the damaged blood vessels resided, and broke up and dispersed the excess blood.


Lastly, oils can affect a person psychologically, in which a person produces an individual response. Odors reach parts of the brain that are not under conscious control. Olfaction has direct connection with the limbic portions of the brain. These areas control memory, learning and emotion. Which is why when you smell something, you may not know the actual name of the smell but instead state, “It smells like spaghetti.” While the smell may have been oregano, you connected it with your memory of how your Italian father would cook spaghetti. Just as the memory of two individuals is not the same, so is the memory that a certain smell will evoke. Someone in their fifties may smell some patchouli and reminiscent of a Grateful Dead concert, but if I smell the same patchouli, I immediately think of hugging my mother, that being her signature scent.


But these categories are not clear-cut. A mental change from an odor can cause physiological effects. Or a stimulation of the nervous system can cause a cascade of hormones. Nevertheless, we know that odors do affect the body in at least one of these three ways. The sense of smell is extremely important even if we may not always think so. It was the first sense to be developed and actually developed the brain into what it is today. Therefore, it has been said that we “think” because we “smell.”


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