By Hwaa Irfan
The use of aromas is believed to date back to the times of the ancient Egyptians and the Babylonians (modern day Iraq). Unlike today where aromas are bottled for females to give off a sweet scent of attraction, back then they were solely used for medicinal purposes and for the purpose of hygiene.
The Ebers Papyrus of ancient Egypt, the world’s oldest preserved medical document dating back to 1552 BC, lists over 800 remedies much of which consisted of myrrh – a brownish aromatic tree gum resin with a bitter slightly pungent taste.
In distant Azerbaijan, the use of aromas was a part of mainstream medicine. Aromas were not sidelined as they are today to “alternative” forms of treatment. In t e Middle Ages, when the idea of medical treatment was slowly becoming established, medieval Azerbaijani doctors used essential oils and other aromas as a regular method of treatment for their patients. The legacy from 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 (Iran), it was a common understanding among the population that they had to be clean in order to attain 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 of aromatherapy in specialist shops in the West.
Poet Nzami Ganjavi (1141 – 1203) described the use of rose oil as a remedy for headaches and as an antiseptic. In Caucasian Albania (North Azebaijan), they used the herb thyme as both a tonic and an aphrodisiac. Other Azerbaijani aromas that were used included: fennel, lemon balm, spearmint, nutmeg, dill, chamomile, cinnamon, lime, black cumin, cedar wood, cypress and myrtle.
Whereas today an expensive French perfume is rated highly, back then shahs and sultans rated highly the aromatic herbs and ointments of India, Egypt, Byzantium, China, Russia, and the Persian Gulf. It was through the Muslims alchemist Jabir (Geber in the West) ibn Hayyan (702 – 705) and others that the process of distillation was refined.
The Discovery of Aromatherapy
It was actually during the plague of the Middle Ages that Europeans began producing essential oils. The term “aromatherapy” was coined by French cosmetic chemist Rene-Maurice Gattefosse in the early 20th century. As a result of an incident 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 when he observed how quickly his hand healed, and how there were no visible scars, so he took up research arising from his discovery. During WWII Gattefosse applied his findings to injured soldiers and discovered that they too healed quickly. Also treating veterans, Dr. Jean Valent, an army surgeon and medical doctor, used essential oils in WWII to treat burns and later to treat veterans suffering from psychiatric problems in mental hospitals.
Kwang-Geun Lee of the University of California at Davis in 2002 discovered that some smells could act as antioxidants preventing cancer-forming cells. Lee distilled and extracted 30 chemicals form 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.
What Do They Do?
Modern western scientists differ as to how these oils work technically speaking, but what is understood is that the sense of smell works mainly on the subconscious level being connected to the primitive part of the brain known as the limbic system, which has been under much research in recent times in the field of neuroscience. The limbic system helps to regulate what are essentially the survival mechanisms: the sensory-motor function, the emotions, and instincts such as the sex drive, hunger and thirst. Then there is the olfactory nerve (affects memory) which carries the sensation of smell to the brain, waking the brain, and creating visual 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 through the body affecting various biological functions.
Qualities of an Oil
Every God-given gift of a plant varies according to whether the root, stem, bark, leaf, petal, is being used, just as the organs of a human serves a different function. Accordingly, each part of a plant/tree possesses different medicinal qualities. Basically, the further away from the root, the more mental/emotional the affect of the medicinal properties, which is affected in turn by the soil in which it grows, and the method of extraction. The more concentrated types are referred to as “absolutes” with very little alcohol content, and must be diluted before application. Much can depend on the reputation of maker /producer in terms of being true to quality including how organically produced the oil is, because this also affects the end result – the therapeutic effect. Standards have been set in place in some countries in order to ensure that the customer is buying an “essential oil” i.e. an oil that is 100% pure, is wholly from a botanical source, and is produced by physical means only.
