Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Can a Scent Improve Your Health?

You have likely heard the word aromatherapy, referring to the use of essential oils that have been extracted from plants and that are believed to have therapeutic value.  Historic documents suggest that aromatherapy has been practiced in various forms for nearly a thousand years by those who claim that certain scents can produce psychological or even physical well-being – that inhaling certain aromas can help us fight inflammation and depression, induce sleep, and reduce stress.

But is it true? Can smelling a certain odor improve your health and happiness, or is this just wishful thinking – psychosomatic influence at best? 

Until recently, your answer would have been as good as mine.  But now, Japanese scientists have concrete evidence that inhaling certain fragrances can have pronounced affects on our bodies – that some smells are capable of altering the activity of our genes and influencing our blood chemistry, resulting in stress reduction.  These researchers found that the use of fragrant plant oils to improve mood and health – a popular form of alternative medicine today – really works! 

Some of the scents that were tested by scientist Akio Nakamura and his colleagues, as reported in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, include lemon, mango, lavender, and other fragrant plants.  One of the most widely used substances in aromatherapy is the compound linalool, a naturally occurring component of lavender oil, geranium oil, ylang-ylang oil, and many other essential oils.  Linalool has long been used to soothe away emotional stress. Until now, however, linalool's exact effects on the body have been a deep mystery.

The scientists in this Japanese study exposed lab rats to stressful conditions while inhaling and not inhaling linalool. The stress-elevated levels of neutrophils and lymphocytes (key parts of the immune system) in the rats exposed to the linalool returned to near normal, but the stress levels of the rats who were not inhaling linalool remained elevated.

The scientists also observed that inhaling linalool reduced the activity of more than 100 genes that normally go into overdrive when we are in stressful situations.

What does this mean for the present? We can now confidently invest in aromatherapy at least for the purpose of reducing stress, as long as the essential oil contains linalool. 

What does this mean for the future?  Imagine a world where you can buy aftershave or perfume that not only improves your body odor but also has the power to soothe your troubled soul.  According to the researchers, the findings could form the basis of new blood tests for identifying fragrances that can soothe stress.  But you don’t have to wait for the future; you can already find after shaves, massage oils, baby creams, shampoos, body washes, foot balms, and facial lotions on the market that contain linalool. 
Are there any risks with aromatherapy?  Yes, the most common risk being the potential of allergic reactions.  For example, linalool can over time break down, forming by-products capable of causing allergic reactions, including eczema.  Because this is a process of oxidation, keep the lid closed tightly on any aromatherapy products, or any product containing linalool, and consider buying the product in smaller sizes.

Another linalool risk: It turns out that what’s good for the goose may not be good for the gander – when humans are the goose and insects are the gander.  While linalool benefits us, you’ll also find that it is used in pest control as an insecticide to kill fleas, fruit flies, and cockroaches.  It’s also used in some mosquito repellents. 

If you’d like to try aromatherapy at home, rather than buying pre-mixed essential oils, you can.  There are many online recipes for creating your own “brew” for the most personalized aromatherapy experiment.  One good resource is the AromaWeb recipe section, which breaks its recipes into useful categories, such as aroma recipes for emotional well-being, for household cleaning, for physical well-being, skincare, and more.  Also, check out the Easy Aromatherapy Recipes site and the Aromatics International collection of Essential Oil Blending Recipes – a 15-year collection of aromatherapy recipes.

If you have any good essential oil recipes or other kinds of aroma recipes, please use our comments section to share!
 

Ric Moxley
Contributing Writer


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