By Penelope A. Domogo, MD
Aromatherapy is the use of aroma for health and well-being. It is an alternative and complementary method of promoting health and wellness. It is usually used in combination with topical application of essential oils, massage and yoga. Instead of using synthetic drugs which usually have adverse side effects, people may use aromatherapy.
We usually practice aromatherapy in our daily lives. People have been doing it throughout the eons. However, we don’t call it aromatherapy. It is just part of our life to do things for the good and for wellness. It is innate wisdom. It is only in modern times (to me, that’s after 1900) that the dominant society chopped chopped our life into the many compartments we have today. Some people call this “educated stupidity” (I love the term!) In indigenous life and in truth, everything is interconnected. Besides, “aromatherapy” is an English word so of course, you don’t find it in Igorot language.
I am sure, though, that all of us have experienced this phenomenon called aromatherapy. Since I was a kid, I knew that the smell of orange or citrus relieves motion sickness. I should know, I had motion sickness when I was young. While travelling to Baguio from Besao, I would already be nauseated by the time we reached Gonogon. How about coffee? It is such a big enterprise nowadays not only because of its caffeine but mainly because of its smell. Just writing about it makes me smell the barako already. And who could resist the delicious smell of pinikpikan? The smell of newly-harvested rice cooking in the kitchen? How about freshly-baked bread? The smell of peppermint even as you just pass your fingers on the leaves. The smell of durian. Others may be averse to it but I love it! Hmmmm… sarap. But let us focus on the use of essential oils for aromatherapy.
Essential oils (EOs) are oils extracted from plants for their healing properties. They retain the smell and flavor of their plant source, or the “essence”. These are extracted through distillation or cold-pressing. “They don’t feel oily but contain oil-soluble chemicals in the plant- usually 100-200 chemicals per essential oil. This complex chemistry gives the EOs their therapeutic properties and explains why different EOs may have overlapping effects.” (Linda Halcon, PhD, MPH, in Taking Charge of your Health and Wellbeing website.)
These EOs are used by the plants themselves to control infection, for wound healing, humidity control, hormone balance, and attracting or repelling insects, birds and animals, etc. In other words, these EOs are the lifeblood of plants. They are important for the survival and wellbeing of the plants. These healing properties are carried over to human users. Well, as we have discussed in previous columns, for the longest time, people have been depending on plants for health and wellbeing. When we eat these plants, we also eat their oils. The difference with EOs is that these are highly concentrated so we use them in small amounts.
The use of essential plant oils for wellness (including beauty) and healing is present all over the different cultures of the world. The Bible makes reference to the use of these oils. But the term “aromatherapy” first originated in 1937 when a French chemist Rene-Maurice Gattefosse discovered that lavender oil helped cure his burn.
How does smell happen and how does this relate to health and wellness? There are ultra-microscopic odor molecules that are emitted (meaning they become airborne) from substances like food and herbs and these enter the nose and trigger electrical signals to the brain. The part of the brain that is most involved here is the limbic system which has a major role in controlling mood, memory, behavior and emotion. “The sense of smell is closely linked with memory, probably more so than any of our other senses.” (Psychology and Smell- fifthsense.org.ok) Memory is crucial to survival and wellness that is why those with Alzheimers’ disease cannot live by alone as they lose their memories. Emotions are also closely linked with our health thus it is important to be happy and grateful. The limbic system also affects heart rate, blood pressure, stress and hormone balance. As one smells the essential oils, therefore, there is a gentle and holistic effect on the body. Apart from the smell, these molecules are also absorbed from the nose into the lungs into the bloodstream to the different parts of the body. These EOs can be inhaled through a diffuser or a spray or just breathed in from the oil container or from your palm , your skin or a basin or in a steam bath.
In skin application, the EOs are absorbed through the skin into the bloodstream and distributed to other parts of the body. Massaging the area where the oil is applied increases blood circulation therefore increased absorption.
Popular single essential oils used in aromatherapy are as follows:
1) Lavender for relaxation and good sleep and helps calm hyperactive children. By relaxing, your blood vessels relax also so this could then help in alleviating anxiety, headaches, body aches, high blood pressure, palpitations.
2) Peppermint for its cooling, refreshing effect, to enhance mental alertness and alleviates symptoms of congestion and nausea.
3) Eucalyptus is powerful with cough and colds, has a cooling effect that helps with body pains and fever and is a deodorant.
4) Citrus oils (orange, lemon, tangerine or combination) – uplifts mood quickly, air freshener, immune booster, helps alleviate skin irritation to headaches, fever and digestion and circulation problems.
Then there is also a wide array of essential oil blends which can be diffused. Just be careful to buy from trusted sources because there are synthetic fragrances in the store which can be toxic in the long term like those found in soaps, perfumes, lotions, detergents and other personal and home care products.***
“Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord.” James 5:14