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Aromatherapy: Nature's Redolent Remedy

A Feel 21, Inc. Health Report
By Anthony Anderson

I was sitting in my living room, engaged in the great American Pastime -- watching television (specifically ER), when one of the good doctor's of the show came across a patient with what appeared to be abuse marks on her back and a floral aroma emanating from her body. Confounded by the patient's plight, the doctor called in another doctor. Upon arrival the other good doctor immediately replied with some unfamiliar ramblings and a specific term that caught my ear: Essential Oils. The diagnosis was simple; the patient's Cantonese grandmother had treated the girl with an ancient technique to expel demons! (For those curious, the ritual - as described - involved heating a coin, using a particular oil and rubbing the coin and oil on the girls back. I'm sure this isn't an accurate re-telling of the method, but the general idea is there.) It was later revealed that the girl was engaging in activities of a rather mature nature with her boyfriend. The grandmother was old-fashioned and thought the girl possessed. Somewhere in all this the doctor familiar with essential oils called in a priest who performed an exorcism and all was good by end-credits. A bit far-fetched? Maybe. But so goes the tale of essential oils . . . and speaking of which . . .

Did I hear correctly? I rewound (Yes, I tape shows. I'm laden with weekly tasks so the weekend is my refuge of sorts. I like to sink into nothingness with the remote and . . . why am I telling you this? You came here to be informed about matters not pertaining to my life, right? I would hope

so anyway.). I heard correctly. Frankly, the only reason my ears perked up was my recent exposure to Aromatherapy and, by extension, essential oils.

Enough is enough. Get to the point. What is an Essential Oil?

According to Essential oils (Chem.), a class of volatile oils, extracted from plants, fruits, or flowers, having each its characteristic odor, and hot burning taste. They are used in essences, perfumery, etc., and include many varieties of compounds; as lemon oil is a terpene, oil of bitter almonds an aldehyde, oil of wintergreen an ethereal salt, etc.; -- called also volatile oils in distinction from the fixed or nonvolatile.

That said, we now know that an essential oil is the essence of the plant. It is what makes a particular plant a particular plant. "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet . . . " because of it's essential oil. Of course, that's only a small part of the entire Aromatherapy process. After the oils are harvested they have to be maintained. Essential oils are volatile, remember. This means they evaporate quickly. While this is ideal for inhalation, it poses problems in other delivery methods. In order to overcome this a carrier oil is used. A carrier, or base, oil is obtained, usually, from vegetables or plant seeds. Examples include sweet almond, grapeseed, apricot kernel, avocado pear oil, and sesame oil. In addition to aiding in the preservation of the essential oils, the carrier oil also dilutes the essential oil. One drop of essential oil may be all that's called for in a recipe but it won't cover much ground. When mixed with a carrier oil, the essential oil may then be readily applied to the body -- covering considerably more area and absorbed through that much more of the skin.

Baths, body oils, and massages are just a few methods in which essential oils are ideally used in Aromatherapy. Aromatherapy is the treatment of a condition or affliction through the use of scents. Our nose is probably the most powerful tool we use. It's directly connected to the nervous system -- to the extent that it's basically an exposed part of the nervous system itself! Susan Worwood -- a member of the International Federation of Aromatherapists and the Aromatherapy Trades Council, in her book Essential Aromatherapy, explains that "aromatic molecules float up the nostrils and come into contact with nerves extending from the olfactory bulbs, and ending in two small, sticky patches at the tip of the nasal cavity. When the aroma molecule hits receptors in these nerve-rich patches, it sets off a reaction that results in brain activity. This phenomenon has been observed through brain scans and other imaging techniques."

She continues by saying, "the part of the brain that most directly responds to olfactory stimulus is the limbic system, which corresponds to our feelings, memories, stored learned response, and emotions. The limbic system is the most ancient part of the brain, the central core over which the cerebral cortex lies. When aromatic messages reach the limbic system they are processed instantly and instinctively. This is why aromas are so powerful. They can make us behave in particular ways without us even knowing what we are doing." I know it works for me. Whenever I smell gardenias, I am reminded of my childhood home where I had a gardenia bush just outside my bedroom window. On the same token, whenever I smell a particular perfume that an old girlfriend use to wear, I feel a certain resentment as memories are triggered that . . . well never mind.

When did this whole thing start, anyway?

The term "Aromatherapy" was coined in early part of the twentieth century by Ren�-Maurice Gottefoss� -- a French chemist working on using essences in the cosmetic field, according to Robert B. Tisserand's book, The Art of Aromatherapy. Tisserand quotes Gottefosse's first usage of the term, "The French cosmetic chemists are concerned that the natural complexes should be utilised as complete building units in this instance without being broken up. Dermatological therapy would, thus, develop into 'Aromatherapy', or a therapy employing aromatics in a sphere of research opening enormous vistas to those who have started exploring it."

However, the concept of treating with scents and oils has been around since at least the days of the ancient Egyptians. There have been papyrus discovered that documented the use of oils for bathing and scenting the pharaohs. Throughout history there have been documented instances of oils being used to treat afflictions. Aromatherapy is even evident in a children's nursery rhyme: "Ring around the rosie, pocket full of posies . . .". This little ditty referred to the effects of the plague and the flowers people carried to mask their foul smell (if you subscribe to the folklore). But even before the Ancient Egyptians fancied a floral bath, ancient man would have had to have known which plants were toxic and which were edible by the smell they gave off -- or you and I would not be here today.

And today Aromatherapy and essential oils elicit the skeptical minds of scientists, like the apothecary of old. Technologies are developing at an alarming rate and better methods for obtaining and delivering the oils are always evolving. As a result, this nearly timeless practice is finding renewed life in many facets of modern society, from elaborate diffusers pumping pleasing scents into the air of businesses to personal aroma-cards that quickly ease the tribulations of the weary traveler. Many people are discovering, or rediscovering, what the Cantonese grandmother's ancestors knew ages ago: Nature provides the cure. We just have to look.

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If you have or suspect an illness or have a health concern, always consult with your physician or health care provider. We have used our best judgment in compiling this information, however, the information presented may not have been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Any reference to a specific product is for your information only and is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
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