Roses. Fresh-cut grass. Your mother’s perfume. Mint. An orange being peeled.
These are smells many of us can imagine. Whether good or bad in our minds, smells can take us back to an event in time and provoke emotion. They can wake us up – or relax us. And that’s what’s at work behind aromatherapy.
“Fragrance is processed in an area of the brain that also processes memory and emotion,” says Mindy Green, co-author of Aromatherapy: A Complete Guide to the Healing Art and owner of botanicals consulting company Green Scentsations.
“It’s a lock-and-key system,” adds Kathy Padecky, certified massage therapist and instructor at Pacific College of Oriental Medicine. “You can smell a scent and immediately feel an emotion.”
Aromatherapy and Its History
It’s important to note that aromatherapy isn’t just about any smell, Green says. A number of perfumed products on the market, she says, have diluted the reputation of aromatherapy – and given consumers the wrong impression.
“True aromatherapy is only gained by essential oils derived from nature,” she says. “You might find a fragrance that smells nice and even evokes a memory, but you don’t get the same therapeutic effect from a synthetic.”
So, what are essential oils? They’re complex mixtures of chemical compounds found in aromatic plants, writes Anne Williams, author of Spa Bodywork: A Guide for Massage Therapists. Specialized structures that store essential oils are found in leaves, needles, twigs, bark, heartwood, flowers, fruits, stems, roots, flowering tops, zests and peels.
While plants have been used as medicine since early civilizations, modern aromatherapy owes its beginning to French chemist René-Maurice Gattefossé. Already familiar with chemicals because of his exposure to his family’s perfumery business, he began experimenting with oils to heal wounds, later coining the term aromatherapy.
The Benefits and Caveats
Essential oils have various uses. “For example, some essential oils are topical analgesics,” Williams writes. “When they are applied to soft tissue they decrease sensations of pain. Oils like lavender, Roman or German chamomile, and sweet marjoram sedate the body and decrease stress because they stimulate an area of the brain which causes the release of serotonin.”
During a massage, an oil like lavender can help you relax in order to maximize the effects of your massage. And at the end of a massage, a stimulating oil might be used to help you wake up.
But, Green warns, not all scents are for everyone.
“Everybody has different scent perceptions,” she says. So, if you favor a certain scent over another, go with your preference. Something you dislike may not relax you just because it relaxes someone else.
And, Padecky notes, pregnant women are advised not to use aromatherapy, particularly during the first trimester. In addition, people with allergies or asthma may find triggers in certain oils and should be cautious. Plus, some oils, such as citrus oils, can make skin particularly sensitive to the sun.
For most people, however, aromatherapy has tremendous therapeutic benefits especially when
combined with a massage therapy session. “The whole premise of taking a deep breath and slowing down is part of meditation,” Green says. “Then, you add that to inhaling something you find pleasant, and stress just melts away.”