Aromas can have a profound effect on us. Scents can deliver an emotional wallop – they have the power to bring memories to life, thanks to the olfactory system’s unique connections with parts of the brain responsible for memory and processing emotions. But aromas can also play a role in well being, especially when used therapeutically in the form of essential plant oils.
The term essential oil comes from “quintessential oil,” which stems from the Aristotelian concept of the fifth element after fire, air, earth, and water. As described by the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy, one of the two governing bodies for national educational standards for aromatherapists:
The fifth element, or quintessence, was then considered to be spirit or life force. Distillation and evaporation were thought to be processes of removing the spirit from the plant and this is also reflected in our language since the term “spirits” is used to describe distilled alcoholic beverages such as brandy, whiskey, and eau de vie.
Now of course we know that essential oils are made from chemical compounds, not the spirit of a plant, but it remains a lovely metaphor, nonetheless.
The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) defines an essential oil as a product made by distillation with either water or steam or by mechanical processing of citrus rinds or by dry distillation of natural materials. There has been a lot of research on the efficacy of aromatherapy, with a review of the science published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine concluding: "studies have consistently shown that odors can produce specific effects on human neuropsychological and autonomic function."
Some people complain that it’s all a bunch of woowoo, many swear by the benefits garnered by the use of essential oils. Knowing the power that scent has over me, I am likely to side with the latter. At the very least I know for sure that it can affect my mood, and I'd be willing to go further. And given that, I like this list from ProFlowers of 13 common essential oils and what they're good for, along with benefits and suggested pairings.
For how to use essential oils and for good advice on avoiding potential adverse effects, visit National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy.