(originally published in the August, 2008 edition of Les Nouvelles Esthetiques & Spa)
In the early 1920s, Rene Maurice Gattefosse, a French perfume chemist, injured himself while working in his laboratory. There was an explosion and he placed his burned hand in a container of what he mistakenly thought was water. The container really contained the essential oil of lavender. Several hours later, there were no residual injuries from the burn. Gattefosse continued to experiment with essential oils from a medicinal standpoint and by 1928, had coined the term “Aromatherapie“.
Jean Valnet, a French medical doctor and a friend of Rene Maurice Gattefosse used lavender oil that Gattefosse provided him while Valnet served as an army surgeon. By using lavender oil and other essential oils, Valnet was able to control infection from developing as a result of the soldier’s wounds. After the war, Valnet went to work at a psychiatric hospital and continued to use essential oils in the treatment of his psychiatric patients. Research now confirms that certain essential oils have antifungal, antiviral, and antibacterial properties.
In the 1990s, the National Institutes of Health, Office of Alternative Medicine was created. It, along with others, has funded several studies in the United States involving the use of essential oils.
A published study conducted at the touch research institute at the University of Miami, School of Medicine, confirms that Aromatherapy Positively Affects Mood, EEG Patterns of Alertness and Math Computations. (International Journal of Neuroscience, 1998, Vol. 96, p. 217-224.)
Points of Entry
One of the two ways that essential oils are accepted into the body is through inhalation. Research studies indicate that when a person breathes in an odorant molecule-the minute molecule containing a particular fragrance of the substance being breathed-it passes by a patch of cells called the olfactory epithelium. The patch of cells is located at the very top of the nasal cavity, horizontally positioned bilaterally and just below the eyes. The olfactory epithelium is only a few centimeters square and contains about five million olfactory neurons, plus their supporting cells and stem cells. Each olfactory neuron in the epithelium is topped by at least 10 hairlike cilia that protrude into a bath of mucus at the cell surface. Each olfactory neuron in the nose has a long fiber or axon that pokes through a tiny opening in the bone above it, the cribriform plate, to make a connection, or synapse, with other neurons. This synapse actually forms in the olfctory bulb, a part of the brain. It is a large, bulb-like structure in animals with an acute sense of smell that dwindles in size as the ability to smell decreases.
Anatomical studies demonstrate that signals from the olfactory cells in the nose reach the olfactory area of the cortex after only a single relay in the olfactory bulb. The olfactory cortex, in turn, connects directly with a key structure called the hypothalamus, which controls sexual and maternal behavior. The hypothalamus is also the control center for the pituitary gland, which secretes several important hormones. The limbic system, together with the hypothalamus, controls hunger, thirst, emotional reactions and biological rythms. In addition, it coordinates complex activities requiring a sequence of performance steps. This limbic system consists of the cingulate cortex, the septal area and the hippocampi.
After the odorant molecule from an essential oil passes by the olfactory epithelium, it continues along with the air that is transporting it to the lungs, where it travels on its journey to one of the two primary bronchi of the lungs. From here it continues to travel through the smaller passages until it reaches the alveolar ducts through which it passes to enter the bloodstream for circulation to other parts of the body, until it is excreted through either exhalation, the urine or the feces.
The other way that essential oils oils are accepted into the body is by being absorbed through the skin. This is a result of the small molecular size of essential oils, and the fact that they dissolve easily in fatty substances. After being absorbed into the skin and then into the bloodstream, having passed through the capillaries, they travel to other parts of the body until they are excreted.
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