The aroma of freshly brewed coffee or the buttery fragrance of hot toast can make us get out of bed in the morning. Likewise, the smell of rain on a parched land, or the salty scent of the ocean breeze, or the musty scent of an old book can evoke a sense of excitement or calm in us.
Fragrances affect us in different ways: besides arousing various emotions in us, they also bring back memories. For instance, the smell of waffles may remind us of the first time our loved one cooked us breakfast. The scent of the sea could take us back to a memorable vacation we had. It is incredible how fragrances can make all this happen.
Our olfactory sense, through which we perceive fragrances, is quite powerful. Unlike the other senses, this one works on a subliminal and intuitive level. Aromatherapist Elizabeth Anne Jones explains how the sense of smell works in her book Awaken to Healing Fragrance: The Power of Essential Oil Therapy. When we inhale a fragrance, she notes, its molecular information first registers in the limbic system–the primitive part of our brain. This neuronal information breaks the barrier of blood vessels, travels via our nervous system and directly reaches the amygdala in the brain, which governs our emotional responses. From there on, it travels to the hippocampus, which stores away the fragrance with its associated emotions as memories. The information then reaches the hypothalamus, which alters our metabolism, our autonomous nervous system and even our endocrine system. And finally, it reaches the right temporal lobe of the neocortex. This is when we become conscious of the smell itself. Long story short, fragrances affect our emotions, alter our state of mind and affect our bodily functions even before we become consciously aware of them!
Given the impact fragrances can have on our body and mind, several kinds of them have been manufactured and sold for our benefit. A lot of them, in fact, have been extracted from medicinal herbs to enhance their therapeutic effect. The branch of healing that uses herbal fragrances and aromas to enhance wellbeing is called aromatherapy. Says Amy Anthony, an instructor at the New York Institute of Aromatic Studies: “I approach aromatherapy as a sub-set of herbalism. Herbalism is a branch of medicine that uses herbal preparations for health purposes. Here, an individual’s constitution is considered alongside their current medical condition and symptoms. And aromatherapy focuses on aromatic plants and specifically, their distilled essence. Many aromatherapists work with essential oils and aromatics that belong to one or the other plant groups used in herbalism.”
Aromatherapy, incidentally, is nothing new. Fragrant concoctions have been in use for their therapeutic benefits since time immemorial. Several famous people are known to have used aromatherapy to enhance their overall wellbeing. One among them is queen Hatshepsut of Egypt who is known to have anointed herself with a fragrance called myrrh to enhance her mind-body vitality. This fragrance not only helped her remain calm and poised, but also stimulated her immunity and strengthened her spirituality.
Although fragrances have been an essential part of healing for ages, aromatherapy itself has gained wider acceptance only in the early 20th Century. In this article, Soulveda explores how fragrances improve our overall wellbeing by looking at its impact on our physical, mental as well as our energy bodies.