Learning Discoveries Psychological Services
Rosemary Boon
Registered Psychologist
M.A.(Psych), Grad. Dip. Ed. Studies (Sch.Counsel),
Grad. Dip. Ed., B.Sc., MAPS

Telephone and Facsimile:
Sydney (+61 2) 9727 5794


P.O. Box 7120
Bass Hill NSW 2197

Essential Oils and Aromatherapy

For as far back as archeologists can determine, man has been fascinated by the seemingly magical potency of aroma.

Our ancestors depended upon their sense of smell for survival, using their highly developed sense of smell not only to avoid danger, but also to select culinary and medicinal plants, and those plants that had been found to harm.

Aromatic plants and resins were used for their mood altering properties to uplift or relax quite early in our history. The most precious of these created euphoria, leading to mystical states of consciousness.

Today, it is well known that odours and fragrances interact powerfully with our emotions, instantaneously calling up memories of past times and places.

The Olfactory System

The olfactory system is one of the first nerve systems to develop completely in the human being. During the seventh week of gestation, the embryo develops remarkably. It is during this period of growth that the telencephalon (the most forward part of the embryonic brain) develops the olfactory lobes which ultimately produce the riencephalon (the limbic lobes which process our olfactory sense). The riencephalon is the oldest part of the brain phylogenetically, and is that part of the brain that is the seat of our emotional selves. Thus we can see the intimate connections between the olfactory system and our emotions.

THE LIMBIC SYSTEM: Is a group of cellular structures located between the brainstem and the cortex. It is often referred to as the mammalian brain.

Functions of the limbic system:-

The limbic system has two key components - the hypothalamus (below the thalamus) and the pituitary gland.

The hypothalamus regulates eating, drinking, sleeping, waking, body temperature, balance and many other functions. Through a combination of electrical and chemical messages, it directs the pituitary gland - the master gland of the body.

Problems with the limbic system include:

The sense of smell, or olfaction, is a sense which is chemically activated.

Airborne molecules that can be dissolved in either water or oil are likely candidates for sensation by our olfactory system.

We have about 10 million smell receptors with which to receive odours and fragrance. The olfactory system is more sensitive in discriminating different smells than our sense of taste.

Airborne scent molecules are drawn up and into the nose by the force of a person's inhalation. They then pass up through the nasal cavity to a point below and behind the eyes, where they encounter the olfactory epithelium in the nasal mucosa (membranes that secrete protective mucous). It is here that the scent molecules encounter the receptor cells that detect smells and initiate transduction. These receptor cells are notable in that they are one of the few kinds of neurons capable of regeneration in adult mammals.

The axons of the receptor cells penetrate directly into the skull and combine to form the two separate olfactory nerves which terminate in the corresponding olfactory bulbs.

From the olfactory bulbs, smell impulses bypass the thalamus (unlike other sensory neurons) and travel directly to the olfactory cortex in the temporal lobe or to the limbic system (especially the hypothalamus). These centres may be involved in why we accept or reject food based on its smell.

(Diagram from Nutrition Care Bulletin , Vol. 10, Issue 4, May 2002)

The aroma of the oils is related of course to it's particular chemical composition, that is, it's molecular makeup. At the molecular level, the vibratory rate of the oils can compliment that of the human energy field or aura, enhancing and extending it, in effect energising it. Aroma enters through the olfactory nerve directly to our brain - to the hypothalamus which controls the subjective response from memories, feelings and moods, triggering the limbic system to signal the release of neurotransmitters. The compelling power of aroma has long been recognised. The brain not only interprets the aroma message by retrieving memory of a past experience or creating a new memory response, but also associates either a calming, balancing or stimulating response. In addition, scents are known to evoke deeply buried memories, including the emotions pertaining to the remembered events.

Wright, in analysis of studies undertaken in 1977 and again in 1982, postulates that the scent molecules generate a specific vibration frequency and the characteristic vibration frequency of the molecule specifically affects the receptors by disrupting particular chemical bonds. These then transduce into a characteristic pattern of electrochemical activity which the brain interprets as specific odours. Cortical mapping studies by Kolb and Whitshaw in 1990 suggest that smell information seems to fit an association with social and sexual behaviour.

As with the other senses (hearing, sight, touch and taste), there are widespread differences in sensitivity to smells throughout the population. In general, women appear to be more sensitive to the sense of smell (in absolute terms), and more responsive to its various aromas (in terms of self-reports and other behaviour).

So What Are Essential Oils?

The term essential oil is derived from the medieval Latin phrase coined by Paracelsus in the 16th century - quinta essentia - the quintessence of the plant. The oils, like the blood flowing through our veins, are the essence of the plant. When properly preserved, they have their own energy-force and vibrational quality that can be so healing when correctly used.

