Aromatherapy has been chilling people out, detoxing bodies, and treating fungal infections for over 6,000 years. The ancient Greeks, Chinese, and Egyptians were extracting plants for perfumes and topical ointments long before diffusers hit the market, but the science of aromatherapy didn’t begin until the 1920s. René-Maurice Gattefossé was a French chemist causing minor explosions. After burning his hand, he was surprised to discover that lavender oil reduced inflammation and promoted quick, neat healing. In 1928, Gattefossé founded the science of aromatherapy.
Despite it being founded as a science, there haven’t been studies to “prove” how aromatherapy works. Some experts believe that our sense of smell controls our physiological response to scent-therapy. “Smell” receptors in your brain communicate with parts of your brain (the amygdala and the hippocampus) that act as warehouses of emotion and memory. These researchers believe that by breathing in certain scents, we turn on positive memories and experiences associated with that smell. Other researchers think that once absorbed (topically or through the air) the distilled oils interact with hormones and enzymes within the blood. The lack of empirical evidence regarding why and how essential oils are such potent treatments for stress, fatigue, anxiety, and other ailments is more of a comment on what research gets funding in modern day medicine. With that said, here are a few ways you can incorporate scent therapy into your life.
Applying essential oils directly to your skin imparts the benefit of the oil to a localized area*. If you’re looking to target a headache, calm a sensitive stomach, or relax your muscles, applying the oil directly speeds effectiveness and puts you in greater touch with what your body is asking of you. Here are a few ideas to try:
Face, forehead, neck: if you’re feeling tense, apply peppermint or lavender to target and relax that tension.
Menstrual cramps: gently massage clary sage or cypress oil onto your abdomen or lower back to relieve tension and cramping.
Arms, legs, back: soothe sore muscles with anti-inflammatory camphor oil, or reduce pain with eucalyptus.
Back of skull: wake up feeling low or angry? Frankincense or vetiver on the back of your neck can help to control mood swings and subtly uplift.
Chest: Vicks vaporub stole this idea. Eucalyptus applied to the chest can promote clearer breathing – use for illness, or when you’re feeling stressed.
Try a hot compress: a great way to unwind at the end of the day. Soak a washcloth in warm water with a few drops of your favorite essential oil. Wring out, fold, and rest over your eyes to relax and reset.
Bottoms of your feet: Your feet have big pores that readily absorb topical treatments. Apply your favorite essential oil and enjoy a generalized effect.
*A note about topical application of essential oils:
Plants are powerful, and not just as a treatment. Applying essential oils directly onto your skin can cause irritation, and in some cases, burns. To avoid this, mix your pure essential oils with carrier oils – any oil naturally derived from a vegetarian substance. The smell will be neutral, plus carrier oils add their own benefits. Jojoba oil is super absorbent and light: a great option for skin and hair. Fractionated coconut oil is long-lasting and leaves skin feeling silky and moisturized.
Diffusers infuse the power of essential oils with the air you breathe. Investing in a diffuser for your space creates a non-intrusive means of getting the benefits of essential oils into your bloodstream. Bonus: they make your house smell amazing.
Morning: Essential oils in the morning can have an adaptogenic effect on the mind. Take advantage of your brain’s’ desire to learn and start your morning with an energizing scent. Peppermint, eucalyptus, lemon, and pine all contribute to leveling out your mood and upping your cognitive function. Now you can enjoy your morning coffee as a treat – not a burning, no-holds barred necessity.
Noon: Depending on your workspace, a diffuser at your office could be a welcome addition to your workday. Diffusing essential oils can ward off illness (great for that perennial mid-November virus – try tea tree, sage, rosemary, grapefruit, lemon, or thyme), elevate your mood (micromanagement is the real enemy – combat it with sweet orange, jasmine, rose, scotch pine, sandalwood, or vanilla) and re-energize you when that 3PM slump hits (tangerine, thyme, bergamot, or rosemary all bring the zap).
Night: You’re busy, your screens suppress your melatonin, your phone blows up around the clock, and there’s an insane expectation that you answer emails at all hours. To make sure you can perform at your best, you need to get a good sleep. A diffuser in your room contributes to relaxation: the beginning of any good sleep. Try chamomile, lavender, or clary sage – maybe all at once.
Plant medicine is a powerful, potent way to combat illness, anxiety, and to promote wellness in general. However – taking essential oils orally should only be done under the supervision of a trained herbalist or medical doctor. Essential oils are super, super concentrated: such high concentrations can damage the delicate mucus membrane of your throat. If you want a concentrated peppermint tea, add two tea bags to your cup. A drop of peppermint essential oil is great for diffusing in your home, or massaging into your temples, but a single drop into a teacup is like having 70 cups of tea in one sitting. Regardless of whether an oil is marked “food-grade,” “pure,” or “organic,” regulations differ all over the world. Homeopathic oral essential oils can be a powerful treatment when taken orally… but it’s not something you should be attempting to DIY.
Embracing essential oils is a great way to purify your home, enhance your body, and tap into your emotional and physical wellness. As with any powerful medicine, oils should be treated with respect and knowledge. Unlike commercial medicine, essential oils offer a means of looking inward, supporting your journey for greater self-knowledge.
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