I tend to be a skeptic about many “new age” therapies and products. I’m the first to acknowledge that this may seem hypocritical coming from an acupuncturist. You can shoot me if you want; it’s just the way I’m wired.
You can imagine my reaction when I was first exposed to the concept of aromatherapy and essential oils many years ago. I pretty much brushed the whole idea off as too “out there” to be of much use. Really, how could a smell affect anyone’s health?
Last week, I was demonstrating the use of moxabustion for a cable TV show, and got a whopper of a headache. The Chinese therapy of moxabustion is the use of burning herbs, usually artemesia, for the purpose of warming and stimulating acupuncture points. I don’t usually use this particular technique in my clinic, and last week I remembered why. The smell is incredibly penetrating and the thick cloying smell gave me a headache that I won’t likely forget for a long time. Don’t think a smell can affect you physically? Think again.
Okay, so here’s where I own up the fact that I’ve been using essential oils in my acupuncture practice for a couple of years. The reality is that scents can affect your brain in a number of ways. One of the strongest triggers for memory is that of the sense of smell. When you inhale a fragrance, the molecules stimulate the nerves in your nose, which trigger electrical impulses in the olfactory bulb in your brain. Those impulses are then transmitted to the amygdala, the part of your brain where emotional memories are stored.
Those nerve impulses also stimulate the limbic system in your brain. Your limbic system is directly connected to those parts of the brain that controls things like your heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, stress levels, and hormonal balance.
In Chinese medicine, smell is used in several ways. From the very first acupuncture appointment, smelling is part of the diagnosis process. Does a patient sweat a lot and have a strong smell? They may have a weak Lung system that can’t control the opening and closing of the pores. Do they have bad breath? They may be suffering from Stomach heat.
From a therapeutic standpoint, a variety of fragrant herbs are used in the Chinese herbal inventory. For example, mint, eucalyptus, and camphor are used for colds and flu. In addition, there is a whole class of aromatic herbs that transform dampness (your body’s inability to metabolize fluids, causing edema, nausea, loss of appetite). Some of those aromatic herbs include patchouli, magnolia bark, and cardamom fruit.
The Lung system in Chinese medicine includes not only your lungs, but also your entire respiratory system. Your lungs are considered the most exterior of your internal organs, because with each inhalation, you are bringing the outside world inside your body. In this context, scents become systemic and affect you physically as soon as they are inhaled.
So how might scents be used the clinic? A few examples:
- The use of light and invigorating citrus scents would be used for someone who needs focus, is depressed, or has poor memory. I often use a citrus spray to revitalize my treatment room in between patients.
- As mentioned above, eucalyptus, mint, menthol, or camphor may be used for someone who is fighting off a cold. These scents are also helpful for nasal stuffiness, and may be helpful for people suffering from allergies.
- Some of the fragrant and flowery scents like lavender, ylang ylang, or rose evoke a peaceful feeling, and are good for calming and relaxing.
- While I personally can’t tolerate the intensity, moxabustion (artemesia) is widely used in the clinic for its penetrating, warming, and nourishing effects.
Yes, scents can affect you physically. In a therapeutic context, the effects may be subtle. However, the next time you’re attracted to someone because they smell really good, remember, it’s physical and your brain chemistry’s at work!