A look at how therapists believe brain chemistry responds to aromatherapy. Image provided
By Paula Detwiller
In an era when everything from pet shampoos to plug-in air fresheners are advertised as “aromatherapy,” it’s easy to dismiss the concept as so much marketing hype.
But local aromatherapists hope you don’t turn up your nose at their profession. They emphasize the plant-based science behind aromatherapy, and point to its centuries-old role in healing.
True aromatherapy involves the use of essential oils derived from plants to treat a variety of physical and emotional conditions, explains Gerry Whidden, owner of Nature’s Symphony Inc. of Boca Raton. During her 30 years in the business, she has taught aromatherapy to thousands of students, including doctors and nurses.
Whidden’s retail store just south of Mizner Park has an apothecary-like wall of tiny bottles containing organic essential oils. The oils are distilled from the petals, leaves, seeds, roots and bark of plants, and Whidden is considered an expert at blending these oils into treatments for insomnia, joint pain, chest-rattling coughs — even brain fog.
“Some oils work in two ways,” she says. “For example, lavender essential oil applied to the skin can take down inflammation. And when you inhale lavender, it stimulates serotonin in the brain, which helps relieve pain. So you’re getting a dual effect.”
Here’s the theory behind aromatherapy. When molecules of essential oil are inhaled, they travel, with their chemical messengers, past the olfactory bulb to the limbic system in the brain, which in turn influences both the autonomic nervous system and the endocrine system. As a result, practitioners say, physical, psychological, and even spiritual changes can occur.
Mary Rosi, a professional aromatherapist and owner of Yoga Earth studio in Delray Beach, sprays a mixture of essential oils around the room at the start of her yoga classes (sage, bergamot, lemon grass, and other oils) to encourage deep breathing and help students center themselves. At the end, when students are in the final, relaxed posture, she rubs spruce oil on her palms and briefly embraces each student’s head with her hands.
“Spruce oil has anti-inflammatory properties,” Rosi says. “The French use it for arthritis. But I use it to ground my students, to balance them emotionally.”
If that sounds like New Age hoo-ha, consider that aromatherapy dates back to ancient times. In the first century, Greek military physician Dioscorides (40-90 AD), considered the Father of Pharmacology, wrote about using infused aromatic oils for healing. Today, medical doctors in Europe and Asia actually prescribe aromatherapy. But in the United States, it is still considered alternative medicine.
Cary Caster of coastal Delray Beach hopes to change that. A trained botanist who studied aromatherapy in the U.K. and France, Caster raised three children without using over-the-counter medications, not even aspirin — just essential oils.
Three years ago, she developed “21 Drops,” a line of conveniently portable aromatherapy roll-ons (www.21drops.com). Each of the 21 essential oil blends is designed to treat a particular condition, from headaches to PMS to indigestion.
“It’s all about understanding the active components within the oils that address certain characteristics,” she says. “For example, black pepper is mucolytic, breaking up mucous, so that’s in our decongest blend. German chamomile is an anti-spasmodic, so we put that in our PMS blend to alleviate cramping.”
While the product line is enjoying plenty of mass-media coverage (Prevention, Oprah, Ladies Home Journal, Real Simple), and gaining traction in the high-end retail market (Sephora, Henri Bendel in New York, and luxury hotel spas), Caster is looking ahead. She’s currently in discussions with Janet Konefal, Ph.D., assistant dean for Complementary and Integrative Medicine at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, about developing an aromatherapy program for their education series.
“That’s my dream, to bring aromatherapy into more medical programs, just like nutrition has found its way in,” Caster says. “That’s how basic this stuff really is.”
To learn more
Article: “Aromatherapy Science”:
Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database:
The Alliance of International Aromatherapists, Educational Resources page:
Paula Detwiller is a freelance writer and lifelong fitness junkie. Find her at www.pdwrites.com.