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Sniff sniff…sigh. Ever notice how the smell of freshly baked bread seems to send an alert from your brain straight to your stomach? Or how the smell of sewer causes an immediate disgust reaction? Or how the smell of lavender flowers seems to ease the knots in the back of your neck?

Aromatherapy. The physical, mental, and emotional response to the sensations ingested through that lil nasal cavity of yours.

Aromatherapy is the use of aromatic plant extracts and other scents to promote the health of mind, body, and spirit.

Back it up a little – without being a scientist, I can give you a small breakdown of why I feel scents can affect us so deeply. For starters, the olfactory system. The olfactory system is the sense of smell, the part of our brain that registers sensory information that comes in through our noses.

Funnily enough, the olfactory system is located in conjunction to the hippocampus, a part of the limbic system – the part of our brain associated with memory and emotions. Every wonder why smells ring a bell? These two functions are neighbors – naturally, scents and memories were bound to be linked. Curiously enough, the other senses (sound, sight, touch) don’t at all pass near to the limbic system, making the tie between memory and scent be quite particular.

Remember how Andy Warhol would wear a single perfume for a specific time period, and then never wear that same scent? It was his experiment with memory, time travel, and smell. To recapture past versions of himself, Warhol would go back to a scent he wore during a certain period that would send him spiraling into that same emotional and mental state. A smart lil’ brain hack.

And think of Marcel Proust, and his meditation on madeleines in his writing “On the Remembrance of Things.” A simple bite of a madeline sent Proust spiraling into a childhood memory of his aunt giving him the pastry.

Memory for emotional odors plays such an important role, because of survival. This same brain structure is present in the brains of the very first mammals. Scents linked to memory was a survival tactic when mammals first began evolving.

Modern examples? Lavender, calm, good. Rotted food, harmful, bad. These simple emotions are the boiled down versions of registering a smell, and having it linked to the hippocampus. Remembered scents bind to emotional and survival responses, which results in physical bodily responses. Whether the aversion to vomit is something you remember from your brother’s annual childhood flu or is a genetically inherited survival tactic, your body remembers scents and has physical reactions to odors.

Aromas bind to emotional and physical responses.

 Photo by  @ntch.mag
Photo by @ntch.mag

So, where does aromatherapy come into play?

Aromatherapy is an art and a science. Fusing together elements of therapy, holistic healing, brain mapping, and science, aromatherapy has been practiced in human societies for over 5,000 years. The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy, a non-profit focused devoted to the holistic integration of essential oils, defines aromatherapy as the “therapeutic application or the medicinal use of aromatic substances (such as essential oils) for holistic healing.”

The bottom line goes as such – your body has responses to scents, and intentionally smelling certain odors creates positive and healing effects.

According to NAHA’s informative website, it was the French chemist Rene-Maurice Gattefosse who coined the term “aromatherapie” in 1937 after extensive research in utilizing aromas to cure physiological ailments. His book, “Gattefosse’s Aromatherapy,” is considered canonical literature for aromatherapy practitioners.

Essential oils are concentrated, distilled and diluted, natural oils that hold the fragrance of the plant or other source from which they’re obtained. The oils capture the “essence” of the plant. Peppermint, lemon, orange, lavender, rosemary, frankincense, chamomile, the list is nearly endless…

As wide of a range of the scents, come a longer list of benefits – mood enhancement, blues dispersing, anxiety dispelling, calm inducing, stress adrenal balancing, immune boosting, and the list continues.

Note: not all aromatherapy smells are pleasing to inhale. Not every scent you sniff is going to have an immediate, visceral effect either. And not every scent is solely meant to be sniffed. For example, rubbing tea tree oil on mosquitos bites is an effective way to soothe the sore. Using lemon oil to clean surfaces is a great alternative to chemical cleaners.

A more extensive list can be found online, and Google-ing a particular essential oil will give you a slew of information, uses, tips, and tricks. But here’ is my personalized list of essential oils – how, when, and why I use the ones I use.

List of scents & their benefits…

Eucalyptus. Clears congestion when inhaled.

 Image by  @ntch.mag
Image by @ntch.mag

Lavender. Calm, soothing. A few drops on the pillowcase to ease insomnia. I’ll dab lavender oil on my wrist throughout the day, to carry the aroma with me, as a perfume alternative.

Lemon. Renewing, refreshing, revitalizing. Like a fresh burst of energy straight to the brain, when inhaled. I also use this as a hand sanitizer. I also add a few drops of lemon oil or tea tree oil to coconut oil, and rub that under my arms as an alternative deodorant.

Orange. Mood-lifting. Inhaling orange helps heaps when I hit the mid-winter slump, the seasonal depression that even the sunlight in San Diego can’t cure. Little sniffs of orange keep me grounded and reminded of the little pleasures in life.

Oregano. The very little experience I have with oregano is quite a strange story…last year, my cousin was 40 weeks into her first pregnancy and there were very little signs of baby Leah coming out any time soon. During a consultation, her doctor leaned into us and said “You know…this is an old wife’s tale, but I’ve heard that oregano has been known to induce labor.” She laughed in between her sentences. “Some of my patients have been in the same position as you, and come in the next day when their water’s broke and swore it was the oregano.”

Needless to say, we bought oregano oil and sprinkled oregano bits onto our pizza that night. My cousin went into labor the next day.

Peppermint. Headache relief.

Rosemary. When I was in elementary school, my mother would make a small rosemary bouquet for each of my siblings and I, and place it near us while we did our homework. She knew the magic of rosemary not only lay in being an elixir of youth (so they say…), but in being a memory enhancer as well. Hmmm…maybe youth is tied to brain function, and not aesthetics?

Tea tree. This is one I live by. Tea tree oil is an antiseptic for cuts, bruises, and bug bites. A powerful wound healer, tea tree oil has been found to lessen inflammation, reduce itchiness, and cleanse the area of the wound. While traveling in the tropics, I used tea tree oil as a mosquito repellant. Granted, it didn’t work as well as OFF, but I felt calmer knowing that my skin wasn’t absorbing all the chemicals found in drugstore bug repellants. I applied tea tree oil as a repellant, and as a salve for the bites that were appearing on my skin.

Tea tree oil is also known to treat dandruff and moisturize the scalp. Adding a few drops of tea tree to a carrier oil (like coconut oil), massage into your scalp, and then shampoo as normal (for extra oomf, I add tea tree drops to my shampoo as well). This deep cleans the scalp, removing chemicals and dead skin which make way for cleanliness and growth.

I once worked at a yoga studio, cleaning the studio in exchange for classes, and the all purpose cleaner was a blend of water, tea tree oil, and apple cider vinegar.

For more information about essential oils, check out these two aroma experts! Along with personal experience, I’ve learned loads from perusing the Essential Oil Haven site by Emma Carter, an aromatherapist in training.

Last fall, I took a class with Pina which was my first in-person training after a few years of self-education about the magic of essential oils.