Thursday, October 23, 2014

Do We Have Aromatherapy All Wrong?

A discussion in an essential oils forum sparked some thoughts for me in general about aromatherapy, scents, and essential oils. The woman in the forum was experiencing migraine headaches, however, if she smelled a leather wallet, duct tape, or a sandalwood patchouli candle, the headache went away. What was the common denominator between these three things?

When you think about it, a leather wallet, duct tape, and a patchouli candle (probably a synthetically-fragranced one) all have a similar scent...leathery, musky. There may even be a particular scent constituent that's similar across the board. So, if we can isolate this compound, does this mean that we've discovered the cure for migraines? And, what if it is a synthetic fragrance chemical? Aren't those supposed to be bad for us?

Let's take a look at a study about those with Multiple Chemical Sensitivities. With MCS, suffers will respond negatively to scents, getting sick from just a whiff of a particular scent. The study found that the mechanism of the illness may lie not in the scents themselves, but in how their brains perceive and process the scents.

So, then if a scent could trigger illness, it makes sense that a scent could cure a headache. Scent is a highly individualistic perception, tied to emotion and memory. Perhaps the woman with the migraines has a positive association with a leathery, musky scent. Perhaps a comforting father figure, or a special place she visited in the past. When her brain processes that scent, it stimulates a relaxant response and ends up curing her headache.  Even if it's a synthetic chemical.

So, what am I getting at here? Well, we see aromatherapy books and blogs listing out essential oils and their particular properties. Lavender always listed as relaxing. Geranium as an antidepressant. Grapefruit as a stimulant. Lemon for calming. But are we going about this all wrong? When we consider how each of our brains process scents differently, how we all have different memories and emotions tied to different scents, how can we say that any one particular essential oil is going to act the same for everyone? Well, aromatherapy charts are general guidelines. If you're trying to calm yourself through sniffing essential oils, don't just go off what your friend tells you works for her. Try several essential oils and figure out exactly how your body responds to each one. What cures one person's headache may cause a headache in another.

But it also calls in to question the issue of essential oil purity. An essential oil with a synthetic adulterant may be just as calming as a pure essential oil. Many of us grew up with synthetic fragrances all around us and may have positive associations with those chemicals, so our brains may respond positively to these scents. Not to say that there aren't many harmful synthetic fragrances, or that I support adulterated essential oils--just that it's all an individual experience and we should keep this in mind as we consider others around us who may be in love with their synthetic candles or lotions.

One of my partner Stevie "B's" favorite smells is a combination of black licorice and diesel exhaust. What? Well, when he was a kid growing up in southern Illinois, he and his family would cross the bridge to go in to St. Louis, always to do something fun, like going to the museum or six flags. On the way home they'd get stuck in traffic on the bridge next to the big licorice factory. The busses spewing out diesel exhaust swirled together with the black licorice smell from the factory to create a positive memory for him. Probably not the healthiest scent to love, but a powerful one nevertheless. (And also one of the main reasons we make our Black Licorice soap!)

We get questions from time to time about our products like: "Is the smell too sweet? Is it a mild scent? Which is stronger, the geranium or the lime? Which one smells the best?" These are impossible questions to answer because we all perceive scents so differently. We can share our own personal perceptions, but what's too sweet to one person is another person's favorite heavenly scent. But it is interesting to think--it's all, quite literally, in our heads.


Sue said...

Great article! I love the smell of asphalt - and being pretty anti-petrochemical, how can this be? Because I grew up *down the shore* in NJ and there would be oil wash up on the beach which smelled like that same smell - and so a terrible smell is associated with happy memories! But that is not aromatherapy. There is a word for it though, Aromacology. This term was invented by of the Sense of Smell Institute. Aromatherapy by definition refers to the therapeutic use of essential oils - and does not include the use of or effect from synthetic fragrances.

Stephanie Greenwood said...

Oh interesting--never heard of Aromacology before--thanks for sharing!

I want to be clear--the purpose of this post wasn't to suggest that we should be using synthetic fragrances in aromatherapy, but just to point out that when using essential oils we shouldn't put them in a box and say this particular essential oil will have this effect (ie, Lavender = relaxing,) because it's such an individual experience. :)

Love Natural Sunshine said...

Hi Steph! Great article. It was very interesting to read. I myself have read lavender listed as being calming, but as I am allergic to the flower, I find it hard to think of it as "calming." In fact, I prefer tea tree essential oil.... It's more relaxing to me. I agree with you that smells can be associated with memories and therefore emotions. Quite fasinating to ponder!