The use of aromas is believed to date back to the times of the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians (modern day Iraq).
Unlike today where aromas are bottled for us ladies (and men) to give off the scent of a sweet perfume, back then they were used solely for medicinal purposes and purposes of hygiene.
The Ebers Papyrus of ancient Egypt, the world’s oldest preserved medical document dating back to 1552 BC, listed over 800 remedies much of which consisted of myrrh – a brownish aromatic gum resin with a bitter slightly pungent taste obtained from a tree of eastern Africa and Arabia (The Real Essentials p.1).
In the other Muslim Caucasian country of Azerbaijan, the use of aromas was a part of mainstream medicine and not sidelined as they are today to ‘alternative’ forms of treatment.
In the Middle Ages, when the idea of medical treatment was still slowly becoming established, medieval Azerbaijani doctors used essential oils and other aromas as a regular method of treatment for their patients.
The legacy of their medical texts can be found in the Baku’s Manuscript Institute, much of which has been studied by historian Farid Alakbarov.
In the ancient kingdom of South Azerbaijan in modern-day Iran, it was a common belief among the population that they had to be clean in order to attain a higher spirituality.
They used aromatic oils such as frankincense, myrrh, galbanum, rosemary, hyssop, cassia, cinnamon and spikenard, most of which have become common and highly priced essential oils in specialist shops today in the West.
In Ardhan in modern-day North Azerbaijan they used the herb thyme (Arabic zatar) as both a tonic and an aphrodisiac.
Other common Azeri aromas that were utilized included: fennel, lemon balm, spearmint, nutmeg, dill, chamomile, cinnamon, lime, black cumin, cedar wood, cypress and myrtle.
Poet Nzami Ganjavi (1141-1203) described the use of rose oil as a remedy for headaches and as an antiseptic.
Whereas today an expensive French perfume is rated highly, back then shahs and sultans rated highly the aromatic herbs and ointments from India, Egypt, Byzantium, China, Russia and the Persian Arab Gulf.
It was through the Muslim alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan (702 – 765) and others that the process of distillation was refined (Alakbarov p.1-4). In India, dhoop – incense sticks – are still used as they were in ancient times.
Discovery of Aromatherapy
The term ‘aromatherapy’ was coined by French cosmetic chemist Rene-Maurice Gattefosse in the early 20thcentury.
As a result of an accident in his laboratory in which he burnt his hand, he went for the nearest cooling liquid, that just happened to be lavender. He was startled by how quickly his hand healed and the fact that there were no visible scars, so he continued his research.
During WWI Gattefosse applied his findings to injured soldiers and discovered that they too healed quickly.
Dr. Jean Valnet, an army surgeon and medical doctor, used essential oils in WWII to treat burns and later on to treat veterans suffering from psychiatric problems in mental hospitals. It was actually during the Plague of the Middle Ages, however, that Europeans began producing essential oils.
Kwang-Geun Lee of the University of California at Davis last year discovered that some smells could act as antioxidants preventing cancer-forming cells.
“Exposure to these aromas may help to prevent [oxygen] damages, which are a factor in many diseases,” Lee commented. He distilled and extracted 30 chemicals from 10 plants and then he tested them for the presence of antioxidants.
Lee found antioxidants similar to those in Vitamin E in eucalyptus leaves, basil, thyme, rosemary, chamomile and cinnamon amongst others.
Modern scientists are still not completely sure how these oils work technically speaking, but what is known is that the sense of smell works mainly on the subconscious level, but is directly connected to the primitive part of the brain known as the limbic system.
The limbic system regulates the sensory-motor function and instincts such as the sex drive, hunger and thirst.
- The olfactory nerves (which also affect memory) carry smell sensations to the brain waking up the brain, and creating imagery associations with the aroma. Electrical signals are sent to the limbic system activating imagery and behavior mechanisms.
- When absorbed by the skin, inhaled or ingested (in some cases), the essential oil is transported throughout the body to affect various organ functions (Lavabre p.10-11).
What Do They Do?
The actions of aromatic oils have been classified as follows, but one should consider that the efficacy of an oil depends largely on its purity. The more concentrated types are called ‘absolutes’ with very little alcohol content: –
- Analgesic – Relieves pain through oral and external means.
- Anti-Inflammatory – Reduced inflammation/swellings by helping the body to overcome the problem
- Anti-Neuralgic – Reduces pain arising from the nerves.
- Anti-spasmodic – Relieves spasms
- Aphrodisiac – Arouses and increases sexual desire
- Carminative – Causes gas to be expelled from the intestines & stomach
- Cholagogue – Promotes the discharge and flow of bile from the gallbladder into the small intestines which then helps to disinfect the bowels
- Diuretic – Increases the secretion and flow of urine
- Emmenagogue – Stimulates the menstrual flow
- Expectorant – Causes and eases the bringing-up of phlegm, mucus and sputum from the respiratory tract.
