Aromatherapy - the use of essential oils to improve our health and well-being - can be a simple, effective way to manage stress. Essential oils are concentrated extracts from the flowers, leaves, bark and roots of plants such as lavender, orange, rosemary, and sandalwood. Using plants and their extracts for our well-being dates back to ancient times. In the Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah proclaims the Spirit of the Lord has sent him to give "the oil of joy for mourning" (Isaiah 61:3). And today, the National Institutes for Health estimates that about one-quarter of the drugs prescribed in the United States contains an active ingredient derived from plant material.
HOW ARE AROMATHERAPY AND STRESS CONNECTED?
The scents of essential oils help us relax by producing chemical responses within our brain. Olfactory cells which are located at the top of each nostril send impulses directly to the brain's limbic system. The limbic system:
1) Processes emotions and gut reactions.
2) Stores and recall memories.
3) Controls our response to stress.
Our response to stress originates within the limbic system, the part of our brain linked directly to our sense of smell. Everyone has experienced exposure to various aromas which triggers an emotional response or particular memory.
WHY DO WE NEED TO MANAGE STRESS?
Stress becomes harmful if we're constantly facing stressful situations. When we feel threatened or stressed, a chemical response is triggered by the hypothalamus in the limbic system. Adrenaline and cortisol are released, increasing our blood pressure, heart rate, and anxiety levels. Blood vessels in our skin constrict; blood is diverted away from the skin and stomach into the active muscle groups. Our breathing accelerates, providing additional oxygen and sugar to the muscles and brain. This physical reaction to stress is a natural and important part of our lives that can:
1) Put our bodies and minds into "high gear" so we can protect ourselves in dangerous situations.
2) Enhance our performance under pressure.
3) Fuel creativity and provide us with energy and enthusiasm.
But imagine the strain on your body when you're always experiencing high rates of blood pulse, blood pressure and breathing. If we remain in this "fight or flight" mode over long periods, we may lose the ability to "calm down" physiologically. Constant stress weakens the immune system and has been linked to insulin resistance (a risk factor in adult onset diabetes), high blood pressure, heart disease and osteoporosis.
Aromatherapy is a quick, effective way to combat the negative effects of stress. The scents of essential oils cause involuntary emotional and physical responses within us. Certain scents calm us or help focus our energy. Some of the commonly desired effects and oils that may be used to achieve those effects are:
1) Relaxation: chamomile, cedarwood, clary sage, frankincense, rose geranium, jasmine, lavender, neroli, orange, patchouli, rose, sandalwood, tangerine and ylang ylang.
2) Focus: basil, frankincense, juniper, peppermint and rosemary.
3) Spiritual awareness: Cedarwood, frankincense, myrrh, neroli and sandalwood.
4) Energy: basil, bergamot, grapefruit, eucalyptus, juniper, lemon, lemongrass, orange, peppermint, rosemary, and thyme.
A home or office can easily be scented using the oils in:
1) A dish of warm water or a simmering pot on the stove (not boiling water).
2) Diffusers - pots warmed by tea candles or nebulizers fueled by electricity.
3) Spritzers - oils mixed with water, sprayed into the air. Use six to ten drops of essential oil for two tablespoons of water for these methods.
All essential oils, should be diluted before using on the skin. Lavender and Tea Tree oil are generally considered safe to apply "neat" in urgent situations such as a burn or bee sting. More personal ways to experience essential oil scents include 6 to 10 drops:
1) In the bath or on the tiles as you shower (test on a shower tile first - some oils are corrosive).
2) In ½ ounce (one tablespoon) unscented lotion or oil for skin care.
3) In ½ ounce jojoba or fractionated coconut oil for use in a massage.
4) On a sachet or handkerchief to carry or keep near your pillow.
DOES IT WORK?
While there is often debate over the validity of aromatherapy, the growing interest in natural products has sparked an increased interest in plants and their uses. As a result, there has been more research and clinical studies involving the use of essential oils. The Journal of Advanced Nursing reports that in an intensive care unit, patients receiving aromatherapy experienced significant mood improvement and were less anxious. Nurses at Tullamore General Hospital (Ireland) report that aromatherapy improves patients' sleep significantly. In the Coronary Care Unit, they have found aromatherapy very effective for stress management.
So take time to stop and smell the roses (or lavender or chamomile), it may be just what you need to reduce your stress.
Written by: Anne Ramstetter Wenzel and Jeralynn Burke
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