Scents of Balance
by Rosemary Sage
January 5, 2005
Life can feel like an emotional
rollercoaster, with the high-stress jitters following the
low-mood blues. But aromatherapy-the healing power of
scent-can restore equilibrium.
The use of volatile plant oils, including essential oils,
for psychological and physical well-being dates back
thousands of years. The ancient Chinese, Egyptians, Greeks
and Romans used infused oils and herbal preparations for
medicinal, fragrant, cosmetic, even spiritual reasons.
During the late 20th century, people started to relearn the
benefits of aromatherapy and these days, aromatherapy's
reputation as a soothing, healing art continues to grow.
Once you've experienced the odiferous power of
aromatherapy's essential oils, you'll keep coming back for
more: These gently wafting odors have the power to stimulate
or calm, invigorate or relax.
When you enter this scented world, "there you will find
nature in one of its most powerful forms-aromatic liquid
substances known as 'essential oils,'" says Valerie Ann
Worwood in The Complete Book of Essential Oils and
Aromatherapy (Thorsons). Essential oils form what Worwood
refers to as the "fragrant pharmacy," a collection of
concentrated substances used in pharmaceuticals, foods and
When you sniff the aromas of essential oils, "they enter and
leave the body with great efficiency, leaving no toxins
behind," Worwood points out. "The most effective way to use
essential oils is...by external application or inhalation.
The methods used include body oils, compresses, cosmetic
lotions, baths-including sitz, hand and foot baths-hair
rinses...perfumes...and a whole range of room [scenting]
As Worwood explains, essential oils are produced in various
parts of different plants. As a result, it takes a great
deal of specialized work to extract essential oils. About
60,000 rose blossoms are consumed in the production of an
ounce (!) of rose oil.
Just as the antioxidant phytonutrients we eat in vegetarian
foods link our bodies to the health-promoting chemistry of
plants, the penetrating nature of essential oils are thought
to connect our souls to the essences of flora. "From inside
comes the voice and from inside comes the scent," observed
the 19th century German doctor Gustav Fechner, quoted by
Robert Tisserand in The Art of Aromatherapy (Healing Arts
Press). "Just as one can tell human beings in the dark from
the tone of voice, so, in the dark, every flower can be
recognized by its scent. Each carries the soul of its
Fechner believed that the power of essential oils to stir
our deepest emotions derives from their function as a vital
means of communication in the plant world. As Tisserand
asks, can't we imagine that flowers "communicate with each
other by the very perfumes they exude, becoming aware of
each other's presence?"
The Science Behind the Scent
While alternative medical practitioners have acknowledged
the effectiveness of aromatherapy for thousands of years,
only recently have conventional medical researchers begun
seriously looking into how this technique works.
For instance, a study of estragole, a chemical found in
basil, fennel and tarragon, determined that it could
potentially ease back pain by inhibiting inflammation of the
sciatic nerve. (The sciatic nerve, the longest nerve in the
body, runs from the back down the leg.) The researchers
discovered that estragole is "active on nerves," a
conclusion that aromatherapy practitioners, who employ the
scent of these oils to soothe pain, already knew. Science is
verifying another piece of information long known to
practitioners-that while certain essential oils can calm you
down, others prod your alertness. In a study performed at
the University of Northumbria in England, scientists found
that sniffing the scent of lavender lulls the human brain
into a comfortable, rather stupefied state, while rosemary,
in contrast, can sharpen recall.
As the English researchers noted, lavender "produced a
significant decrement in performance of working memory, and
impaired reaction times for both memory and attention-based
tasks." That's probably why the odor of lavender is noted
for enhancing sleep.
On the other hand, the scientists found that rosemary
"produced a significant enhancement of performance for
overall quality of memory and secondary memory factors."
However, they did point out that under the influence of both
of these oils, performance slowed when tackling a battery of
memory tests. Apparently, the oils mellowed people so that
they had little motivation to rush through the paperwork.
As Frazesca Watson notes in Aromatherapy Blends & Remedies (Thorsons):
"The aroma of the oils directly affects our moods and
emotions and sometimes our short- and long-term memory.
Together with a wide range of physiological benefits, the
aroma can help with emotional upsets such as depression,
anxiety, nervous tension, anger, apathy, confusion,
indecision, fear, grief, hypersensitivity, impatience,
irritability, panic and hysteria."
Essential oils are especially helpful at defusing stress.
Watson notes, "Treatments with essential oils are therefore
very helpful for all sorts of stress-related problems, so
common in our modern life."
As scientific research into the effects of these oils
continue, conventional medical practitioners are sure to
embrace them in increasing numbers. But before there were
scientists around to confirm the effects of these wonderful
scents, the ancient medical practitioners in Egypt and
Greece attributed the origins of aromatherapy to the gods.
For many people in today's overstressed world, the relaxing
assurance of essential oils certainly seems heaven-s(c)ent.