What is aromatherapy?
Aromatherapy is the use of essential oils or other aromatic plant-derived substances to promote health and well-being in mind, body, and spirit.
The human sense of smell is up to 10,000 times stronger than any other sense. It is our early warning system, able to chemically process molecules from objects at a great distance (versus, say, the related sense of taste). It is strongly linked to memory and emotions and to many of our most basic bodily functions. A person with a fully functioning sense of smell is able to perceive an aroma and – without conscious effort – bring up a vivid memory of a distant place, time, and circumstance. Even those with limited or no sense of smell are still able to benefit therapeutically from inhaling aroma molecules. How does this work with essential oil molecules, and why is this relationship important for our well-being?
How do our bodies perceive and process aromas?
The basic process of perceiving an aroma goes like this:
- Vaporized odor molecules (chemicals) floating in the air reach the nostrils and dissolve in the mucus on the roof of each nostril.
- Underneath the mucus, in the olfactory epithelium, specialized receptor cells called olfactory receptor neurons detect the odor. These neurons are capable of detecting thousands of different odors.
- The olfactory receptor neurons transmit the information to the olfactory bulbs, which are located at the back of the nose.
- The olfactory bulb has sensory receptors which are actually part of the brain which send messages directly to:
- The most primitive brain centers where they influence emotions and memories (limbic system structures), and
- “Higher” centers where they modify conscious thought (neo-cortex).
- The brain centers perceive odors (temporal lobe) and access long-term memories (hippocampus) to remind us about people, places, or events associated with these olfactory sensations, then generate emotional responses (amygdala) and generate visceral/gut responses (reticular formation). Along the way, the hypothalamus receives instructions regarding the autonomic nervous system and hormone release, and the cingulate gyrus receives instructions regarding blood pressure regulation, heart rate, and attention/focus. WHEW!
Some common ways of introducing essential oil aroma molecules to your olfactory system are: diffusion using a nebulizer, vaporizer, or humidifier designed to handle essential oils and using only a cooling means of forcing the molecules into the air; placing oil drops on a porous surface such as lava rock or clay and inhaling; direct inhalation from the bottle or the palms of the hands; placing drops on a cloth, cotton ball, tissue, or similar item and inhaling; placing oil drops into hot water and inhaling the vapor (put a towel over the head to maximize effect); putting the oil drops onto a cotton ball or unvarnished wooden clothespin and attaching it to a ceiling fan or vent; wearing oils as a perfume or cologne, placed directly on the skin or on a piece of diffuser jewelry.
The key here is that the incoming molecules go directly from the nose to the brain without a filter such as skin, digestive processes, or even logic. They – and their messages – bypass the intellect/conscious decision-making part of the brain (frontal lobes – see https://upmc.me/2BWwxkC ) and pass directly to the limbic system (https://bit.ly/2QChhSk can get you started, with additional links to videos about emotions and other parts of the brain and autonomic nervous system). From the limbic system, these molecules are automatically sent out as chemical instructions, via the blood stream, to cells elsewhere the body.
It takes about 20 minutes from the time the essential oil aroma molecules enter your nose to the time they have reached EVERY cell in your body. There are enough molecules in one drop of pure essential oil to service every cell of an adult human approximately 40,000 times. Since they are messenger molecules and are plant substances, they are received by receptors on cell surfaces, can pass through the cell walls, and can cause changes within the cell that effect both body and emotions. I want to emphasize that these changes cannot be changed or stopped by logical thinking. Some examples of emotional changes are: uplifting, calming, energizing, relaxing, focusing, encouraging, forgiving, consoling, cheering, motivating. Inhalation of essential oil molecules is also an excellent way to support proper functioning of the sinuses, larynx, bronchial tubes, and lungs.
Can smelling a pleasing aroma ever do damage to your body? YES!
Your body processes all aroma molecules in the same way. Be careful when choosing candles, sprays, cleaners, and other scented products for your home, because toxins can be engineered to smell good, too!
To be safe and therapeutically beneficial, essential oils must contain no adulterants or contaminants, must be the appropriate species and variety of plants that have been properly grown, harvested, processed, and tested by independent labs throughout the sourcing, production, and delivery cycles.
There are 4 grades of essential oils:
- Synthetic, including “fragrance” – toxic and may disrupt hormone production and balance; avoid these unspecified ingredients. Found in perfumes, plug-ins, air fresheners, many cleaning and personal care products
- GRAS (generally recognized as safe) – food grade; no therapeutic value
- “Therapeutic” – not regulated by FDA, so any claims are permissible except medical claims (diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent disease); all sourcing, processing, testing, and claims must be researched
- Certified Pure Therapeutic Grade – the doTERRA standard, accepted by hospitals, clinics, and research universities as assuring that every drop of oil will perform as desired and expected. See my November 25, 2018 blog post entitled “Are doTERRA essential oils unique?” for more detail on the CPTG standard.
I recommend that you choose only doTERRA essential oils for your aromatherapy needs. They are the most tested and most trusted essential oils available, and they are supported by unrivaled education and transparency. I would be delighted to help you to get these powerhouse plant liquids into your home and life.