Aromatherapy: Funny Name, Serious Smell
When I hear the word "aromatherapy" I immediately think of cheap candles that make broad and spurious claims on their ability to calm or enliven you depending on whether the candle's main ingredient is either lavender or citrus. As it turns out, there is more to aromatherapy than what a team of marketers can convey through a label. That doesn't mean candles don't smell good, but it does mean that the word "aromatherapy" has been stripped of all its meaning due to misuse.
I knew that there were actually people who took the word seriously, and through a tip, I discovered an aromatherapy class being held close to my house. I checked it out and since I've been reading a little about alchemy, perfumery, and its roots in early Islamic science, I felt that I might as well learn what I can first hand.
The woman who ran the class, Kath Koeppen, of her own company Aromaceuticals, is a pioneer because she's not only a teacher, but also a practitioner and an importer of the same goods she dispenses. As a pioneer, she is not motivated solely by money, and by her own admission, she is not rich, but she indeed believes in what she does, and her authenticity shined through the whole day. Just as is the case in every other one of the healing arts, there is a lot of misinformation afoot, and Kath spent a good hour or so dispelling some common myths. Essential oils, which are not actually oils, but are called that because they do not mix with water, are in all plants, but only 8 to 10 percent of them give up enough of their "life force" for it to be economically and medicinally viable. Depending on the plant, essential oils originate in the flowers, fruits, bark, leaves, trunk, blossoms, roots, branches, sap, or seed. Plants produce their essential oils for different reasons. Some oils will repel fungus, others will attract a certain type of insect. The black walnut tree will only produce its essential oil as a sapling and its purpose is to keep other things from growing around it. As the tree matures, it stops producing that oil and other lifeforms will begin to grow again. That made me think of how humans, at different stages in their development, may produce an ethereal repellent, but once a certain level of security is met, those people generally go back to being their usual charming selves.
Many essential oils are incredibly expensive because it takes so much matter to produce such a small amount of oil. Naturally, sheer economics comes into play as well. For instance, roses are very common, but the rose that is most suited for aromatherapy is of one type alone and it can only grow in Bulgaria and Turkey. Since very little oil is present in the flowers, it can take thousands of roses to make just one ounce of essential oil. Then the prices are bid up by affluent Arabs who will spare at no expense to get the very best rose oil to pour on their carpets. Considering these factors, it's no wonder why a five-milliliter bottle — the size of my thumb — costs over $200. Prices of other oils are also influenced by a number of geopolitical issues. The bergamot tree can only grow in certain parts of Italy and due in part to the Mafia, its production is purposely limited to maintain price. Frankincense and myrrh come from Somalia and Yemen, and though the political instability might mean fewer taxes, tariffs, and regulatory schemes, the countries' limited infrastructure makes it costly to import these Biblical resins. Sandalwood is the blue whale of essential oils since overharvesting has led to a near depletion of the tree in its native India. Fortunately, huge plantations are popping up in Australia, but since it takes nearly two decades for the tree to mature, Sandalwood oil will be an elusive one for a while longer yet.
So there are definitely people who take aromatherapy seriously, but when will this healing art go mainstream? In a way, it already has. Pharmaceutical giants have been using plant matter for over a century, one of the most common ones being an extract from the eucalyptus tree. Instead of using the whole oil, the pharmaceutical companies will usually just take the one bona fide active ingredient, eucalyptol, leaving behind what they call a rectified oil, which has a nice name, but it's just the oil without its most powerful component. The rectified oils are then dumped back on the market, and if you're an uneducated buyer, you may end up purchasing the aromatherapy equivalent of a soccer player with no legs. You must know your source!
Since aromatherapy is not as mainstream as Western medicine, there is less official regulation of the practice. In the long run, I would say it's better if the aggregate of aromatherapy practitioners stayed far away from the slippery slope of official oversight. For instance, a bottle can say "100% pure frankincense oil" when in fact it's 100% pure frankincense oil adulterated in a carrier base of jojoba oil. This means in theory, the bottle you are purchasing might have two parts of 100% pure frankincense oil to every ten parts of jojoba oil — pretty sneaky. Many practitioners, if they were given an option, might call for a "truth in aromatherapy labeling" bill, to help consumers make proper choices. Yes, that might be effective in the short run, but that also invites the possibility of future rules that aromatherapists may not approve of on the whole, such as where aromatherapists can practice, how many hours are needed to become registered, etc. That's not to say that there shouldn't be standards, but I believe that those standards can be created and maintained privately. Underwriters Laboratories and the Orthodox Union are two very powerful privately held regulatory agencies that are the gold standard of their respective fields.
Even now, one can see that precise designations have popped up to help the true-religion aromatherapists differentiate themselves from the charlatans. One common misnomer in aromatherapy and perfumery is the word "water," as in rose water or lavender water. For instance, the kind of water aromatherapists are keen to use is the liquid that's left over after the distillation process once the essential oil has been siphoned off. This distillate has naturally been infused with ingredients that are quite different than the oil and have very different indications in aromatherapy. As it is, if you go to the market and purchase rose water, it could be the liquid I just described, regular water mixed with true rose oil, or water mixed with a synthetic. Aromatherapists coined a word, "hydrolat," which is the industry term for the distillate. So now discerning buyers have an easier time finding the product they want. Yes, the perfumers could co-opt the term and sell their inferior product as a hydrolat, but the world is not a safe place, so it's still up to the buyer to know their producers and keep tabs on them just like any other good or service on the market.
Another appellation that helps shrewd aromatherapy practitioners is the Latin binomial nomenclature on the labels of better brands. If you see the word "lavender" on a bottle it could mean you're getting the proper Lavandula augustifolia or it could mean you're getting a sterile hybrid called lavandin, which is easier to grow and produce, but is not nearly as therapeutic as the augustifolia. By using the Latin, producers of essential oils are telling their customers exactly what species of plant is in the bottle. Thanks to this simple yet important stroke of genius, consumers can have better confidence that they are not being defrauded. Therefore, it is possible for members of this particular field to spontaneously and fruitfully come together on the key issues that are mutually beneficial to producers, practitioners and their patients.
Just like with mainstream medicines, aromatherapists create compounds to treat conditions that are multi-symptomatic. Fortunately, they are built the same way as perfumes with top, middle and base notes. That is, the top notes are the most volatile and diffuse after 20 minutes or so, the middle notes come into play next and last for a couple of hours, and lastly the base notes come into full force, taking over for the rest of the day. A proper blend will not smell of one ingredient in particular, but will have its own unique scent, just like a good perfume or cologne.
After many hours of this crash course seminar, we finally had the chance to make two concoctions. My first was a combination of vetivert, a viscous oil produced from a grassroot native to India, frankincense, the pathological secretion of the tree Boswellia carterii from Somalia and clary sage, a flowery herb grown in Europe that has little in common with regular sage. When mixed together and put in a base of macadamia oil, the solution can be used to induce meditative states that encourage creativity. I called it, "Todd's nighttime tripnotic oil." The second mix was lavender, frankincense and rosemary, which is supposed to effect a calm, focused state of mind where the memory becomes sharper. I dubbed that one "Todd's daytime brainbending serum of clarity." Despite the names, I assure you that both blends are 100% safe and legal. Though I am not quite ready to pack a few cases on the back of my wagon and ride into the county fair, I am having fun learning about the healing effects of an alternative medicine that's taken a century off due to the rise of pharmaceuticals, but is now making a comeback thanks to the efforts of people who believe that healing doesn't just have to just feel good, it can smell good too.
February 3, 2010
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