Once upon a time when I lived in Maryland I used to see a talented massage therapist who incorporated many modalities into her work, including aromatherapy using essential oils. Her treatment room smelled incredible—she had little brown and dark blue bottles lined up on a pretty dresser and the smell of the oils was magic—and as soon as I walked in I felt myself calming down.
Each time I had a session with her she asked me questions and then made up a blend of specific essential oils based on what was going on for me that day. Some days after work I was exhausted and needed boosting and reviving. Other days I was wired, frazzled, and stressed and needed to calm down. And other sessions also addressed specific symptoms: headache, PMS, jaw pain, digestive distress.
Using a carrier oil she added two drops of one essence and four drops of another and three of some other, shook it gently, and then started the session, telling me what flowers, plants, or herbs she had used and why—for my particular situation that day—and encouraging me to go into a deeply meditative state as she laid hands on. Each time I felt like an Egyptian queen being anointed in a special ceremony. I saw her as a wizard or an alchemist working with my absolutely individual being, like no other, and different each session. She was listening to me in my entirety, not looking at just one or two symptoms to fix.
That’s what I love about Chinese medicine as well: looking at the whole, with everything connected to all else.
In my acupuncture practice I’ve been using some essential oil “synergies” based on the work of Dennis Willmont and his book Aromatherapy with Chinese Medicine: Healing the Body, Mind, and Spirit with Essential Oils. He has been practicing acupuncture, herbal medicine, shiatsu, tai chi, and Daoist meditation for 30 years and is an author, teacher, and lecturer in the field.
I’m careful about the use of scents because I have some patients with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity who are reactive to smells of any kind, but the Therapeutic Grade essential oils used in Willmont’s synergies are vastly different from the more generally available Cosmetic Grade oils found at most health food stores, which are often adulterated with chemical additives such as SD40 alcohol, propylene glycol (carcinogenic), diethylphalate (DEP), and synthetic linalyl acetate. The plants Willmont uses as either individual essential oils or in his blends (synergies) are grown organically or harvested wild and processed on site and with little heat and pressure so their valuable properties are not destroyed.
When indicated and with a person’s agreement, I apply small amounts of a particular synergy along the course of an acupuncture meridian or at specific points, in addition to the needles. Based on Willmont’s writings on the subject and on my own observations in my practice, I’m finding that a treatment can become a deeper, richer experience for some through the use of essential oils in conjunction with acupuncture. My patients have reported better sleep, vivid or lucid dreaming, release of long-held emotional issues, feelings of calmness and clarity, visions of colors during treatments, renewed energy for creative endeavors, and a sense of lightness, as if a burden has been lifted.
Willmont writes that we are drawn to aromatherapy because we are “naturally seeking relief from the heavy pollution bombarding us. There is pollution of the air, water, soil, sunshine (by ozone), and even of the earth’s resonant field (by electromagnetic radiation).” He cites research finding that pure essential oils offer protection against bacteria and viruses, help neutralize the effects of environmental toxins and radiation, and help facilitate the release of emotional trauma.
He writes: “Fragrances touch us directly through scent, the oldest and most evocative of our senses. Scent goes deeper than conscious thought or organized memory. Each individual oil has a personality with its own chemotypes and biological frequency. As we inhale an oil, its aroma goes up our olfactory nerve as electrical frequency impulses into our mid-brain’s amygdala, which stores and and releases emotional trauma, and then into the limbic system where our deepest emotions reside.”
When inhaled, essential oils affect the central nervous system directly, triggering brain circuits like turning on an electrical switch. “Complex interactions between the limbic system’s structures and other parts of the brain indicate that this ancient brain actually controls all of our basic neuro-vegetative functions: heartbeat, respiration, hormonal balance, and digestive function as well as emotions, hunger, thirst, ability to sleep, mood, sexual response, and immune response.”
In a study conducted by the University Clinic of Neurology at the Medical University of Vienna and published in the medical journal Physiology & Behavior, ambient aromas of lavender and orange improved patients’ mood and reduced anxiety in the dentist’s office. Two hundred participants from ages 18 to 77 were assigned to a waiting room before their dental appointment. Each of the four rooms featured a different stimulus of lavender, orange, music, and a control group. Their findings show those exposed to the ambient aromas had less anxiety and a better mood than the control group.
In 2009 Brown University conducted a review of current research in the field of aromatherapy and reported in the International Journal of Neuroscience: “A systematic review of scientific experimentation addressing olfactory effects on mood, physiology, and behavior was undertaken. From this review, 18 studies meeting stringent empirical criteria were then analyzed in detail and it was found that credible evidence that odors can affect mood, physiology and behavior exists.”
According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, “Several clinical studies suggest that when essential oils (particularly rose, lavender, and frankincense) were used by qualified midwives, pregnant women felt less anxiety and fear, had a stronger sense of well-being, and had less need for pain medications during delivery. Many women also report that peppermint oil relieves nausea and vomiting during labor.”
Despite positive research, the field of aromatherapy has its detractors; the subject is controversial. I choose to follow my instinct in this, and my own personal experience.
Some of the essential oil synergies I am using are for pain conditions and others are aimed more at stress reduction and easing emotional issues. These blends devised by Dennis Willmont are grounded in ancient traditions of Chinese medicine and are informed by his years of study in this field.
One synergy, called “Overcome,” addresses both the Kidney and Liver energetic systems and uses a combination of Yin and Yang essential oils to help contact a person’s inner potential and successfully lead it out into the world in a balanced way. In Chinese medicine this process is called “Fulfilling Destiny.”
Another synergy I use, called “Balance,” calms and clears the Heart; frees, calms, and arouses the spirit; guides instinct, intention, and perspective; creates a strong movement of Qi that allows a person to more comfortably face emotional conflicts and release them; and helps create harmony within and without to overcome negative emotions.
Sounds great, huh? Wouldn’t we all like to fulfill our destiny? Face emotional conflicts and release them? Overcome negative emotions? Balance Kidney, Liver, Heart, Lung, and all other systems? We are all trying to stay healthy. Aromatherapy, acupuncture, massage—none of these are magic bullets for what ails us, but they are tools to aid us. When we take in such work and combine it with our own at-home efforts to stay sane, healthy, and whole, we are tapping in to our body’s healing intelligence.