Health: The smell good factor

Its powers and healing properties have been tried and tested; the French and Germans swear by it. But in Britain, aromatherapy is still not taken seriously.
When the first astronauts travelled into space, state-of-the-art technology was crammed into almost every square inch of their craft. There were monitors for their hearts, gauges for blood pressure, tests for bone density, and meters for measuring capacity. There were also games designed to prevent boredom, exercises and tasks to relieve stress, and pictures, music and sounds from home to combat depression.

But it soon became clear that one thing had been overlooked. There was nothing pleasant for the crews to smell in the sterile, hi-tech spacecraft. So acute did the problem become that early astronauts took to keeping their lemon- and lilac-scented hand-wipes for sniffing during leisure times.

As a result, astronauts on later missions were provided with sensory packs giving them a choice of well-known fragrances, as well as a few favourite smells from back home.

The power of the sense of smell has been known for thousands of years, but only now is evidence emerging that aromas, particularly those extracted from plants, are not only a psychological pick-me-up, but can ease some physiological problems, too.

Conditions as diverse as epilepsy and burn injuries, herpes and respiratory infections have now been successfully treated using clinical forms of aromatherapy.

In Britain, until now, it has been traditionally regarded as a kind of alternative massage therapy, good for toning the skin perhaps, but no use at all in treating illness and disease. In France and Germany, however, it's Europe's fastest-growing alternative therapy, and has evolved as part of medicine.

French doctor Rene-Maurice Gattefosse is now credited with being the father of modern aromatherapy, largely as a result of his seminal, three- volume work on the subject, which was published almost exactly 60 years ago.

"His theories put aromatherapy squarely on the basis of modern scientific thought and experimentation. He introduced the word aromatherapy and created the discipline of therapeutic application of essential oils," says Dr Kurt Schnaubelt, author of Medical Aromatherapy.

Clinical aromatherapy uses essential oils extracted from herbs, flowers, trees and fruits. These are the oils that give the aroma to the plant, but they also contain hundreds of complex chemical compounds, including aldehydes, terpenes, alcohols, esters and ketones, many of which are known to have a healing affect on the body. Whether massaged into the skin, consumed internally, or simply inhaled, the theory of aromatherapy is that these chemicals interact with the body.

"Because the molecules of essential oils are so minute, they penetrate human skin ands enter the bloodstream and organs. Scientists have found that the same oils gather in the same parts of the body time and time again," says aromatherapist, Penny Rich.

As proof of the power of plants, aromatherapists are quick to point out that biochemists have been consistently raiding nature to find therapeutic compounds, from aspirin to St John's wort for depression.

Just how the oils work remains unclear. In some cases, the chemicals in them may act at a local level, as with lavender oil for burns and acne, or they may work through the pleasant smell having an effect on the brain and affecting the working of the immune system.

"Essential oils stimulate the sense of smell, which in turn affects the areas of the brain known as the limbic system. The link between emotions, fear, love, excitement, anger, and the release of body chemicals is well- established. Aromatherapy, through its impact on the limbic system, can stimulate the release of neurochemicals, as well as hormones, in the body," says Barbara Rowlands, author of The Which? Guide to Complementary Medicine.

Although the power of essential oils has been known for some time - the Egyptians were using myrrh and cedarwood for embalming 4,500 years ago - it's only since the arrival of biochemistry that the individual qualities and importance of chemicals founds in plants has been truly realised.

At a psychological level, it's now known that pleasant aromas can ease pain and help with insomnia and depression, and aromatherapy is increasingly being used by nurses working with patients suffering from chronic conditions.

Some oils, including Spanish oregano and rosemary, have been used to treat bacterial infections, while a trial involving oil from the tea tree showed it to be effective against MRSA, which is a potentially lethal bug that is most commonly picked up in hospitals.

A study in California has found that thyme oil was useful in treating migraine, and in France, patients with cardiac disease who were given essential oils reduced the incidence of further attacks. In a hospital- based project in Birmingham, massage and aromatherapy oils have been used to treat epilepsy, and results showed that one third of patients were seizure-free after a year. Trials have also shown that peppermint is useful in the treatment of shingles, while lavender oil helps deal with cold sores.

Despite these trials and the apparent successes of many essential oils, there is still a reluctance in Britain to accept aromatherapy as a medical treatment.

"There are striking differences between the French and British approaches. In France, aromatherapy was first propagated by medical doctors which led to its integration into conventional medicine," says Dr Schnaubelt.

"The non-academic character of aromatherapy in Britain is probably the main reason why it is confronted with a certain antagonism from the conventional medical establishment," Dr Schnaubelt concludes.

Aromatherapy Treatments

n Upper Respiratory Tract Infections: Thyme rubbed onto the skin provides forceful antiseptic action, while three to 10 drops of Bay oil applied to the lymph nodes fights off infection.

n Acne: Peppermint oil capsules stimulate elimination of toxins from the liver, while lavender applied to the affected areas stimulates new tissue growth.

n Flu: German camomile taken during the acute stages detoxifies metabolic wastes from pathogenic micro-organisms.

n Earache: Two drops of Eucalyptus oil on a cotton swab inserted gently into the ear. Lavender massaged into the surrounding area may also help.

n Stretch Marks: Flax seed and hazel nut oils can be used for existing marks, while a blend of enrol and cypress in hazel nut oil massaged into the skin during pregnancy can be used to prevent the characteristic stringy marks and discolouration.

n Conjunctivitis: Add three to five drops of fresh lemon juice to a three ounce bottle of myrtle water and spray into eye every hour.

n Insomnia: Three drops of angelica massaged into the forehead

n Nausea: One or two drops of tarragon, rosemary and marjoram in water.

From `Medical Aromatherapy' by Kurt Schnaubelt, published this week and available from Airlift Books, pounds 13.99. Further reading: `The Which? Guide to Complementary Medicine', pounds 9.99