What is Aromatherapy?
The British Columbia Alliance of Aromatherapy defines aromatherapy/essential oil therapy as the controlled use of essential oil(s) to maintain and promote physical, psychological and spiritual well-being.
What are Essential Oils?
Essential oils are highly volatile plant molecules with complex chemical structures created in nature and extracted by man through steam distillation, expression, solvent extraction, CO2 extraction and other extraction techniques.
Each essential oil could consist of anywhere from 30-500 different chemical compounds. These can be a combination of acids, alcohols, aldehydes, ketones, esters, phenols, oxides and terpenes.
How does Aromatherapy Work?
Recent clinical trials have confirmed that small concentrations of essential oil constituents have been found in the blood within minutes, following either massage or inhalation.
When essential oils are breathed in, the molecules rise to the top of the nose. Here they meet the olfactory mucous membrane with its receptors made up of thousands of hair sensory cells. The receptors identify the smell and the sensory stimulation is passed on through the olfactory bulb, which is an amplifier, through the olfactory nerve and directly into the limbic system of the brain.
The limbic system is the oldest part of our brain. Two important parts of the limbic system are triggered by the nerve impulses, the amygdala and the hippocampus. The centers of memory, sexuality, and emotional reactions and creativity are found here. While the scent is being compared to a known scent and labeled, pictures and feelings from the past are associated with the scent information. As a consequence we will react emotionally and physically through our autonomic nervous system to an aroma. In the limbic system, the nerve impulse is led to the hypothalamus, which serves as a switching point for the transmission of scent messages to other areas of the brain. The hypothalamus is also the control station for the pituary. As it receives scent data, it conveys chemical messages to the blood stream. It is the hypothalamus that activates and releases hormones and regulates body functions. The thalamus connects the scent information of the limbic system to the area of thinking and judgment. The entire process, from the perception of a small to the corresponding gland secretion, takes a few seconds. Therefore a simple inhalation of an aroma can cause changes in the body and, depending on the information received, can initiate any number of physiological processes. For example the immune system could be activated, blood pressure changes, digestion could be stimulated, etc. This complex reaction of brain and body takes place every time you smell something. Aroma data so received can cause us to become calm, lively, euphoric, hungry, satiated, sleepy, active, free from pain, etc. Ylang Ylang appears to stimulate the pituary gland into releasing endorphins, a sexually stimulating neurochemical. While lavender, chamomile or neroli appear to stimulate the release of serotonin, which has as calming effect on fear, stress, aggravation and sleeplessness. Although most of the essential oil molecules breathed in is exhale, some will find their way into the bloodstream via the lungs. (Beverley Hawkins)
As essential oils are highly complex, there must be caution exercised when using them. It is important to remember that extra caution must be used during pregnancy, with infants and young children, with the elderly, with people with high or low blood pressure, epilepsy, respiratory conditions, kidney disease, and certain cancers.
For example, did you know that Eucalyptus is not safe with children under 10? It contains a chemical compound that can cause respiratory distress and possibly seizures. Peppermint has similar warnings. These are oils that I see often being used with young children, when they definitely should not be! Natural does not mean 100% safe.