Smells can serve as life’s emotional bookmarks, transporting us in time to the moment the scent first imprinted on us.
Scientists speculate that’s because smell is the only sense that’s hard-wired directly to the brain’s emotional and memory centers, the amygdala and hippocampus.
Aromatherapy – the use of essential oils to affect a person’s emotional and physical well-being – relies on that neurological thoroughfare.
Essential oils are the “vital, living juices of plants, flowers, seeds, roots and bark,” extracted by way of steam, pressing or – least desirably – chemical methods, said Julia Archer, a Colorado Springs yoga instructor who sells essential oils and aromatherapy products through her online business.
Different essential oils trigger different emotional and physiological effects, not necessarily linked to a person’s individual emotional memories. A good quality lavender oil, for instance, can relieve stress and induce relaxation. Peppermint can perk you up and lessen nausea.
“When your body says, ‘Oh, that smells so good,’ your body is smiling, your cells are happy,” said Archer, who uses aromatherapy misters in her yoga classes to help energize and de-stress students. “If a smell smells delicious, odds are it has some therapeutic benefit.”
Alternately, bad smells can leave a person feeling fatigued and stressed.
“If you start paying attention, you can feel your body react to that bad smell,” Archer said. “In our modern culture, it is the synthetic smells that bring our mood and energy down. In terms of smells, we can truly trust our body’s reaction.”
Essential oils have been in use since ancient times.
The wise men carried them from afar, gifts worthy of divinity. Florence Nightingale is said to have used them, anointing the heads of wounded soldiers with lavender oil.
Aromatherapy and essential oils aren’t only about appealing smells, though. Diffused in the air, the oils can purify, destroy mold and odors, and inhibit bacterial growth. The oils can be used topically and even ingested in pill form.
“Aromatherapy is kind of a misnomer,” Colorado Springs naturopath Cynthia Maguire said. “People think it’s just about the smells of the oils, but the oils have a lot of properties that can get to the root of things and heal the body.”
Different benefits of oils:
When Sharon Schulman’s car was totaled by a speeding driver in a Denver intersection in late June, the deployed air bag sheared skin from her right arm. The pain was excruciating, and Schulman couldn’t wait to get out of the emergency room to treat the wound herself.
“When I got home, I took out my lavender oil and spread it all over my arm,” said Schulman, who teaches classes on aromatherapy as an independent contractor for Memorial Health System. “I did that every day. By day 2, I wasn’t in pain anymore. Within 10 days, I had no abrasion whatsoever. Now there’s no scar.”
Schulman, who’s worked with aromatherapy since the 1970s, was no stranger to the curative powers of essential oils. When she was undergoing treatment for breast cancer in 1991, she used lavender oil to sooth and regenerate skin damaged by radiation burns. Now in treatment for multiple myeloma, a cancer of the blood, and responding well, Schulman uses essential oils alongside traditional treatment with an oral chemotherapy medication.
“Essential oils are good for people going through chemotherapy,” said Schulman, who credits the essential oil frankincense with keeping a cancerous tumor in her spine from returning after radiation treatment. “Frankincense is noted and touted as being good as gold for that.”
An oil with deep historical resonance, frankincense is seeing more use by those seeking alternative therapies for cancer.
“Frankincense can change damaged DNA back to its original state; that’s why it’s so highly prized,” said Maguire, a board-certified traditional naturopath who sold her practice to work with essential oils full-time. “It doesn’t kill the cancer; it helps the body do what it’s supposed to do. It also works on the cells around the cancer and keeps that DNA healthy so they don’t turn into cancerous cells.”
Used strategically and in the right combinations, the oils can help save families money and time spent in doctor’s offices for less severe childhood ailments, Maguire said. For instance, earaches can be treated with lavender and melaleuca oil, also known as tea tree oil.
“If you take that and apply that behind the child’s ear, that earache will be gone overnight, sometimes quicker than that,” Maguire said. “It’s a therapy that’s very useful for children because it’s hard to get children to swallow pills. With the essential oils, you can just apply them to the body or the soles of the feet.”
Maguire also has had success using essential oils to treat children with mood and behavioral disorders, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, for which she recommends the essential oil vetiver. ”Through using the oils, we’ve been able to bring that problem back into balance so they don’t need that medication,” she said.
Maguire also tells a story of an 18-month-old boy she treated, who previously had failed to respond to traditional treatment. “He was not gaining weight, not growing, not thriving,” Maguire said. “I put him on thyme and oregano and within two weeks, he was in the bathtub and he passed about a foot-long tapeworm. After that, he gained 3 pounds in a week.”
Care facility uses oils:
While it might not be a staple of Western medicine, aromatherapy has found a place as a complementary treatment in many traditional settings.
A few years ago, Schulman was asked to speak to Memorial’s emergency room staff about the benefits of aromatherapy in the ER setting, for both patients and doctors.
“People were coming into the emergency room from other states, saying ‘Don’t you have an essential oil that I breathe in a bag?’” Schulman said. “A lot of emergency rooms would put cotton in a bag with a scent on it and it helps them relax.”
The essential oils and aromatherapy program at Laurel Manor Care Center, a long-term care facility in Colorado Springs, USA began about a year ago as administrators sought a way to decrease fall rates and calm residents during “sundowning” periods, a term that refers to the family of negative behavioral changes that can occur among memory-loss patients at dusk.
“We were monitoring our residents and we saw that at certain times of day they started to get more restless, less aware of their environment and more anxious and tired,” said Susan Pluemer, a registered nurse clinician certified in gerontology and director of nursing for Laurel Manor. “The culmination of all of that has a tendency to make them more confused and that was prime time for them to experience falls.”
Care workers added diffusers to pump the memory unit’s air full of lavender and started using lavender-infused lotions for patient massages. The result was a calmer atmosphere, with fewer altercations among residents and a marked decrease in fall rates, which dropped from an average of 10 a month to one or two.
The positive effects weren’t felt only by residents. “A long-term care facility can be very stressful for staff. If you’re working on a memory unit, there’s always something going on,” Pluemer said. “It does help the staff in relaxing them, too, when we’re diffusing the lavender. It just makes you feel good when you walk in.”
Pluemer thinks essential oils can play an important role in ameliorating the epidemic of over-medication, which can be especially dangerous for the elderly.
“I’d rather use essential oils on a patient who’s anxious than put them on a medication that has so many side effects,” said Pluemer, adding that she’s had patients enter her facility with medication regimens of 20 pills or more a day. “It’s amazing how much better these residents can do when they’re not on so many drugs. Aromatherapy can help us get there.”