The medicinal action, which one may be familiar with includes:
Alterative – cleanses the blood, and corrects presence of blood impurities
Analgesic – Relieves pain through oral/external means
Analeptic – stimulates the central nervous system
Antiemetic – reduces vomiting
Antiscorbutic – Prevents/relieves scurvy
Anesthetic – causes reversible loss of sensation
Anthelmintic – expels/destroys parasitic worms
Antihistaminic – counteracts histamine
Antibiotic – (bacterial, fungal, viral)
Anti-Inflammatory – Reduces inflammation/swellings by helping the body to overcome the problem
Anti-Neuralgic – Reduces pain arising from the nerves
Anti phlogistic – Reduces swelling of parts of the body
Anti-spasmodic – Relieves spasms
Aphrodisiac – Arouses and increases sexual desire
Bechic – Relieves of coughs
Calmative – Calms the nerves and skin
Carminative – Promotes the discharge and flow of bile from the gall bladder into the small intestines helping to disinfect the bowels.
Cephalic – Calms and soothes the mind
Chemoprotective – Protects healthy tissues in chemotherapy
Cicatrisant – Closes wounds and forms scar tissue
Cordial – Tonic and stimulant to the heart
Cytophylactic – Encourages growth of skin cells
Cytoprotective – protects healthy cells against harmful agents
Depurative – purgative/purifying
Diaphoretic – Promotes perspiration
Diuretic – Increases the secretion and flow of urine
Emmenagogue – Stimulates the menstrual flow
Expectorant – Causes and eases the bring-up of phlegm/mucus/sputum from the respiratory tract
Febrifuge – Reduces temperature
Haemostatic – stops bleeding
Hepatic – Strengthens and tones the liver. Increases secretions in the liver.
Hypotensive – abnormally low blood pressure
Insecticide – Repels insects
Odontalgic – Strengthens the teeth
Orexigenic – Induces the desire to eat
Pectoral – Helps chest infections
Rubefacient – Warming as blood flow increases
Secretolytic/Mucolytic – Dissolves/expels mucus
Sedative – Increases likelihood of sleep
Stomachic – Tones the stomach and improves the function of the digestive tract
Styptic – reduces external bleeding
Sudorific – increases perspiration
Thermogenic – Warming by stimulation of the metabolism
Vermifuge – expels/destroys parasitic worms
Vulnerary – Prevents bleeding and cell degeneration
Vasodilator – Dilates the blood vessels
As Islam reminds us, nothing is good in excess for therein lies the danger, and so it is with aromatherapy. For example:
Basil/Nutmeg – Taken in high doses can have a stupefying affect.
Bergamot – If applied neat, it increases photosensitivity
Cinnamon Bark/leaf – In high doses/concentration or without anything else, it can irritate the skin causing convulsions
Chamomile – If taken by someone who is depressed during the daytime, it can make them feel worse.
Fennel – Can be toxic to children aged 6 and under.
Mugwort – May lead to abortion
Oregano/Red Thyme – Can irritate the skin
Pennyroyal – Toxic in high doses
Of course added to the above, each person has their own aversions, sensibilities, allergies, and may be of a particular disposition that prevents them from using an essential oil, or any essential oil.
Personally, I always travel with a pack. I can use them when I bath/or as incense to not only moisturize the skin, but depending on the oil used, to strengthen ones immune system, clean one’s face from pollutants in the air, and to attend to any cuts/bruises/burns! Besides I save a lot of money by not going to the pharmacy, which only has products that do not agree with my skin!
New oils are being made available all the time, but we will focus only on the tried and tested – the established essentials oils!
Alakbarov, F. “Scents that Heal”
Burfield, T. “The Adulteration of Essential Oils and the Consequences to Aromatherapy & Natural Perfumery Practice”. http://www.naha.org/articles/adulteration_1.htm
“Healing System Alternatives and Choices”. Indiangyan.com
Lavabre, M. Aromatherapy Workbook. The Healing Arts Press, Canada. 1990
Price, S. Practical Aromatherapy. Thorsons Publ. Britain. 1987