Using smell to get well

Have a headache? Skip the drugstore! Postscript explores the practice of aromatherapy and its natural benefits to the body

Essential oils are known to help you relax or heal many common ailments, such as depression, migraines, muscle aches and skin problems.
Essential oils are known to help you relax or heal many common ailments, such as depression, migraines, muscle aches and skin problems.

Ever take a soothing bath with rose-scented salts, or light a relaxing lavender candle? Scents and aromas can take you to a relaxing state of mind and even trigger past memories. Next time you have a migraine, though, think of swapping your Advil for some Rosemary and try aromatherapy.

Although aromatherapy is a fairly new alternative healthcare practice, it actually dates back to 4000 BCE. Ancient Egyptians used plant oils and herbs for cosmetics, spirituality, relaxation and even mummification.

Medical physicians in Ancient Greece continued the Egyptians’ legacy and used aromatic baths and massages to promote health; they even used herbs and oils in surgeries.

During the European Renaissance, the wealthy used aromatic oils on their handkerchiefs to avoid unpleasant smells. Physicians, pharmacists and chemists also used essential oils to help patients relax.

Not soon after, apothecaries began popping up all over Europe, where herbalists and physicians sold herbs, oils and fragrances as pharmaceutical remedies.

The term “aromatherapy” didn’t come into use until the 20th century, though—French chemist named René-Maurice Gattefossé was the first person to coin the term. After severely burning his hand, he immediately applied pure lavender oil; amazingly, the swelling went down right away.

Soon after this discovery, during the Second World War, a French army doctor named Jean Valnet treated wounded soldiers with essential oils.

Austrian botanist Marguerite Maury also used essential oils in healing massage. Valnet and Maury’s techniques continued all the way into the 21st century.

In the Western World today, aromatherapy is just starting to find its place, especially in holistic medical practices.

Louise Bertrand, owner of Holistic Scents in Kingston and a registered aromatherapy health care practitioner, said she has been involved with aromatherapy for 15 years.

“Aromatherapy essential oils are pure plant extracts and they work with the body, not against the body,” she said.

Bertrand said aromatherapy is used as a way to assist the body on its path to heal itself.

“Every essential oil has three properties: they’re anti-viral, anti-bacterial and they’re anti-fungal,” she said, adding that some also act as an anti-inflammatory.

She said there are many ways essential oils can be administered, such as breathing them in, putting them in a bath or putting a couple of drops into a candle.

People often mix them with carrier oils, she said, such as grapeseed, coconut or olive oil, she said.

“Essential oils are not greasy,” she said, so if someone is going to perform aromatherapy massage, carrier oils are necessary.

Each essential oil is different in terms of their scent strength, she said.

“You have a top note, a middle note and a base note,” she said.

“A top note is very airy—it disperses fast.”

The middle notes are balancers, she said. “They will hold part of the top note without releasing it all.”

Base notes are the strongest, she said. “They linger.”

Bertrand said it’s also important to remember the impact essential oils can have on your body. For example, someone with low blood pressure should avoid ylang-ylang, as it will lower their blood pressure further and cause serious damage.

“Be careful with essential oils because they are very powerful ... don’t underestimate [them].” Jeanette McPherson, owner of Elements Natural Therapies in Kingston, is a natural therapist and certified aromatherapist and has been involved with aromatherapy since 1998.

She immediately became very passionate about the field.

“I think because I was working in a very stressful field in an office setting,” McPherson said, and aromatherapy provided a very drastic change.

She said she sees a wide range of people seek out aromatherapy services, such as people with sports injuries or others looking for relaxing massage.

“We do see students as young as 16, up to older people who just want to maintain their health.”

She said the most common problems she sees that seek aromatherapy are depression, arthritis, joint and muscle stiffness and Fibromyalgia, a condition in which people experience muscle and tissue pain.

If someone is just starting out with aromatherapy, McPherson said there are some basic essential oils out there that will help treat common problems.

“Tea tree oil is a must. It is really good for cuts and also mosquito bites,” she said.

“Eucalyptus is really good for colds; you can either just breathe it in or put it in your shower or bathtub.”

Lavender is one of the most useful, as it has so many uses, she said, such as helping with depression and relaxation.

“Lavender is sometimes called ‘the queen of essential oils’—you can put it directly on your skin and not get a rash,” she said. “Rosemary is good for memory. Inhale it or put it around your temples.

“Grapefruit is very uplifting,” she said, adding that it often helps depression.

McPherson said scents are also often very personal, and can trigger different memories and feelings for different people.

“One woman [I knew] didn’t like orange because it reminded her of being in a hospital ... it can be very psychological.”

Many people are becoming interested in aromatherapy as an alternative to traditional medicine, she said.

“I think some people are really tired of the traditional health system,” she said. “They want to try something natural instead of taking a drug.”

It’s important to note the nature of holistic medicine, though.

“I think mostly this kind of natural healing is considered preventative health. You’re keeping your stress down and that could prevent any more serious diseases from happening.”

Top 10 essential oils and their uses

  • Chamomile: Is a calming agent, antibiotic, antiseptic and antidepressant. Helps digestive inflammation and acne.
  • Eucalyptus: Helps treat respiratory issues, is an antiseptic, antispasmodic, decongestant, diuretic and stimulant. Has deodorizing characteristics, helps fight migraines, fevers and muscle aches and pains.
  • Jasmine: Eases depression, pain during childbirth and enhances libido. Helps treat respiratory problems, addiction issues and reduces tension and stress.
  • Lavender: Is an antiseptic, antidepressant, anti-inflammatory decongestant, deodorant, diuretic and sedative.
  • Lemon: Helps treat skin irritation, digestion and circulation problems. Is a natural immunity booster, helps reduce cellulite, alleviate headaches, fever and lifts mood.
  • Patchouli: Promotes skin cell growth, helps relieve anxiety, depression, fatigue, addiction and reduces cellulite and bloating.
  • Rose: Helps depression, anxiety and digestion. Helps with circulation, heart problems and respiratory conditions.
  • Rosemary: Enhances memory, focus and overall brain performance. Acts as an analgesic; soothing aching, cramping muscles, headaches and migraines. Helps with digestive and liver infections.
  • Tea tree: Is a natural immune booster, it helps heal skin conditions, burns and cuts and works as an insecticide. Helps to soothe and treat cold sores, respiratory conditions, muscle aches, the flu, athlete’s foot and dandruff.
  • Ylang-ylang: Has calming properties, soothes headaches, nausea and skin conditions, stimulates hair growth, helps reduce high blood pressure and intestinal problems.

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