What is Aromatherapy?

The use of aromatic plants is nothing new. People have been fascinated by aromas for over a  thousand years. During  classical antiquity natural aromas were used to manufacture incense, medicines, cosmetics and perfumes. The plants which produced these fragrances were viewed as a link to the spiritual world, which nowadays still is a strong belief in certain cultures.

The aromatherapy of today interprets the subtleties of these fragrances differently because the emphasis has shifted to mental influence and the therapeutic effects of essential oil. The result of that– a sense of clarity and a better mood– let aromatherapy be a perfect antidote to the tensions people experience nowadays. The fact that our lives are more and more affected by stress, makes aromatherapy more useful than ever.

The growing interest led to the fact that aromatherapy has a different meaning for different people. Many aromatherapy practitioners view this as a subtle art which has a profound effect on the body and mind. Botanists and biochemists regard essential oils as complex combinations of molecules. People with a scientific approach see aromatherapy as a use of sophisticated bio-active ingredients and for a perfumer, the essentials oils are the elements that build the perfume. All of the above is true – aromatherapy reflects the aspects of art and science, perfume and psychology, biochemistry and botany.

In simple terms: the definition of aromatherapy consists of two words – ‘aroma’ and ‘therapy’. ‘Aroma’ refers to the sense of smell which receives and interprets chemical signals. ‘Therapy’ implicates that someone receives the aroma to create a beneficial effect. In the next pages we will discuss these aspects in detail.

The power of scent  

Often, we are not aware of our sense of smell: most people only notice this when they cannot smell temporarily. When we have a cold, we notice that our food doesn’t taste like anything. Because our taste is influenced for 80 % by our sense of smell and 20% by our taste buds. If someone loses his sense of smell permanently, this can lead to severe depression. Why? Our sense of smell mostly defines the way we experience our world and enriches our life. Our nose detects scents when we breathe which causes neural impulses who constantly send signals to our brain. 

These reactions take place thousands of times a day, even if we are asleep. Fragrances are very important for our sense of wellbeing. Not only do they influence the parts of our brain that affect our moods, emotions or feelings, they also influence the parts that regulate the body’s chemical balance. In other words, fragrances with a calming effect, cause internal, chemical changes which will relax the body. The more vitalizing fragrances stimulate the brain and has invigorating and energizing qualities.

Some impulses picked up by the sense of smell, affect parts in our brain that will extend beyond our consciousness; this implicates that reactions to fragrances will be expressed non-verbal sounds like ‘mmmm’ or ‘ew!’ This suggests that our reactions to fragrances are instinctively, ‘good’ or ‘awful’. Small children show this behaviour a lot, if it smells good they want to grab it and if it smells unpleasant they turn away from it.

In adults, strong instinctive reactions to fragrances come from associative memories. In the novel of the French writer Marcel Prouts A la recherche du temps perdu (Looking for lost time) the scent  – a madeleine dipped in lime-tree blossom tea– plays a central role because this scent recalls detailed memories from his early childhood.

If you have never actively noticed your sense of smell before, it’s nice to give some attention to it. For example, go for a walk outside and see how many different fragrances you can discover. You will be surprised by the number. 


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