Aromatherapy: More of Nature’s Pharmacy

by Michael Braunstein

American professional sports are off my radar for 2020. If I need politics, I have Facebook, Twitter and the Mainstream Media for that. But there’s one sporting event I don’t have to miss: the Tour de France. No political messages on the bikes. Just a lot of sweat and grit. And watching on television is much like a travelogue. As aerial shots cover the cycling route, historical towns, castles and cathedrals dating back sometimes millennia are toured and described. Thus, today I learned that the perfume capital of the world is the small burg of Grasse in the French Department of the Alpes-Maritime, just on the border with Italy and near the Mediterranean coast. That was enough to spur me to describe the arcane healing art of aromatherapy.

The Nose Knows. All five senses have a target area in our body: the brain. Touch, taste, sight and hearing have important nerves connecting them to processing centers in the brain. But there are no nerves that connect the sense of smell with the brain. It’s unnecessary because the sense of smell is the brain.

The physiology of the olfactory sense is unique among the other five senses. The organ that detects smell is the only one of the senses that connects directly to the brain itself. Indeed, the part of the body that detects aromas, fragrances, smells and odors, the olfactory bulb complex in the nasal passage, is actually a direct extension of the brain. Smell is the only sense that is directly perceived by the brain with no middleman. Yep, part of your brain is located in your nose.

In evolution, the sense of smell is the most potent and primal. Smell is so key to survival, directly connects our brain to the outside world. Part of the most primitive portion of the brain, the limbic system, grew along a path to the nostrils and directly interfaces with the outer world through the sense of smell.

Research has shown that memory centers in the brain are stimulated more by smell than any other sense and it is the sense that is most evocative of memory and emotion.

Smell is such a powerful sense, research neurologist Alan Hirsch found several common smells had a sexually stimulating effect on both genders. He didn’t just use subjective estimates; he studied physiological changes. An increase in vaginal blood flow signified arousal in women and erectile blood flow was the criterion for men. Hirsch found that smells associated with domestic tranquility stimulated women the most. Rated number one was the fragrance of the candy Good & Plenty combined with cucumber, then the fragrance of baby powder. Low on the list were barbecue and men’s cologne.

But there is therapeutic application of the sense of smell, too. That would be called aromatherapy.

Burse of the Mummy’s Tomb. Early use of aromatherapy can be traced to the ancient Egyptian physicians who conceived of organ transplants (no records of success discovered) and originated brain surgery (some success documented.) Egyptian medicos of 5000 years ago avidly used essential oils to medicate and treat their patients. Some earlier evidence can be traced to ancient Chinese uses, but the discovery of sacs or purses of valuable anointing oils in mummy tombs showed the importance that the Egyptians placed on fragrant oils. In the same part of the world a few centuries later, three wise men carried gifts to a newborn infant. The three gifts were considered the most valuable of the time. Two of them were herbal extracts with aromatic qualities.

Ancient Vedic texts of India document and classify the use of essential oils to treat ailments and balance the doshas. Later history shows extensive use by the Greek, Persian and Arab cultures. In the 10th century A.D., the great Arabic philosopher and physician, Avicenna, is credited with developing the exact process of steam distilling of aromatic plants that yields their essential healing oils and properties. It is the same process used today.

As science began to collect, cubbyhole and define synthetic replicas of the naturally occurring essences, aromatherapy was less prevalent in the 18th and 19th Centuries. In the early 1930’s, however, French chemist Rene Gattefossé began describing the therapeutic properties of these oils and coined the term “aromatherapy” with the publication of his book, Aromatherapie.

Medicine Moderna. Chemist René-Maurice Gattefossé brought much of the historical knowledge of aromatherapy into the modern age with his book, Aromatherapy: The Essential Oils in 1937. When French physician Jean Valnet (1920-1995) treated battlefield casualties with aromatherapy in World War Two, he was using a method that dated as far back as the Pharoah’s legions. Using essential oils gleaned from plants, herbs and flowers, Dr. Valnet was so impressed with results that he continued that as the focal point of his medical practice until his retirement in the 1980’s. His landmark work, The Practice of Aromatherapy, was published in 1977 and is considered one of the most important sources of information on the art of aromatherapy healing.

Nature’s drugstore. The body produces, stores and releases some of the most powerful chemicals known to man. Neurohumors, hormones and metabolites produced in the body can deaden and eliminate pain. For example, the word endorphin is a combination of the words endogenous and morphine, or the morphine within. Other neurohumors can induce sleep or instill a feeling of pleasure. Both physiological and emotional well-being are affected by the body’s natural pharmacy. Nearly every event in the body is preceded by the production of a chemical that stimulates or enhances the effect.

When an aromatic molecule is introduced into the limbic system, either by transdermal delivery or through the sense of smell, that molecule stimulates a corresponding release of hormones and chemicals from the brain and other organs. For centuries, aromatherapists have documented the effects and carefully combine and use pure essences to facilitate the desired physiological or emotional result. So the mechanism appears to be that the aroma initiates the real healing powers that are innate.

Margurite Muary is credited with the application of touch and therapeutic massage using the volatile oils of healing plants. German research has shown that molecules of essential oils are present in the breath within moments of application onto the skin. Further studies have shown that hormones and various neurohumors are released in the body immediately upon introduction of the aroma to the senses. Autonomic functions are greatly influenced by these neurohumors. Both the immune system and our emotions are powerfully affected by neurohumors.

Don’t fall for fake. The term “aromatherapy” has been severely misused. You can find it on junk candles and room fresheners that have nothing to do with real aromatherapy. Essential oils are powerful and should not be used directly on the skin. Consult with someone who has taken the time to study aromatherapy and perhaps is certified by a recognizing organization. Find out more from your massage therapist or health care practitioner.

Be well.

Heartland Healing is a metaphysically based polemic describing alternatives to conventional methods of healing the body, mind and planet. It is provided as information and entertainment, certainly not medical advice. Important to remember and pass on to others: for a weekly dose of Heartland Healing, visit

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