An Intro to Aromatherapy
Perhaps you’ve walked into a building, a shop or somewhere in nature and upon inhaling a scent, you were instantly transported to a different time, a different place, or a special person came to mind. This is the power of your sense of smell and the direct correlation of the olfactory system with the part of your brain that holds memories and association.
Our sense of smell and our interaction with different aromas can immediately bring up memories and transport us back in time. This may arise as a feeling, or a vivid memory. The aroma of Lavender or Rose might remind you of a loved one. Rosemary might be reminiscent of gardening, kitchen scenes and family moments. Whatever memory it triggers, it’s the science of your sense of smell sending impulses to your brain that triggers those memories.
In addition the aromas of all natural essential oils are able to instantly change our moods, balance our emotions and even help us heal physical ailments. And when that happens that’s aromatherapy in action.
What is Aromatherapy?
Aromatherapy is an age old healing modality that goes back to ancient civilizations. Plants have been used for thousands of years for physical healing, to create sacred space and to enhance spiritual connection to the divine.
In recent years, aromatherapy and essential oils have made their way into mainstream society because of their effectiveness, ease of use and wide-ranging all natural healing attributes. In modern times people reach for essential oils (EO’s) for all types of daily support including; grounding, emotional balancing, energy and focus, to increase passion and creativity, for joy and happiness, plus physical benefits of healing aches and pains, alleviating headaches, nausea, insomnia, anxiety and stress relief. Essential oils can provide a myriad of health benefits that are not limited to those listed above, that’s just the tip of the iceberg!
Aromatherapy as we know it today is the art of distilling essential oils from plant materials. This may include extraction from the flowers, leaves, stems, resins, rinds, wood, needles or roots. The plant materials are primarily steam distilled and the distiller preserves the oil that is naturally separated in the process. Each drop of essential oil contains chemical components inherent in the natural makeup of the plant. Those components determine the healing properties and benefits for you.
The National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA) defines Aromatherapy as:
Aromatherapy, also referred to as Essential Oil therapy, can be defined as the art and science of utilizing naturally extracted aromatic essences from plants to balance, harmonize and promote the health of body, mind and spirit.
The essential oil is the essence of the plant in its most concentrated form.
It’s a powerful scientific approach to plant medicine. Each drop of essential oil is potent liquid that contains all of the healing properties of that plant magnified far beyond herbs or flower essences.
It is the most concentrated form of plant healing. The most powerful, immediate and effective. And because of that, a little goes a long way. A small bottle of essential oils will last for a very long time if used mindfully with respect for the potency of one drop.
Due to their intensity, it’s recommended that essential oils only be used topically when they are diluted in a carrier oil (there are a few exceptions to this rule, but for the most part it’s better to be safe and dilute before applying to your skin.)
How does it work?
As mentioned earlier, your sense of smell is linked directly to the brain. It connects to the limbic system which is the oldest part of our brain and the place where memories are stored.
Two parts of the limbic system are triggered by nerve impulses (amygdala and hippocampus) which lead to the hypothalamus (this part of the limbic system activates and releases hormones and regulates body functions). These are the brain centers for memory, sexuality, emotional reactions, and creativity.
While this part of your brain is labelling the scent, it’s being compared to pictures, places, objects, feelings and memories from the past. In our miraculous bodies this all happens in a matter of seconds.
Additionally, EO’s can penetrate the body through the skin, nasal passages, lungs and the gastrointestinal tract. Inhaling essential oils can immediately influence your mood and affect your nervous system. Therefore, simply inhaling a pure essential oil can cause changes in the body by activating the immune system, changing blood pressure, digestion can be stimulated and so on. Data received in the brain can cause you to shift into a different state.
Essential Oils, Flower Essences, Fragrances
Essential oils have become popular because they are not only effective but convenient to use. Their small size is power packed with concentrated aromatic compounds.
It’s the aromatic compounds - the chemical makeup of the oils that give the essential oil it’s healing properties. Whether it brings on a relaxed and calm feeling, or quite the opposite and it’s a stimulating oil, that is determined by the natural chemical composition of the EO.
