Scents of Time

Aromatherapy, one of today’s hottest therapeutic trends, has been around
since the days of ancient Egypt. Discover how this technique developed and why
it offers health benefits to improve our hectic lives.

By Patrick Dougherty

March 2006

These days, more and more women want to feel as beautiful and powerful as an ancient queen, perhaps like Cleopatra, a woman who knew something about being pampered. That’s as good an explanation as any as to why the spa culture of massage and holistic treatments has become a booming business, appealing as it does to stressed-out modern women with its time-tested techniques that promise to soothe away troubles—or at least provide a bit of calm in a busy day. Currently one of the most popular treatments is aromatherapy, a healing art that dates back even farther than Queen Cleo’s era, all the way to the beginning of the civilization that produced her—Egypt.

Since the beginning of time, fragrances have been harnessed to profoundly affect our physical, psychological and spiritual well-being. Egyptians regarded fragrance as an integral part of life; scent was inseparable from cooking, cosmetics and even social gatherings. Egyptian culture placed great emphasis on purification rituals, including bathing, shaving and anointing the body with essential oils. Physicians also used oils to harmonize health; 3,000-year-old papyrus manuscripts reveal that different fragrances were used to boost the immune system, heal wounds, disinfect the air and fight infections.

Scent was one with spirituality in Egyptian religion, as each god and goddess was assigned a fragrance. Priests and priestesses were given the task of preparing and dispensing various aromas. At the heart of these scent rituals and therapies were the essential oils, which Egyptians imported from the Far East and Mediterranean regions in tremendous quantities. Egyptian perfumes made from these oils would become a cornerstone of commerce, in some instances worth as much as gold.

Ancient Aromatic Origins

The significance of fragrance in ancient Egypt is reflected in what archaeologists have learned about its most prominent figures. Queen Cleopatra, one of history’s greatest seductresses, had a well-documented love of rose scent and used it as many use rose scent today—as an aphrodisiac. Supposedly the barge she took to meet Marc Anthony of Rome around 41 B.C. overflowed with rose petals; even the barge’s sails were infused with rose scent. This led to a legend that her ship could be smelled before it was seen, and inspired Shakespeare to write in Anthony and Cleopatra that “the very sea was lovesick.”

On King Tutenkhamun’s throne, one of history’s most valuable artifacts, a scene depicts Queen Ankhesenamun tenderly applying oils to King Tut. When Tut’s burial chamber was unearthed in 1922, hundreds of liters of oil were found among the artifacts. One jar contained fragrant ointment, believed to be a combination of spikenard, frankincense and animal fat. The jar’s contents are uncannily similar to aromatherapy applications of today. In this case, instead of the modern method of delivering highly concentrated fragrances in carrier oils, less-aromatic plant oils that allow scents to be used in massage, fragrances were diluted in a medium of animal fat, which melts at body temperature. Remarkably, the jar’s contents still released a rich, powerful aroma thousands of years after it was created.

Fragrances were not only used to treat the body; the Egyptians also used them to harmonize emotions. The Greek historian Plutarch noted the importance of a popular Egyptian incense known as kyphi, which combined 16 different resins and herbs; it “lulls one to sleep, allays anxieties and brightens dreams; without drunkenness it relaxes and loosens the chain-like sorrows and tensions of daily cares.” Sound familiar? Kyphi is the early ancestor of today’s “calming essential oil blends,” a fragrance mélange designed to inspire placid emotions.

Shrouded in Mystery

Aromatherapy’s longevity is a testament to its power and effectiveness. After millennia of aromatherapy practice, essential oils are primarily obtained through distillation, a process of extreme pressure and heat that liberates scent from a plant’s aromatic glands located in stems, rinds, leaves, roots and flowers. Essential oils are often described as volatile, meaning that when exposed to air, they evaporate rapidly. Sometimes regarded as the “soul” or “life force” of plants, essential oils elicit a deep connection with what may be our most powerful sense—smell.

Based in the olfactory system, smell is one of the most primal parts of the brain. For most mammals, smell is a primary mode of communication, with broad-reaching influences we sometimes take for granted, including its effect on taste and sexual attraction. (Believe it or not, humans can distinguish over 10,000 different scents.) When inhaled, essential oils’ molecules connect directly with our brains—inspiring subtle changes in psyche that can benefit both body and mind.

“What’s really amazing about essential oils is that they affect the limbic system, the most primitive part of our mind,” explains Dr. Laurie Steelsmith, author of Natural Choices for Women’s Health (Three Rivers Press/Random House). “Scent comes in through the nose and immediately goes to the emotional center of your brain.”

The limbic system, so profoundly influenced by essential oil scents, is regarded as the epicenter of memory, learning and emotion. We may all recognize the limbic system’s subtle, sublime power in our reaction to scents. A whiff of autumn may catapult us back to vivid memories of the first day of school, or the scent of a certain man or woman may fill us with passionate desire. By influencing the limbic system with the right essential oils, we inspire emotional reactions, such as feelings of sedation, enhanced focus, relaxation and romance.

As scents affect the limbic system, they also trigger physiological responses. The limbic system works in concert with the endocrine system and can influence hormonal changes that govern immunity, appetite, stress response and other metabolic functions. What’s more, when applied to the skin—usually diluted in a carrier oil—essential oils’ chemical constituents are absorbed into the underlying tissues, then circulated to deliver benefits throughout the body.

Body, Mind and Spirit

As health care comes full circle by returning to the mind-body connection in wellness, aromatherapy exemplifies holistic health practices, treating mind, body and soul. “There’s another aspect of essential oils—aromatherapy for healing of the spirit,” Steelsmith says. “There’s a whole body of knowledge dating back to old Europe, when pagans, in their religious ceremonies, were using herbs and oils to treat the spirit and the emotions. If you think about a lot of traditional societies, they don’t separate the body and the spirit. They are one. Many traditional societies see sickness symptoms as an expression of the disruption in the body, mind and spirit—not just the body. Now there is empirical and observational evidence of aromatherapy’s medicinal benefits and effect on emotions.”

As this evidence mounts, aromatherapy is increasingly used as a complementary practice in conventional medicine settings. For example, ginger essential oil dabbed on the wrists of patients emerging from anesthesia has been shown to reduce nausea by 30%. In Australia, women are using aromatherapy to soothe nerves during labor. Even cancer patients are being introduced to aromatherapy’s ability to ease anxiety.

The benefit of therapies that we know and understand, augmented with techniques that, though mysterious, have worked for thousands of years, pack a one-two punch that may revolutionize our health practices. Backed with millennia of street credibility, aromatherapy’s methods are experiencing a renaissance as fewer question why aromatherapy works and more appreciate how aromatherapy enhances health at a deep, soulful level.

Aromatherapy is born of universal instinct. The act of inhaling a flower’s sweet scent and enjoying the blissful sensations that follow may be its first manifestation, far predating the earliest aromatherapy practices in Egypt. When we connect our souls with nature, we achieve harmony as mind, body and the cosmos blend together in a sublime, heavenly fragrance we’ve enjoyed since the beginning of time.

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