In his 1985 novel, Perfume, German writer Patrick Süskind explores the sense of smell and its relationship with the emotional and physiological impact that scents can have on us. In the case of Perfume, the longing for a certain scent drove the main character into madness, and even murder. While that's quite extreme, surely you've experienced feeling transported to some place far away in your mind's rewind just by a scent, an aroma tickling your nose and triggering an emotional connection. But it's not just the memory banks that take in the mysteries of our scented world; our whole body can be affected—and even healed through certain odors. The practice, when used to treat or prevent conditions is called aromatherapy, and it's thousands of years old. But how does it work exactly?
Concentrated "essences" of plants, known as essential oils are volatile compounds, deeply potent and proven to be effective in treating hundreds of common ailments. Walk into a French pharmacy with a headache, a cold or any number of conditions and the pharmacist may arm you with lavender, peppermint or eucalyptus oils instead of aspirin.
When inhaled, the aromatic essential oil molecules move through the lining of the nose through olfactory nerves and straight into the brain's limbic system. (This happens much faster than the 40-minutes or so you may wait for a pain reliever to kick in!) This burst of information to your limbic system influences both the endocrine and autonomic nervous systems, which can influence hormonal levels that affect mood, pain tolerance and metabolism, as well as instinctive functions including heart rate, digestions, breathing and sexual response. For real. Plants = power!
Unlike the lingering smell of perfumes and artificial fragrances that can contain a cocktail of chemicals known to be harmful to the body and the environment, essential oils smell markedly different and pure (because they are!) without being toxic to the planet.They are still incredibly powerful, though—don't let the little bottles or fact that they come from flowers and leaves fool you.
Look for therapeutic grade organic essential oils, like those found in Nadine Artemis' Living Libations or Cary Caster's 21 Drops—formulated by a certified aromatherapist into blends for treating certain conditions from lack of energy and focus to handling the stress of Los Angeles traffic. Simplers, another high quality brand which is available in many natural food markets, offers blends and pure essential oils, like the multi-purpose lavender, loaded with dozens of active compounds—some of which you can't even smell!—that have a variety of benefits to our health from calming and relaxing to antibacterial and immune boosting.
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image: Dennis Wong