A personal assessment by Martin Watt Cert. Phyt.
I view aromatherapy as a system of helping the body to heal itself. This is partly achieved, by utilising the physical and emotional properties of aromatic plant extracts. These substances can be administered by a number of different means, for example as part of massage, by direct external application, as internal medication, in baths or showers, as room fragrances and in food.
It must be considered when essential oils are used in massage, if their effects are achieved by psychological pathways, by physiological means, or both. In this connection, we have to consider the fact, that the majority of aromatherapists have not been using 100% pure essential oils for years. Yet despite that, they seem to have achieved excellent results in relieving stress related ailments. Therefore the question must be posed; how is it that despite using non-natural essential oils, these good results have been forthcoming? This must also put a big question mark over all the numerous claims made in aromatherapy books, about the pharmacological therapeutic effects of most oils.
My opinion, (now backed up by a considerable volume of evidence from scientific trials), is that of paramount importance is how the olfactory system perceives a fragrance, rather than whether the fragrance is of 100% plant origin.
Personally, I do not sanction the use of synthetic or reconstructed essential oils, because I am aware of their potential side effects. However the fact remains they have been widely and often unknowingly used to good effect.
We know that the human sense of smell, plays an important part in our physiological processes. We all know the powerful effects exerted on our gastro-intestinal tract by the smell of food. In other words a smell can cause a powerful physical reaction.
Many people have experienced a particular smell bringing back both good and bad memories.
We now know that the very young baby locates its mothers breast by smell. This is an area deserving much closer scrutiny, as the overuse of fragrant products by a mother, can destroy baby's perception of who is mum.
Some researchers are suggesting, that the reason women who occupy the same area tend to synchronise menstrual cycles, is because of minute traces of body pheromones. Rarely are these odiferous molecules consciously detectable, yet they are registered by our olfactory system and trigger physiological processes.
Research has detected changes in brain waves during sleep, caused by the introduction of fragrance. In this connection, hospitals should think much harder about the effects of fragrance on unconscious patients. The effects may be good or bad depending on the odour being perceived by the brain.
Experiments have been conducted on humans, where fragrances were administered at such low levels, that the subjects said ‘they could not smell them’. Yet, brain waves changed, indicating that the fragrance molecules were still being detected by the olfactory apparatus.
So clearly the sense of smell has major importance. However there is also an increasing body of knowledge showing that significant volumes of the aromatic constituents of essential oils, are absorbed into the blood stream via the respiratory tract. Therefore a dual effect looks highly likely as follows:
1) A pharmacological action by the absorption of aromatic chemicals via the respiratory tract.
2) An indirect, yet powerful effect on the brain via olfactory perception.
It may be seen therefore, that weather an essential oil is partly synthetic may not matter as far as olfactory perception is concerned. However if there is also a pharmacological action via inhalation, then it is unwise to introduce to the body significant amounts of impure fragrance chemicals. The issue of impurities in synthetic fragrance chemicals can not be overestimated. The chemicals used to compound perfumes are not of pharmaceutical purity, they are only lab grade and many contain traces of impurities. It is partly because of those impurities, that expert analysts can tell if an essential oil has been adulterated. We should also not forget that the volumes of these impurities may be only 1-2%, but dioxins for instance, are hazardous in parts per billion.
When essential oils are applied with massage, we have a number of beneficial effects:
1) The physical effects of the massage alone, which are known to change levels of endorphins our natural pain killers. Hormone levels have been shown to change. The blood is diluted because of the lymphatic drainage effect. Muscles respond to the physical effects of the massage, and muscle spasms are prevented or removed. Poor peripheral circulation is improved. Touch sensors in the skin are affected and these pass messages to the brain. Body energy flows may be stimulated by massage in a similar manner to acupuncture. Therefore massage alone has enormous and clinically proven benefits.
2) Essential oils used with the massage, can increase the heat in the superficial layers of the skin. This is invaluable when treating muscle stiffness, joint pains and sluggish circulation. The fragrance of the essential oils have a potent effect on the emotional centres of the brain. The inhaled essential oils have pharmacological effects such as helping ease breathing, acting as respiratory tract antiseptics, and other beneficial effects have been detected.
3) The placebo effect is triggered much better with aromatherapy than with many other forms of treatment. This effect is our most powerful in-built healing mechanism. It is so powerful that it can enable the body to cure itself of serious illnesses. Unfortunately in complementary medicine the placebo effect tends to be looked on as a dirty word, rather than being recognised as our most potent healing mechanism.
To sum up; aromatherapy with massage, brings together several healing modalities for maximum therapeutic effect. The brain is bombarded with a mass of different signals from different sources. It brings a sense of being cared for and pampered which few other forms of treatment can approach. The use of essential oils is a vital part of the package.
The great benefit of essential oils is that almost anyone can use them. Highly beneficial results can be obtained from self use of essential oils. Few oils are that dangerous in unskilled hands, indeed many aromatherapy writers are guilty of leading the public, towards the self use of some of our most dangerous essential oils. Therefore placing all your faith in so called ‘professional aromatherapists’ can be misguided. A few schools are good, but the majority are bad.
Essential oils do have many pharmacological actions. Many are antibacterial and antifungal in-vitro and in-vivo. Some may be anti viral although that is not well proven in-vivo. Several essential oils are powerful anti-inflammatory agents. The internal use of essential oils can bring in another whole raft of pharmacological actions. However this method of use is not generally advisable. Several essential oils still appear in national pharmacopoeias as medicinal agents. Eucalyptus and peppermint are the best examples.
There is no sound evidence for the hypothesis that essential oils work by being absorbed through the skin, and thereby into the bloodstream. Indeed all the evidence points in the other direction which is that; human skin presents an effective barrier to most essential oils.
It does not work because essential oils represent the 'life force of the plant'. This is poetic nonsense. Most essential oils are cooked similar to foods, and therefore it is no different to saying your cabbage, potatoes, etc. when cooked contain life force. In addition essential oils are only a limited representation of the therapeutic compounds which occur in plants. The water soluble components of plants which can contain potent drugs, do not appear in the plants essential oil.
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