The plethora of perfume counters in shopping malls is compelling testimony to a our profound interaction with scents.  More than just for pleasure, the sense of smell plays a crucial role in our survival. The human brain prioritizes information from olfactory system because odors serve as an early warning system for danger.  Think of that next time you leave the gas stove on or are about to step on dog droppings! This same warning system has a dual role in support of healing through plant medicine, and it is because of our deep and instinctive response to scents that it was named “aromatherapy”. Much has been written about the topic, but for the purpose of a brief introduction or quick review of the concepts, this is a distilled guide to aromatherapy and essential oils.

A tabloid worthy title for an article on aromatherapy and essential oils could easily be:

“Aromatherapy: Chemical Warfare Used as Medicine”.  This is because aromatherapy heals humans with essential oils that are actually the chemical defense system of a plant.

Without essential oils, a plant cannot harvest the energy from the sun that it needs to survive. We have all observed a plant that is close to death.  The leaves are discolored and decimated by insects. Since compromised foliage cannot photosynthesize, plant blood circulates fungicides, insecticides and antibacterial compounds to deter would be pathogens and predators.

“What is food to one man is bitter poison to others.”-Titus Lucretius Cara

The chemicals carried in the blood of a plant that are so poisonous to fungi and insects, are medicine for humans.   Since these beneficial compounds are fat soluble, the essence of the plant immune system is extracted by separating the oils from organic material.  The most popular methods are compression and distillation.  The resulting product is the “essential oil”.  Absorption of essential oils for the purposes of boosting immunity and moods is known as the practice of aromatherapy.

Why is aromatherapy a powerful way to access plant medicine?
  • It is efficiently absorbed.  Tremendous amount of plants would need to be eaten just to access the equivalent nutrition in a few drops of essential oils.  For example, one ounce of lavender essence requires six pounds of flowers, and one ounce of rose 300 pounds!
  • With aromatherapy, plant oil is inhaled or absorbed through the skin, whereas our digestive systems are not designed to efficiently process the raw plant material.
  • Aromatherapy puts you in a good mood quicker than anything else.  This is because information from the olfactory system is part of our fight or flight responses and therefore has a direct and strong impact on the limbic system.

The concept of using essential oils as medicine is ancient. The fact that it has been around for almost as long as recorded history, has stimulated a renewed interest in exploring the benefits of aromatherapy. Looking to the past for anecdotal support of its benefits, there is plenty of evidence.

Here are just a few examples of the use of aromatherapy throughout history:
  • 4500 years before Christ, Egyptians were blending essential oils with moisturizers to protect their skin from the arid climate and enhance beauty.
  • Medical journals from India and China circa 3000 B.C. outline plant oils and their appropriate use.
  • The Bible has hundreds of references.  Esther’s six months of beauty treatments and Jesus being offered frankincense and myrrh at his execution are just a few.
  • Hippocrates touted aromatherapy massage as a basis for health.
  • About a thousand years ago, the Persians began the distillation of essential oils that is still in use today, and wrote numerous books on the healing properties of plants.
  • Europe combated Spanish influenza and the bubonic plague using aromatherapy.
  • In 1850’s Australia, the effectiveness of aboriginal medicine inspired commercial production of Eucalyptus oil.
  • The scarless healing of a severe burn with essential oil of Lavender inspired French chemist Dr. Gattefosse to coin the phrase “aromatherapy”.
  • Dr. Valnet, a friend of Gattefosse found essential oils to be more effective than antibiotics to treat war wounds on the western front.

Mankind’s long and beneficial embrace of aromatherapy has produced enough study material last a lifetime.  Fortunately that is not necessary in order to enjoy it’s benefits. It is easy get started and use essential oils .  Check out our aromatherapy tips here.


North Country Public Radio – Do Plants Have Blood?

APSNET – Overview of Plant Diseases