Published March 31, 2010
This past week I enjoyed attending an aromatherapy conference in Grasse, France. Spring is in early bloom in the south of France at this time of year, creating a good atmosphere for this topic. What, you might ask, is aromatherapy? This branch of natural healing uses fragrant essential oils derived from flowers and other parts of aromatic plants for enhancing the health of body and mind. This isn't a new thing. Humans have used fragrant plant essences, also called essentials oils, since antiquity. The ancient Egyptians employed them in ceremonies, and in balms, incenses of various types, and in mummification. In the Indian subcontinent, the use of essential oils has been integrated into healing since recorded time, and are important in the practice of Ayurvedic therapeutic massage. But today, science is greatly advanced in this field, so now we know what compounds are found in various essential oils, and how they work on or in the body.
The 12th Annual Symposium Of Aromatherapy and Medicinal Plants featured experts on the healing uses of fragrant plant essences, plus a couple of dozen purveyors of aromatherapy products, from pure oils to various lotions, balms and elixirs. I opened the conference with a presentation on my decade of work in Vanuatu South Pacific, ending the talk with a focus on vanilla, one of the most popular plant fragrances or flavors in the world. Once done with my presentation, I spent the remaining three days enjoying conversations with top experts in aromatherapy, sitting in on various presentations, and cruising the fragrant displays. Going from one essential oil exhibit booth to another provided an exotic pleasure tour for the olfactory sense. I was literally led around by my nose from one heavenly scent to another.
Aromatherapy and Skin
In many higher quality cosmetic and body care products, you will find essential oils for both fragrance and skin-enhancing purposes. Lotions, cremes and serums may contain chamomile, vanilla, lavender, rose, clary sage or any of hundreds of other fragrant essences that not only delight the sense of smell, but offer skin-healing properties of various kinds. Essential oils such as lavender and rosemary, for example, contain anti-inflammatory compounds that can help to reduce or eliminate redness, irritation and eruptions on skin. Chamomile essential oil contains a compound called alpha-bisobolol, which reduces the appearance of fine wrinkles. Using essential oil of chamomile isn't quite a face lift, but it does help skin to appear younger and more healthy.
But beyond their uses in beauty products, essential oils are employed to treat skin disorders of all types, including cuts, burns, scrapes, abrasions, bites, stings, sunburn, acne pimples and rashes. Some essential oils, like Manuka oil from New Zealand, have been proven to kill dozens of types of disease-causing bacteria. When applied to an infection, Manuka oil can help to quickly heal the condition. Australian Tea Tree oil also demonstrates such activity, though not quite as much as Manuka oil. Tea Tree oil in shampoo can help to control or eliminate dandruff.
In my travels, I have long carried a homemade balm containing several essential oils, including Manuka and clary sage. I have used that balm on every manner of skin trouble, including fungal, bacterial and viral skin disorders. Without fail, it has helped. When you test a skin-healing agent in a place like the Amazon rainforest, that's when you find out if it really works. In my estimation, essential oils provide real healing benefits for every type of skin need.
Aromatherapy, Mind and Mood
Years ago I was strolling in London's Hyde Park when I came upon a sign explaining that the London Parks Department was conducting an aromatherapy experiment there. Apparently they were diffusing various fragrances into the air, to determine if doing so made a positive impact on people's experience of the park. I do not know the outcome of the experiment, but I do know that plant-derived fragrances have been used since antiquity to influence mind and mood. Nowhere has this been more prevalent than in religious and spiritual centers. In the Catholic church, for example, it is still typical and common to burn the fragrant essences of frankincense and myrrh to purify the atmosphere and to create an aromatic aura of the sacred. So too with sandalwood incense, found in virtually every Buddhist or Hindu monastery, ashram, or temple. Such aromas induce a contemplative state. In Boston's fornmer Ritz Carlton Hotel, they used to spritz Chanel #5 into the common areas, to create a distinctly classy environment. Made with both rose and jasmine essences, this fragrance is more than just a pretty perfume.
Fragrances of all kinds affect mind and mood. Some aromas, such as rotting vegetables or meats, cause an immediate sense of revulsion. This reaction appears hard-wired into the human brain, to help us avoid certain toxic or contaminated foods. Yet other fragrances, such as the ones I've previously mentioned, delight the mind and spirit. Take the time to sit and smell some sandalwood oil, and you will feel an enhanced sense of calm. Vanilla oil, derived from a Mexican-originated orchid, enchants the mind and often increases amorous desires. Smelling rare and precious Neroli oil can make you swoon. A beautiful and all-natural perfume on the right skin can be outright enchanting.
In point of fact, our sense of smell is so sensitive that we can detect a single molecule of a fragrance. And thanks to the pioneering work of perfume and smell expert Luca Turin (who deserves a Nobel Prize), we know now that when a fragrant molecule touches the olfactory bulb, the smell organ inside the nose, this sends a message directly to the brain, identifying the specific aroma. This is how we know to distinguish fresh roses from baking bread. Various plant essences affect our mood through this means. Aromatherapists use and recommend diffusers- small gadgets that disperse fine mists of plant essences into a room. With hundreds of fragrant oils to choose from, you can create whatever atmosphere you like. A bit of eucalyptus or peppermint essential oil will not only open up breathing passages, but will stimulate and enliven. Other aromas such as jasmine and everlasting carry the mind to a more tranquil place.
If you wish to become more familiar with aromatherapy, I recommend a good book on the topic. Check out The Complete Book of Essential Oils and Aromatherapy, by Valerie Ann Worwood, or The Aromatherapy Book by Jeanne Rose and John Hulburd. There are many wonderful titles on the topic. You can also go to a good natural foods store, acquire a small diffuser and some essential oils, and start experimenting. Find the fragrances you enjoy the most, and create the atmosphere that best suits your needs.
Chris Kilham is a medicine hunter who researches natural remedies all over the world, from the Amazon to Siberia. He teaches ethnobotany at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he is Explorer In Residence. Chris advises herbal, cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies and is a regular guest on radio and TV programs worldwide. His field research is largely sponsored by Naturex of Avignon, France. Read more at www.MedicineHunter.com