Warming, invigorating, immune boosting, antifungal or antiviral ... all of these properties come from the aromatic compounds of that particular essential oil. The compounds can be impacted by the harvest and distillation, quality of the soil and other environmental factors.
Now, sometimes it’s not clear what the difference is between essential oils, flower essences, fragrances and so on. It can be confusing, so we’ll lay it out for you in just a minute.
Pure essential oils are liquid drops of all natural plant material that has been through one of three distillation processes. The most popular is steam distillation - that is extracting the oils of the plant via a high temperature vat of plant material that’s steam distilled which breaks down the plant material and leaves the highly concentrated essential oils.
Perhaps you’ve heard essential oils referred to as volatile oils? Volatile means that they evaporate in the air. The aroma and EO’s properties can also be eroded by the sun which is why essential oils are packaged in dark bottles. It’s best to store with a secure cap, and keep them in a cool dark place.
When combining essential oils to achieve a specific intention, studies have shown and clinical aromatherapists have found that the effectiveness of a blend of EO’s is exponentially higher than the sum of its parts. Meaning that a blend of oils can be even more powerful than a single oil.
When shopping for EO’s you’ll probably notice that essential oils are priced differently. If an essential oil is more expensive than others, that’s either due to the rarity of the oil (basic supply and demand) or it’s an indicator of the amount of plant material that is needed to produce a single bottle of oil.
It might also be due to the difficulty in extracting the oil. For example jasmine is one if the higher priced oils on the market. This is actually due to two factors; first, it takes at least ten pounds of jasmine flowers to produce a 5 ml bottle of jasmine oil and second, due to the fact that the delicate flowers cannot be steam distilled, they must be processed with a solvent based extraction method which produces an absolute. Both of these factors contribute to the high price of jasmine oil.
Price can also be an indicator of purity. Going back to jasmine for example, if you find a bottle of jasmine oil at a discount store, it’s likely not pure, not natural, or has been diluted.
So this brings us to fragrance oils. Fragrance oils have been manufactured in a lab and while they might smell good, they do not have the aromatic benefits of all natural essential oils and do not communicate with your body, mind and spirit in the same way that all natural plant materials do.
You don’t receive aromatherapeutic benefits from lab manufactured oils.
Flower essences on the other hand, those are all natural and they are a form of vibrational medicine that is collected from the dew of the plants. This is a wonderful form of energy medicine but flower essences do not have an aroma. They are available as a tincture and are not aromatherapeutic.
Back to Essential Oils, not all oils are created equal. The production of essential oils depends on many factors and while the oils of the same species will be very close, no two harvests are exactly the same.
The natural aromatic compounds of an essential oil are affected by all kinds of environmental factors including; the location, altitude, wind, water and rainfall, soil quality, pesticides, environmental controls, time of harvest, and distillation process.
For maximum yield, the farmer that has worked so closely to grow these plants will have learned from their experimentation or from wisdom passed down from their elders - when it's the best time to harvest and distill. In most cases the highest yield comes from distilling the plant materials immediately after harvest.
An example is the Ylang Ylang tree. When this tropical evergreen tree is in bloom, the fragrance is strongest at night. If you walk by an Ylang Ylang tree after sunset the aroma will stop you in your tracks. Whereas earlier in the day, you may just casually stroll by and barely notice the scent. For this reason, Ylang Ylang flowers are harvested and distilled at night (or just before dawn) to benefit from the strongest aromatic experience, when the flower petals are full of oil.
Now you might buy the same bottle of essential oil from the same company one year later - and you might notice that the oil doesn’t smell exactly the same. Most of the time you won’t detect a noticeable difference, but it’s possible you will and if that happens, just know it’s natural.
After all, it’s mother nature at work here, not a controlled laboratory environment, so all of the factors, mentioned above, that contribute to the production of the essential oil will not be exactly the same.
As you start to dip into the world of aromatherapy don’t be afraid to experiment and try different oils or blends of oils to find out which ones you like best. You might find yourself coming back for more and creating your own personal aromatherapy cabinet to help support yourself, your family and your loved ones.
We hope this article has provided a good foundation to get your started and answered some of your questions to help clarify what aromatherapy and essential oils are and the many beneficial ways that they can enhance your life.