What exactly is aromatherapy, and why does it work? Very (very) simply, aromatherapy is the use and study of aromatic essences on one’s state of mental, physical, and/or spiritual well-being; it is a therapeutic modality that takes advantage of the unique way our bodies assimilate and download information carried by the volatile oils that make various substances, well, smell-able, for lack of a better term.
Let’s look at how this works—super quickly and super simply. The only reason we can smell anything is because of volatile oils (airborne chemical constituents). These are actually tiny aspects of the whole. So you smell cinnamon—tiny particles of cinnamon are actually entering your body. These chemicals dissolve in your nose’s mucus membranes where they trigger specific neurons. Then, that information is relayed to the olfactory center of your brain where the message splits—one branch to the frontal lobe for identification, the other to the limbic system (the brain’s ambassador of emotion) to see if it produces some kind of memory (grandma’s house), physical response (hunger), or emotional response (nostalgia).
This effect is probably familiar (balsam pine and Christmas Eve, anyone?), and it’s one reason why aromatherapy is so popular and so potent: its effects (on mood, on pain) can be immediate.
Now, enter essential oils. When clients ask for an essential oil recommendation, I have a standard two-oil answer: Frankincense and ylang ylang. Begin with these, and the world can quite wondrously open for you.
I love frankincense (Boswellia carterii or sacra), in part because of its ancient history; it was traded in North Africa 5,000 years ago, and Egyptians (think 1300 BC) used it in rituals performed to free the spirit from earthly concerns. It was used in traditional Chinese medicine to remove stagnation and relieve pain; Somalians inhaled the oil to ease the spasms of bronchitis and to treat fevers.
More often than not, we use it today to boost the immune system and as a catalyst for spiritual connection. Why begin with frankincense? Well, we carry a lot of baggage. We know from experience how stress can facilitate illness, fatigue, and pain, which then becomes a vicious circle, amplifying exponentially. If we can begin with the spirit, and focus on deep healing, it lays the perfect foundation for any other work we do.
Frankincense helps us let go of our “stuff” (that overpacked suitcase that the ego insists on hauling everywhere), releasing our grip on insecurity, self-judgement, and material concerns.
Yet while frankincense is distracting you with one hand, it’s pumping you up with antioxidant activity with the other. How? Well, there’s a measurement called the Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC). Frankincense has a measure of 630µTE/100g. By way of comparison, an orange measures 750 µTE/100g. Simply, this is a measurement of antioxidant activity. And antioxidants work to ease stress, essentially gobbling it up (think Pac-Man) as it’s released.
OK, so you’ve opened the ego’s barn doors, and all these creatures came storming out. Great. Now what?
Did You Know? Frankincense was used by the ancient Egyptians in rituals performed to free the spirit from earthly concerns.
Enter oil number two: ylang ylang (Cananga odorata), or “flower of flowers.” One of those emotions that just loves storming out first is anger and, man, it’s hard to focus on anything else. Ylang ylang helps us release anger without becoming its victim by boosting the strength of our emotional heart, calming the nervous system, and supporting the positive ego-baggage escapees such as self-confidence, self-awareness, and self-love. (Remember the ORAC value of frankincense? Ylang ylang has a whopping 130,000 µTE/100g.)
Ylang ylang helps us to release anger without becoming its victim by calming the nervous system.
It all gets a bit technical and metaphysical. My advice? Go for the experiential approach. Open a bottle; put a few drops on your palms. Sit. Close your eyes. Inhale. And feel what happens.
Healthy Tip! Put a few drops of ylang ylang essential oil on your palms, sit, close your eyes, and inhale. Feel what happens.