Articles written by me on Self-care and Palliative Medicine
On Self-Care & Palliative Medicine

Using Good Scents

“Life is a series of sensations connected to different states of consciousness” Remy De Gourmont (1858–1915) French critic and novelist

One of the most aesthetically appealing alternative therapies is Aromatherapy. Do you have powerful memories evoked by certain smells? A whiff of fragrant boxwoods transports me immediately and predictably back to my grandmother’s front yard–where a profusion of these plants flanked the front porch. The smell of hot chocolate takes me back to childhood Christmas mornings; traditionally, we had freshly baked cinnamon rolls and hot chocolate along with Santa’s offerings, and these odors often permeated the house before we assembled in the living room to begin the joyous celebration. In the wonderful movie, Harold and Maude, Maude who is an elderly woman nearing the end of her life teaches Harold, a neurotic and unhappy teenager, how to enjoy life. In one of the many memorable scenes, Maude introduces Harold to her odor-generating machine. Though it’s been 20 years since I last saw this movie, I still remember her delight as she shares the smell of newly fallen snow with Harold. If you haven’t seen this touching movie, please treat yourself soon. Aromatherapy uses a variety of plant oils (especially essential oils) to affect positive moods, soothe the body, and enhance the quality of life. Aromatherapists are well aware of the memory-generating effect of smells. In fact, there’s a sound physiologic explanation for this phenomenon.

A brief review of our sense of smell is now in order. Initially, sensory cells in the lining of the nose are stimulated by exposure to chemical particles (smells) dissolved in the nasal mucous. Fibers of the olfactory nerve run from the smell receptors in the nose directly into the brain. These smells are then analyzed in the limbic system of the brain; what the brain perceives as an odor is, in fact, the chemical particles presented earlier to the nose. In addition to analyzing smells, the limbic system also influences our behavior, emotions, memories, and sexual urges. Now can you see why smells can trigger memories, incite passions, and calm or energize us? There’s physiology in the magic; and trained Aromatherapists use this knowledge in their treatments and aroma prescriptions.

Ironically, though we can register as many as 10,000 fragrances (versus only four types of taste), modern man’s sense of smell is the least developed of the five senses. Consequently, we tend to use our sense of smell subconsciously most of the time. Odors that may not be recognized consciously can trigger powerful changes in our emotional states–ranging from anger,anxiety, and fear to comfort and even sensuality. Savvy perfume manufacturers are well-aware of the latter effect and employ skilled ‘noses’ to assist in creating new fragrances. In Aromatherapy, therapists use science and skill in understanding the subtle differences in essential oils that are attributable to thousands of aroma chemicals.

SInce you managed the physiology review so well, let’s add a little historical perspective before proceeding. Ancient Egyptians used essential oils for religious purposes and for medicinal purposes. . .including mummification. During the Middle Ages, scented oils were used to mask the stench of unsanitary streets and bodies. Persians knew the technique of distillation centuries ago and were producing such sophisticated essences as attar of roses. The Crusaders learned of these techniques and brought the knowledge and a host of valuable medicines back to Europe with them. However, the credit for coining the phrase “aromatherapy” goes to a French chemist, Rene-Maurice Gattefosse, who experimented with the antiseptic effects of essential oils on wounded World War I soldiers. Much elaboration and refinement of this therapy has occurred over the centuries, and we are the fortunate recipients.

Essential oils are extracted from a variety of plant parts–including flowers, leaves, wood, stems, and resins. In essence, the oils are the hormones or life-forces of plants. Extraction of these oils is often a complex and exacting process, and in purified specific concentrations, these oils can be therapeutic in a broad spectrum of physical, mental and psychosomatic conditions. With this knowledge, Aromatherapists use specific quantities and combinations of essential oils in:Massage, Room Fragrancers, Inhalants, and/or Baths.Concentrations and purity of oils are very important, especially when they are applied directly to the skin. They can be irritating, even caustic if used inappropriately. The delicious sensual and healing effects of aromatherapy require education and training. So, in a quest for ultimate peace, resist the temptation to rush out and slather yourself with lavender; in more than one sense, that could prove to be a “rash” decision! Additionally,as with all treatments, there are general precautions and caveats in Aromatherapy. In fact, for pregnant women, people with hypertension, epilepsy, specific allergies and/or people on specific medications, there are certain oils that are contra-indicated. Be aware and be wise.

In addition to the effects of relaxation, energy stimulation, and pleasant memory association, Aromatherapy has other less well known but equally powerful benefits. Anti-bacterial and anti viral properties in some oils can enhance the immune system. Additionally, some oils can stimulate the appetite while others may suppress it–an under utilized tool in the weight management armamentarium. And, some oils even behave as hormone regulators. So, you can see there’s a lot of scents in exploring this treatment modality!

Enjoy the wonderful effects of scented candles and baking bread on your moods and memories, but be aware of the multiple therapeutic benefits as well. There’s nothing fishy about this creative and scientifically-based treatment modality. Just remember to use good scents.

Each day I live in a glass room
Unless I break it with the thrusting
Of my senses and pass through
The splintered walls to a great landscape
Mervyn Peake(1911–1968) A Reverie of Bone

Stephen L. Hines, M.D.
October 2000

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