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Aromatherapy Sense

Introductory workshops are available for those interested in the basics of safe home use and blending of essential oils. Call 905.274.2502, or send an email to inquire.

As much as this article is in reference to natural ‘scents’ and their influence, we should first acknowledge the body sense that provides entry for essential oils to work their wonder. Scent is not only the strongest sense linked to memory, it’s also one of the earliest to form. Cindy McGaha, Associate Professor of Child Development at the Appalachian State University in North Carolina, is among numerous researchers reporting the sense of smell as one that is already well-developed at birth. Along with tastes, the amniotic fluid enveloping a fetus is said to be rich with smells. Within hours after birth, babies respond much like adults to a variety of odours. They prefer and smile at smells like banana and vanilla, but frown and turn away at odours like rotten eggs or fish.

Scent has a powerful influence throughout our life and it’s primarily through our sense of smell that essential oils work. As obvious as that may sound, many of us still think of aromatherapy mainly as a type of massage, which is only one of the many ways we can use aromatherapy to enhance our life. Of all the special senses, smell is said to be the least understood. Tests performed on office staff efficiency when uplifting scent like lemon was piped into their working area, showed impressive results. It also makes you think twice about the potent effect of smell when an anatomy text reports that taste is 80% dependent on smell. Remembering how little we taste when congested with a cold helps us relate to that statement!

The use of scent from essential oils effect our brain and our nervous system, which influences every body system we have. The olfactory receptors of our nose form olfactory nerves that pass through foramina in the cribriform plate of the ethmoid bone in our skull. From here, the olfactory nerves extend to our limbic system and to both the thalamus and higher cortical regions of the frontal lobe of our brain. The limbic system has been termed our ‘reptilian’ or our ‘emotional brain’ and this link is thought to be why smell alone can evoke vivid memories and strong emotions, regardless of time-span.

The origins of aromatherapy can be traced through the religious, medical and social practices of all major civilizations. Why the emphasis on essential oils again at this time? Largely because they are not synthetically made, as so many of our perfumes and household cleansers currently are. We increasingly meet people who have developed sensitivities or allergies to artificial agents in body products and cleansers. Essential oils are, by contrast, the natural concentrated extracts from plant leaves or blossoms, from herbs, flowers or trees. Somewhat a misnomer, they are not actually oily. This concentrated liquid, sometimes referred to as the ‘soul’ of the plant, contains all the benefits of their source. While we enjoy the fragrance of essential oils, they provide much more than a pleasant fragrance. The real power of essential oils rests in their properties of providing anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-viral, anti-microbial or anti-spasmodic activity. Think of how enticing it is to use an anti-bacterial spray around your baby’s play-area and toys, that doesn’t contain synthetic chemicals when baby puts that toy into his/her mouth.

The broad range of influence something so simple can have on our health is astounding. When we use essential oils, they influence all levels of our physical body and reflect into our emotional and mental levels. Our ancestors used herbs on their floors to repel fleas and insects, or in bedding for the same reason. Plants were once the only source of medical care, either from dried or fresh herbs, combined with oils or steeped. They were used in numerous ways. Plants, herbs and trees still form the basis of many modern drugs for serious and simple conditions, largely from ethnobotanical research. My favourite example of this is digitalis, one of the drugs used for heart conditions, which is based on the exquisite flower named foxglove, or more exactly, named Digitalis purpurea. While the use of the herb does not always mean the essential oil will have the identical influences, it again indicates the power in Nature that is available for our health. And yes, they may sometimes need to be applied more frequently or be slower to work, but they also are usually much, much safer to use.

Whether selected to stimulate a system, to sedate it, balance it, provide protection or accelerate healing, the effects depend on which oils are chosen for a blend. All essential oils have different properties and varying effects. They may be combined for mental relaxation when we want to slow down, or perhaps to stimulate our nervous system and brain for mental alertness prior to exams. Or, we may simply keep it near us on a tissue while in an airplane when someone coughs continuously without covering their mouth, and we want to avoid those germs! There are as many uses for aromatherapy as there are various physical and emotional conditions. Essential oils do not provide a ‘cure’ for a condition, but they can enhance our quality of living or ease coping with challenges, help us remain balanced with busy schedules or uplift our mental outlook.

On the subject of quality, this can vary greatly according to how the essential oil is obtained, where it is grown and when it is harvested, how long it has been stored, and whether or not it’s diluted with other oils. There also are precautions for their safe use, especially in connection with babies, young children, pregnancy and weakened conditions. Mixing a stimulating oil with a relaxer, instead of a balancing oil, also makes a difference when blending for optimal effect.

Experiencing aromatherapy massage can be an enjoyable introduction to the use of essential oils. It adds ‘another dimension’ to something that already offers much in the realm of de-stressing and removal of tension.

My education within the Canadian Holistic Therapy Training School has provided a comprehensive aromatherapy study based on research from clinical testing of essential oils to verify both purity and safe skin application. Effects on the physical and emotional body systems have been documented to provide accurate data. Both historical uses, herbal and validated medical uses are compared, with herbal use sometimes being somewhat different than essential oil benefits.

Introductory workshops are available for those interested in the basics of safe home use and blending of essential oils. For more in-depth use, I am available for school locations in other areas to instruct a 2-week intensive under the Canadian Holistic Therapy Training program that includes home study. This course allows six-months to a year for completion of the aromatherapy certification program, along with home assignments and final examinations.

Now, after glancing at the history and uses of aromatherapy, along with today’s understanding of body systems, aren’t you surprised at how much sense it makes to return to the use of this beneficial force disguised in the fragrant beauty of Nature?


“Providing natural therapies to relieve stress or pain, and promote overall wellness.”

© Virginia Hanspiker, 2005