Distilled or otherwise processed from very specific parts of particular species of plants, essential oils often contain many different compounds that work synergistically together to produce their therapeutic and mood enhancing effects.

Over 1,000 different compounds have been isolated from essential oils, but there are still a great many components which have yet to be isolated, named and understood. The oils are non-reductionist in that when the active constituents are separated, their therapeutic effects are actually diminished due to the synergistic way that nature has constructed them, and they cannot be synthesised in the laboratory.

Aromatherapy -application of the oils

In aromatherapy, essential oils are applied externally, but their penetrative power is so great that they act on the internal organs and at the emotional and spiritual levels. Essential oils enter and leave the body quite readily - leaving behind no toxins. Unlike mineral oils, essential oils and vegetable oils in general, are readily absorbed by the skin, and of course in diffusers or 'aromatisers', readily enter the body through our nose. In application to the skin, the essential oils need to be diluted in a base or carrier oil compatible to the therapeutic needs.

The subtle healing properties of essential oils operate on a higher plane than chemical drugs, having a much more powerful effect on the psyche and the emotions. Gattefose, a French chemist, documented the psychological and neurological effects of the essential oils in the early part of the twentieth century, foreshadowing today's wholistic approach to treating the person as just that - an individual.

It is not for nothing that perfumeries the world over speak of the low, middle and high notes - referring to the evaporatory rate of the oils and indirectly to their particular vibration or 'octave'.

Essential oils offer a gentle and sensitive alternative to the dangers of synthetic drugs, which have caused an increasing number of adverse side-effects, allergic reactions, drug-dependence and addictions among patients.

However, it should be noted that certain oils too have their specific application and contra-indications. If using an essential oil for the first time, always ensure that a patch test is undertaken to rule out any allergenic reactions - we are all unique beings and have unique reactions. For in-depth information on oil safety issues, we highly recommend "Essential Oil Safety" by Robert Tisserand.

The most important property of essential oils is the balancing effect they have on the body, since an imbalanced state in the body (the Physical, Emotional and the Etheric bodies) is the surest way of developing disharmony and dis-ease in your life. Essential oils also have a very wide range of medicinal and therapeutic properties, and there are many ailments which can be aided by these most natural of all plant medicines.

Aromatherapy can be used to complement allopathic medicine and other forms of alternative therapy, as it often combines to great advantage with other forms of intervention. Based upon the known neuroendocrine dynamics of essential oils, aromatherapy can help alter and regulate the neurological and hormonal functions of several cerebral centres. For example, by stimulation of several endocrine pivots, essential oils promote the production and release of specific neurotransmitters and hormones that help counteract the neuroendocrine homeostatic imbalance so often involved in depression and anxiety disorders, and aid to restore balance to the autonomic nervous system.

The oils can be particularly useful, in helping to alleviate and balance emotional states, and may be used in conjunction with systemic interventions including counselling, nutrition, herbal medicine, supplementation or other forms of intervention.

At Learning Discoveries, we work with you as an individual and will specifically blend 100% quality oils to match your unique physical and emotional needs. Aromatherapy is truly a most wonderful and pleasant path to health and well being in healing the mind, body and the spirit.............

For further information about essential oils, please contact:

Rosemary Boon or Gregory de Montfort
Learning Discoveries Psychological Services

Address: PO Box7120, Bass Hill, NSW 2197
Telephone: (02) 9727 5794
Facsimile: (02) 9754 2999
email: rboon@iprimus.com.au

 Disclaimer The information contained in this article is not intended as a replacement for medical advice.
Any person with a condition requiring medical attention should consult a suitably qualified practitioner or therapist.

Article References:

Wright, R.H. (1977), Odour and Molecular Vibration: Neural Coding of Olfactory Information. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 64, 473-502.
Wright, R.H. (1982), The sense of Smell. CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida
Sternberg, R.J., (1994), In Search of The Human Mind. Harcort Brace Publishers, New York, NY.
Kolb, B., and Whitshaw, I.Q., (1990), Fundamentals of Human Psychology (3rd ed.) Freeman Publishers. New York, NY.
Bardeau, F., (1976), La Medicine Aromatique, Robert Laffont, Paris -
Grieves, M., (1979) A Modern Herbal, Jonathan Cape, London -
Worwood, V.A., (1990), The Fragrant Pharmacy, Macmillan Ltd, London, UK.
Worwood, V.A., (1997), The Fragrant Mind - Bantam, London, UK.
Worwood, V.A., (1999), The Fragrant Heavens - Transworld Publishers, London, UK.


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