Health Matters: Essential oils may be therapeutic

By Chuck NewcombMay 30, 2013 

I must admit, I was a bit skeptical when my wife brought home some aromatic oils that she insisted were supposed to help her sinus and allergy problems. Someone had told her these varieties of essential oils could help with numerous ailments from headaches to arthritis.

Everyone knows how scents can promote certain memories or feelings and we can spend a lot of money on fragrant perfumes, lotions and shampoos. Manufacturers and marketing agencies invest in all kinds of research to figure out what makes us buy certain things or avoid others.

Computer gaming companies have been working feverishly on creating a virtual reality experience that is rounded out with scents that are meant to invoke another dimension in the near-real world of make-believe.

There may be something to this relatively new, yet ancient form of therapy. The nose and our sense of smell are remarkable things. According to the Sense of Smell Institute, humans possess the ability to detect about 10,000 different odors. Scent signals go immediately to the center of our emotions in the brain, bypassing the centers related to mental judgment and interpretation. In fact, our sense of smell has been found to determine the majority of our emotional states.

Odor receptor cells in the nose send signals to a part of the brain called the amygdala, which is the emotion-processing section of the brain that also affects behavior, mood, and memory. The amygdola has an effect on the hypothalamus, which influences the thalamus, pituitary gland and the raphe nucleus in the brain.

The hypothalamus helps link the nervous system to the endocrine system via the pituitary gland. These control things like body temperature, hunger, important aspects of parenting and attachment behaviors, thirst, fatigue, sleep, and circadian cycles.

The thalamus in turn is involved in sensory perception and movement with other parts of the brain and spinal cord that also have a role in sensation and movement. It also controls sleep and awake states of consciousness.

The raphe nuclei's main function is to release serotonin to the rest of the brain. This is the primary site for brain synthesis of norepinephrine (also known as adrenaline), which involves physiological responses to stress and panic.

Considering all of this, it would make perfect sense that specific odors would be able to stimulate particular emotional and physiological responses. And that may not be all. Besides inhalation, some of these substances can be absorbed into the body through the skin when mixed with an oily medium or lotion.

There are many essential oils used in aromatherapy, including those from Roman chamomile, geranium, lavender, tea tree, lemon, cedarwood, and bergamot. Each type of essential oil has a different chemical composition that affects how it smells, how it is absorbed, and how it is used by the body. Even the oils from varieties of plants within the same species may have chemical compositions different from each other. The same applies to plants that are grown or harvested in different ways or locations.

Many studies of essential oils have found oils have antibacterial effects when applied to the skin. Some essential oils even have antiviral activity against the herpes simplex virus. Others have antifungal activity against certain vaginal and oral airway fungal infections.

Some examples of uses for essential oils are: Eucalyptus for colds, poor circulation and arthritis; lavender for depression, anxiety, burns and muscle pain; and ginger for colds and nausea. Cinnamon has been shown to improve concentration. Some are especially helpful for those with cancer to stave off nausea and anxiety.

So, what can it hurt? Maybe my wife is on to something. The essential oils are legal, I don't need a prescription to get them and they smell kind of nice.

Chuck Newcomb, MS, RD, CDE is a consulting Registered Dietitian currently providing medical nutrition therapy services for Memorial Hospital Los Banos. He has a Master of Science in Clinical Nutrition from New York University. E-mail questions to the Attention of ChuckRD at: MHALosBanos@SutterHealth.org or on his website MySmartRD.com.

Chuck Newcomb, MS, RD, CDE is a consulting Registered Dietitian currently providing medical nutrition therapy services for Memorial Hospital Los Banos. He has a Master of Science in Clinical Nutrition from New York University. E-mail questions to the Atte

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