By Evangeline Ciupek
It’s popping up everywhere — from General Nutrition Centers to Bath and Body Works, from the American Cancer Society to the offices of homeopathic psychologists. A practice that’s been around since the time of the ancient Egyptians, aromatherapy is enjoying a modern day renaissance.
Public relations major, Angel Bell, said, “When I think of aromatherapy, the first thing that comes to mind is free mental health treatment.”
Aromatherapy is the application or inhalation of essential plant oils. When rubbed onto the skin, the oil is absorbed and enters the bloodstream. When the smell of the oil is picked up by the olfactory nerve, the chemicals in the scent are carried to the brain’s limbic region.
The American Cancer Society says that blood pressure, heart rate and even emotions are all affected by the limbic region of the brain. And the organization has looked into aromatherapy as a means of helping cancer patients cope with pain, depression, nausea and other side effects related to chemotherapy.
The ancient Egyptians used plant oils for bathing and embalming. These oils were also a part of life for the ancient Greeks, Romans and Chinese. Modern aromatherapy is now a marketable product in health food stores and malls across America. Bath and Body Works carries its own line of aromatherapy products. The lotions, hand creams and pillow mists contain a variety of plant oils and extra ingredients.
Christina McDonald, a licensed therapist who earned her undergraduate degrees from UMHB, sees aromatherapy used in her field of work.
“In holistic psychology … aromatherapy has (been) very beneficial for a number of emotional issues,” she said. “There are several scents in the psychological world that we actually recommend for insomnia … a couple of those might be chamomile, the rose scent and clary sage.”
Students may get benefits from one oil when relaxing after a hard day at school.
“A good smell for relaxing is lavender, which is very easy to come by. It’s highly suggested in relieving stress. That is a great scent for helping you sleep as well,” she said.
On the other end of the spectrum, aromatherapy may aid a person’s ability to focus on a task or study for a test.
“There are certain kinds of scents that actually mentally stimulate,” McDonald said. “Rosemary is one.”
Other scents, like basil and lemon oil, have energizing qualities.
“They’re not quite as directly related to mental stimulation, but the fact that they uplift could actually refresh someone who might be studying.”
Many factors affect the strength of an essential oil. The University of Minn-esota’s Web site says that essential oils are hard to regulate because they cannot be standardized. Location, weather, harvest times and packaging dates can have an impact on the structure of the oil.
Dr. Kathleen Wood, chair of the biology department, said it is hard for Western medicine to accept this therapy.
“There may really be validity to how it’s acting,” she said, “but if it’s not officially studied in a rigidly controlled trial of some kind, Western medicine is probably not going to accept it.”
Wood said that personal experience plays a big role in the popularity of essential oils. “That’s how … people keep using them. It’s word of mouth, and it gets kind of a folklore built up around it.”
Aromatherapy may have much to do with the mind.
McDonald said, “You do have to consider whether it is partly just believing that it will work.”
Does this make aromatherapy more of a psychological than a biological aid?
She said, “If you believe that this is helping you focus, it’s (going to) help you focus …. If you go in thinking negatively … chances are, your mind is going to strain, and you’re not going to focus as much.”
How does this affect students? If you want to try aromatherapy, know what you’re using, therapist McDonald said.
“You have to consider what effect you’re wanting …. You just have to use the correct ones at the correct time so you’re not having the opposite effect.”
Speaking of whether or not people should use aromatherapy, Wood said, “If these aromatherapy oils are not toxic in any way, and if they do relax you, why not? Everyone needs some relaxation. We probably ought to relax a whole lot more than we do.”