What is Aromatherapy? 
What are Essential Oils?
How Does Aromatherapy Work?
By Diane Majka Grandstrom RN, BSN, CCRN

What is Aromatherapy?

     In 1928 a French chemist named Gatefosse mistakenly plunged his burned arm into a vat of Lavender essential oil instead of water, to find that his pain was immediately reduced and his arm ultimately healed with minimal scarring.  He later titled his published research  "Aromatherapy", and thus coined the modern term for the ancient practice of using essential oils from plants and flowers for their beneficial effects on our body, mind and spirit.

     Evidence of the use of aromatic oils for health and beauty can be traced back 5000 years in the Tibetan Sanskrit's; recipes have been found on Babylonian clay tablets and in Egyptian tombs; over 400 references to aromatic oils including cinnamon, myrrh and spikenard are contained in the Bible.

     In the operating rooms of World War I, oil of Thyme was used to sterilize surgical instruments. Placing 2 drops of peppermint oil in bedpans was a1950's treatment for post-partum urinary retention. Today inhaling peppermint oil is used to relieve nausea.  Its use is officially listed in the new Merck Manual of Geriatrics to help reduce abdominal cramping in irritable bowel syndrome. Essential oil of sweet orange has recently been diffused at One Police Plaza, in the debriefing and bereavement room after the World Trade Center Tragedy.

     Interest in Aromatherapy is rapidly growing in the United States by lay persons and health professionals alike. It is important to become familiar with the basic concepts, as well as current trends and applications in this dynamic modality.

What are Essential Oils?

       Essential Oils (EO) are liquid, fragrant molecules that are steamed-distilled from various parts of plants or flowers.  They are 75-100% more concentrated than the herb or flower from which they are extracted. If you are already using herbs, you can't make a direct linear association between the actions of the herb and the essential oil because they may differ. Their use is not to be exchanged with or substituted for tinctures, extracts, flower essences, or teas that bear the same name. With exception of Lavender and tea tree, they should not be placed directly on the skin or  taken internally.

       Each essential oil is comprised of organic compounds that the plant must manufacture and store, most often in a secretory trichome. The EO functions as the plants immune and hormonal systems.  Divided into functional groups based on their molecular chemistry, EOs can facilitate calming, uplifting, or stimulation of  mood and demonstrate antibacterial,  antifungal, or antiviral properties.

     The essential oils molecules have a low molecular weight. This small size enables the exchange of EO molecules at the capillary membrane, crossing the placenta and the blood-brain barrier, and interaction with all body systems.

How Does Aromatherapy Work?

     The first level through which aromatherapy works, is through the sense of smell. Faster than sight, sound or touch, we respond immediately, primitively and involuntarily to scent.  The area of the limbic system where this occurs is said to house our emotions and drives, and influence the modulation of pain.  Three events occur with smell.  The first is the immediate, emotional reaction to the aroma, then the evocation of a memory if there is one associated with the particular scent, and thirdly identification of the odor at the neocortex.  

  When we inhale an aroma we love, and respond,  "mmmm, I love it!", (I call that the mmm factor) our brain quickly releases endorphins, the body's happy neurotransmitters.  In 1976 Candice Pert, author of Molecules of Emotion, discovered the opiate receptor site: she found that every cell in every organ system has an opiate receptor site.  Entities that can bind to the site are opiate derivative drugs, but the better news is our body's own endorphins bind to that site!  The more we can do to stimulate our brain to release endorphins, the greater will be the amount available to our cells' opiate receptors, and thus we can be more resilient to stress. 

      Endorphins are released when we hear good news, when we're laughing, when we're looking at something beautiful, when we're listening to music we enjoy, and of course, when we smell a great scent. (If we're hear music we dislike or inhale unpleasant aromas, there will be no endorphin release.)

     We can compare adequate endorphins for our cells to balanced blood sugar or sufficient sleep, and make an analogy to the physiological level of our ability to respond to stressors. Imagine you have had adequate sleep and food; you just finished washing the kitchen floor and your small child spills orange juice.  Might you say, "That's OK honey, accidents happen," and calmly clean up. Imagine being sleep deprived and/or starving: (too much night shift or no break or lunch over a 12 hour shift). Could you be as nice?  The stimulus of the spilled juice is the same, but your physiological ability to respond is compromised.

A secondary simultaneous result is the stimulus of neuro-transmitters due to the actual EO. Lime, peppermint, eucalyptus, and basil are mental stimulants that induce the release of noradrenaline, which keeps us alert. Essential Oils like lavender, chamomile, marjoram, and ylang cause a release of calming seratonin.

Few modalities are quicker than the effects of aromatherapy through smell. Inhale something you love, go mmmm, and begin to feel stress, sadness, anxiety and anger lighten up. There are no special supplements or foods to buy, and you don't even have to loose weight first! Its use is simple, but the effects are profound.