How Does Aromatherapy Work?

Out of all our senses, smell is one of the more mysterious and primal.  

It has been a key part of mankind’s survival throughout evolution. We are capable of recognizing thousands of unique odors.

We know how powerful scent can be. Smell alone can bring back a memory, even half forgotten ones. Scent has the power to arouse emotions instantly, and can have a direct impact on our bodies.  There’s a direct scientifically proven link in our brains between memory and smell.

Through conditioned learning, a particular smell becomes associated with an experience, person or time period.  We may not even be aware of a specific memory, there’s just a positive or negative reaction associated with that scent, and we don’t even know why.

A fun exercise is asking yourself and others around you about their associations with various smells and fragrances and their personal remembrance  that’s connected with a particular smell.

We get our sense of smell via the olfactory nerve, which starts at your nose and connects directly to the brain through tiny holes in our skull.  WIth your first experience with a specific scent, you begin forming nerve connections that intertwine the smell with emotions. The nerve sends signals to a number of areas in the brain including the limbic system and amygdala. These control emotions, mood and memory. They also regulate our autonomic nervous system. This system controls the sympathetic and parasympathetic responses. (Fight or flight vs a calm, ready and regulated state) This is why scent can so quickly cause a physical reaction in your body and even have lasting effects after the scent is gone.

There is some research that shows we may develop certain scent preferences while still in the womb.

Our sense of smell is often taken for granted, we focus so much more on what we see and hear. Smell becomes a large part of our subconscious, because it operates so subtly.

Anosmia, which is the loss of the sense of smell is a little known condition. It can cause depression, loss of appetite, and libido. Oddly enough, those with severe depression will often experience a diminished sensitivity to odors. Along with the obvious danger, is the inability to smell dangerous smells. Smell is often the first warning sign of safety or danger.

Hyperosmia or hypersenstivity to smell is linked to anxiety, self regulation difficulties, sensory overload, and overall sensory dysregulation.  

Different cultures can play a role in smell preferences. Some consider onions an aphrodisiac, one african tribe smear cow dung on themselves. They consider the smell signs of fertility and elevated status.

Some smells are pretty much universally considered pleasant, such as vanilla which has calming properties.. Pleasing smells can improve our moods.  On the negative side they can also be used to impair judgement. In one study, the presence of a pleasant smell increased the amount of money people gambled at slot machines.

Peppermint and lemon have been known to increase cognitive skill and improve work performance.

Unpleasant smells can actually lead people to make harsher moral judgements.

The sense of smell can be used to improve pain tolerance. Sweet tastes can reduce pain by activating opioid systems in the brain, the odor can activate the same systems.

Smell is even a big part of relationships, that elusive concept of chemistry.  We subconsciously detect a potential partner’s pheromones, the chemicals that act like hormones outside the body to impact behavior of others.  It plays a big part of in the mating of animals. It’s still unclear as to what extent we humans rely on pheromones.

Aromatherapy is a complementary or alternative medicine practice that utilizes the healing properties of scents from essential oils.

These oils are extracted from dozens of different plants, which have powerful effects on our emotional, physical and mental wellbeing.  Different oils have different properties that can help balance the mind body and spirit.

Essential oils can be mixed with water, or a carrier lotion or oil. They can be diffused into the air, or rubbed undiluted or acupressure points. There are types that are prepared ingestion or inhalation as well.  In France, it is more common to ingest essential oils. However, in the US, essential oils should not be taken by mouth, some can be quite toxic.

When essential oils are inhaled, the molecules are carried through the nose and affect the brain through the limbic system (the part of the brain that deals with survival, instincts and emotions).  This can be the most direct method of delivery for the healing properties in the oil. Through the nasal cavity, they have direct access to the brain and can immediately impact the systems that control your body.

Our skin is semi-permeable, when oils are applied to the skin, they are absorbed into the bloodstream.  They then travel to the specific organs and systems that they are linked to. Some of the oil’s properties can actually pass through the blood-brain barrier, where they can impact the endocrine and autonomic nervous systems.  The oils can have a positive effect on your skin, like enhancing blood circulation, and helping with acne, eczema and aging skin. Some contain antioxidants, which help prevent cell damage.

There are ways to enhance absorption of the oils through our skin. Massaging the area first will increase circulation, that will cause an increase in absorbing the essential oils.  Heat will have the same effect. There has been some research that indicates an increased absorption rate in areas with more sweat glands and hair follicles.

No matter what manner you use essential oils, they can cause fundamental changes in our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.  They enhance our body’s own natural responses by triggering and strengthening.

Most essential oils, leave the body within a few hours,  excreted out through the kidneys. However, the effects can linger in our tissues.

According to the PDZ Integrative, Alternative and Complementary Therapies Board, the most common uses include managing pain, improving sleep quality, dealing with symptoms of depression, reducing stress and soothing sore joints.

An aromatherapy massage uses the restorative properties of essential oils to relax and heal your body and mind.

During the massage you either inhale the essential oil molecules or absorb them through your skin.  When combined with the inherent therapeutic aspect of massage, aromatherapy can provide an added level of relaxation and healing.

The goal of an aromatherapy massage is to use the restorative or healing properties of the essential oils to relax and heal your body and mind. It tends to be a fairly gentle swedish massage although that can vary depending on the Massage Therapist.

There are quite a few oils out there, and each one has its own therapeutic qualities. They can be used to address stiffness, muscle pain, muscle spasms, insomnia, asthma, and congestion, just to name a few.

Different oils will cause effects that can vary from purifying, calming, aphrodisiac, antibacterial, soothing and even euphoric effects.  You are able to get the effects from both the absorption through your skin, and when you inhale the scents and absorb them through your nose and mouth.  Some say that more of the beneficial aspects occur via the absorption through the soft tissues in your nose and mouth.

Unlike other modalities, with aromatherapy massage, the type of massage doesn’t matter as much as the healing benefits of the oils. The goal is usually relaxation, so it’s rare that you’ll find essential oils used with deeper more intense massages.  Aromatherapy usually used with Swedish, lymphatic, neuromuscular, acupressure and reflexology massages.

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