- Facilitates Birthing/Nursing – Eases labor pains & increases milk flow
- Hepatic – Strengthens and tones the liver. Increases secretion in the liver.
- Insecticide – Repels insects
- Sedative – Increases likelihood of sleep
- Soothing – Calms one’s nerves and skin
- Stimulant Digestive – Stimulates the digestive system
- Stomachic – Tones the stomach & improves the function of the digestive tract
- Tissue Regenerator – Speeds up the healing process of damaged tissues
- Revitalizing – Refreshing to the spirit
- Stimulates the scalp
- Rejuvenates the skin
- Skin cleanser
- Controls loss of oil from dry skin
- Acts as a stimulant
- Tonic to the nerves
- Fortifying to the mind
Dangers to Avoid
Of course there are many more applications with the vast variety of aromas we have to call upon, but one must also be mindful of the side effects that can occur if used incorrectly. With oils such as: –
- Basil/nutmeg (Myrtistica fragrans) – taken in high doses it can have a stupefying effect.
- Bergamot (Citrus bergamia) – if applied without anything else after the sun it increases photosensitivity.
- Cinnamon bark/leaf (Cinnamomum zeylanicum) – If taken in high doses, neat (without anything else), or in high concentration, it can irritate the skin and can cause convulsions.
- Chamomile – (Chamomilla matricaria & Anthemis nobolis) – If given to someone who is depressed during the daytime can make them feel worse. It is best given before sleep in the evenings.
- Fennel (Foeniclum vulgare) – Can be toxic to children six years of age.
- Mugwort (artemisia vulgaris) – Not to be given during pregnancy. May lead to abortion.
- Oregano (Origanum vulgare)/Red Thyme (Tymus sygis) – Can irritate the skin.
- Pennyroyal (Mentha pelugium) – Can be toxic in high doses.
There are different ways that one can apply the use of essential oils. Aromatic baths were used to treat many diseases in the East as in ancient Azerbaijan where Mu’min described a decoction of pine needles to be put in the bath in order to cure diseases of the uterus and the rectum. One can also apply the oils to the body before taking the bath (Alakborov p.4).
To lower blood pressure, Azerbaijani’s once bathed in rosemary by preparing a solution of 4 cups of boiling water into a pot of 5 tablespoons of rosemary leaves. It was then covered and left to steep for 30 minutes. It would then be strained and added to the warm bathwater. Azerbaijanis remained in the bath for half an hour. Bathing alone minimizes stress, reduces muscular pain and increases absorption as the pores of the skin are open.
It has been established that this oil reduces congestion in the lymphatic system. – Is good for acne, eczema, dry skin and rejuvenates the skin. -Is a tonic to the heart – A stimulant to the respiratory system and the metabolism – Acts as an antiseptic.
A Calming Bath Use: Lavender/marjoram/chamomile A Stimulating Bath Use: Sage/rosemary/pine. An Aphrodisiac Bath Use: Ylang/sandalwood/ginger/peppermint/pepper A Rheumatic Bath Birch/juniper/rosemary/thyme/vetiver/sassafras.
Another long-established practice with aromatic herbs was using muslin-covered pillows or cushions filled with such herbs. You can make one yourself and give it to your child to sleep on during the night or during periods of illness. In a study by H. Wagner and Sprinkmeier in 1973, a blend of oils from cloves, cinnamon, lemon balm and lavender was found effective in treating bronchial conditions with no side effects (mindspring p.1).
The following blends of aromas are quite harmless, but remember, the sense of smell is quite personal so what might have a positive effect on some might cause an instinctual reaction in another:
Herbal Cushion of Apathy – Rosemary:
- Depression – Chamomile/Camphor/Geranium/Lavender
- Headaches – Aniseed/Chamomile/Lavender (add peppermint if the headache is caused by the stomach)
- Insomnia – Chamomile/Camphor/Juniper/Lavender/Marjoram
- Stress (sudden) – Juniper/Lavender
- Asthma – Aniseed/Cypress/Hyssop/Lavender/Marjoram/Lemon Balm/Peppermint/Pine/Rosemary
Of course one shouldn’t neglect a good massage that stimulates the cardiovascular system and the immune system, and reduces muscular tension, but if you have other concerns you should always go to a qualified and experienced aromatherapist.
- Alakbarov, Farid. “ Scents that Heal ”. Spring ’01. 6. Azerbaijan International. 05/10/03.
- Health Scout News. “ Aromatherapy May Do More Than Soothe Your Spirit ”. 08/19/02. 2. Health World Online. 08/20/02
- IndianGyan.com. “ Healing System Alternative and Choices ”. 7. 05/10/03.
- Lavabre, Marcel. “Aromatherapy WorkBook”. Canada. The Healing Arts Press.1990.
- Price, Shirley. “Practical Aromatherapy”. Britain. Thorsons Publishing. 1987.
- The Real Essentials. “ Ancient History and Modern Rediscovery ”. 3. 05/10/03.