By Jennifer Fleming, RMT

It's no secret today, thousands of people are trying out new (and old) ways to self manage their health and wellbeing.  As a health care provider, I think this is great.  One of the things I try to encourage my patients to do is take their health into their own hands when they can.  Of course, I recommend they have some qualified guidance in doing so, after all it is their health and I bear responsibility for it.

What is Aromatherapy?

Aromatherapy is the use of plant derived chemicals to create changes in body functions and mood states.  People use aromatherapy to help with coughs and colds, sinus congestion, muscle and joint pain and for stress relief and focus.  In plants, the chemicals we call essential oils are used for plant to plant communication, plant to pollinator communication and defense against pests, fungi and competing plants.  Because these chemicals can have these kinds of properties in plant and eco-communities, it isn't a far assumption that these properties can be borrowed for human use.

While all plants produce chemicals to help them survive in their eco-communities, not all plants produce essential oils.  Essential oils are volatile compounds that evaporate quickly into the air due to their very low molecular weight and size.  Not all aromatics are of this nature though, and not all of the chemicals that produce a plants smell are captured in the distillation process.

Essential oils are made by placing the required plant material in a still and exposing them to steam.  Some plants need a more aggressive distillation process and are put directly in the boiling water; others, like flower petals, need an even gentler process and may be expose to steam but further away from the heat source to reduce premature wilting while in the still.  On the other side of the apparatus two substances emerge; the hydrophobic essential oil, and the hydrophillic hydrosol.  Both have their usefulnes in the practice of Aromatherapy.

While there are over 200 different essential oils that can be produced not all of them have health benefits and some of them can be quite toxic.  It is because of this fact that we need to exercise some caution and generate a good deal of respect when it comes to using plant medicine.

Essential oils and Chemicals

A lot of people are attracted to natural based healing methods because they want to avoid “nasty chemicals” in their health care products.  I do appreciate that desire; in the last few decades it has become clear that some human activities are proving to be detrimental to our environments and to our own bodily health.  Many chemicals are being called out as carcinogens, hormone disruptors or even causing autism.  And boy has it become a heated debate.  While there is some merit to some of these concerns, some of them may be a little more difficult to support.  When I hear people say “I don't want to use chemicals but I will use essential oils” I gently remind them that menthol is a chemical.  It just also happens to be found in some plants.  Working with essential oils is chemistry and they are chemicals.  Their being derived from plants does not eliminate the potential threats they can make either. The assumption that something natural means it's safe fails to consider poison ivy makes for terrible toilet paper.  Natural things can harm you and this includes essential oils so they are worthy of our respect.

A funny story to illustrate the above point...

In an attempt to avail myself of some digestive upset I decided to apply sweet fennel to my abdomen neat.  This means completely undiluted.  I had assumed that, since one can do this with ginger (within reason) sweet fennel would be the same.  And why not?  They're both carminative.  My reasoning was faulty and the skin on my stomach began to burn as though I'd spilled a hot cup of coffee on myself.  Sweet fennel, as I learned in my humility that day, can not be applied neat after all.  Due to its phenylpropanoid content (almost 75% trans-anethole) it has the potential to be a strong skin irritant which means it must be diluted in topical applications.

None of this is to scare you away!  On the contrary it is to inspire a sense of respect for these substances.  The fact that they can have a negative effect on you is actually a good sign of their potential efficacy.  If a medicine is incapable of doing you any harm, one has to wonder if it posesses the potential to provoke change of any kind.  Even laughter medicine, when used too heartily, can cause a cramp in your sides.

What can we use aromatherapy for?

Well, this is where the waters get murkey.  As a health care provider I have a responsibility to stay on the side of what the evidence supports.  It can be a difficult line to walk as scientists are looking at old things in new ways and confirming or disproving long held thoughts and beliefs about how things work.  Scientists are also discovering new things every day or even finding new ways to apply old things that perhaps we had not thought about before.  Shifting sands indeed but an ever stimulating process.

What we do know is that things that smell good can help us relax, they can inspire good cozy feelings.  The scent of a pine forest makes me feel rejuvenated, calm and at home.  That 'lake smell' of fresh water makes me feel wildly joyful and anticipatory – it meant through every summer of my youth that the cottage was near!  Scent is closely associated with our emotional brains and so, in this way, aromatherapy can potentially alter ones mood.  It may not be as straight forward as lavender makes everyone relax, though.  If you hate the smell of lavender, or have negative emotional associations with it's scent, smelling lavender all day is not likely to improve your sense of calm and ease.  We also know that chemicals like camphor and menthol can create a cooling sensation on our skin and can alter our perception of muscle pain.  These two chemicals can be found in several essential oils as well as be produced in a lab and are often the first listed ingredients on muscle rub salves and gels bought at the pharmacy.  Many people are familiar with the nasal clearing effect of eucalyptus essential oil, and have possibly even experienced that same sensation when eating really hot horse radish, ginger or cayenne pepper.  While the chemistry for each of these is different the end results are similar; runny nose, perhaps a need to clear your throat or cough and even watering eyes.  All of that has to do with the plant chemistry.

Over the next few months I'll be writing an article to share with you what I have learned about aromatherapy and essential oils.  As I navigate the ins-and-outs of practicing aromatherapy, I will be providing care with these products at MMD Chiropractic Health Centre.  I hope you will join me on this path, learn and experiment with me.

Do you have questions about essential oils you would like me to answer?  I can't promise to get to them all in the next installment, but I will use your questions to help guide my future articles.  You can expect the second to arrive in your inbox by the end of October when we will discuss a little bit about what to look for in quality essential oils, and quality information about their usage.