The Sweet Smell of Wellness: Aromatherapy Uses in Recovery

My previous articles for this column have focused on using various methods of enlightened self care as important tools in a holistic approach to recovery. By considering using these gentle, yet time-honored techniques, your program will be providing patients with unique and valuable support for recovery during treatment and beyond.

The goal of a holistic approach for any way of life is to make deep and long-lasting connections between all systems in the human experience — mental, physical, emotional and spiritual — for more health, wellness and vitality. The eco-conscious approach to holistic wellness further emphasizes these connections as they relate to the natural world and how each affects the person. We are healthier and more vital as humans when we are connected to the physical world around us; the physical world has the power to heal us in profound ways on an everyday basis. As one of many techniques for assisting in addiction recovery, it offers a patient something to use each day for helping to make healthier choices.

As a simple, effective and extremely easy tool for self-care, aromatherapy can’t be beat. It is inexpensive, can be carried in the palm of a hand or pocket and can be used anytime, anywhere.

What Is Aromatherapy?

Aromatherapy is a therapeutic technique that uses essential oils and other aromatic plant compounds aimed at improving a person’s health or mood. It is believed that the inhalation of essential oils stimulates the part of the brain connected to smell — the olfactory system. A signal is sent to the limbic system of the brain that controls emotions and retrieves learned memories. This causes chemicals to be released, which make the person feel relaxed, calm or even stimulated.

Essential oils are said to have a direct pharmacological effect. Aromatherapists work from the theory that there is a synergy between the body and aromatic oils. Scientific evidence of aromatherapy’s effectiveness is growing, as preliminary clinical studies have revealed positive results.

Essential oils, phytoncides and other natural volatile organic compounds (VOCs) work differently. When targeting our sense of smell, they activate the limbic system and emotional centers of the brain. When applied topically (onto the skin), they activate thermal receptors and destroy microbes and fungi. Internal application may stimulate the immune system (generally in prescribed form).

In France and much of Western Europe, aromatherapy is incorporated into mainstream medicine as an antiseptic, antiviral, antifungal and antibacterial, much more so than in the U.K., USA or Canada. In fact, there are some essential oils that are regulated as prescription drugs in France, and can only be administered (or prescribed) by a doctor.

Hippocrates, known as the father of modern medicine, believed the use of herbs was essential to health. Many of his prescriptions include essential oils and fragrant crushed herbs. By the 10th century, books were being written in Arabia dedicated to the use and benefits of certain aromas.

The term aromatherapy is attributed to a French cosmetic chemist names Rene Maurice Gattefosse. As he worked in his lab in the early 1920s, he severely burned himself. In order to cool the pain, he plunged his arm into the only cold substance around, a vat of lavender essential oil. The burns healed rapidly, with little scarring, and a new science was born. Gattefosse dedicated the remainder of his life to the study of aromatherapy, or the healing power of scented, healing oils.

Modern research has indicated that certain essential oils and herbs do indeed have therapeutic and healing properties. Lavender is still used for burn victims, and the scent is used widely to treat depression and anxiety. Tea Tree Oil is a time-honored aromatherapy remedy for ringworm, athlete’s foot and other fungal infections. Rosemary can be used to treat arthritis and muscle pain and is a stimulant that when used in the morning bath, helps revive energy. Many aromatherapy essential oils are used for the benefits of their smell alone. Eucalyptus is an example of this; the scent of this plant can help relieve chest congestion.

How Can Aromatherapy Be Used in Recovery?

Basic aromatherapy can be used for anxiety, insomnia, muscular aches, body aches, headaches, circulation problems, digestive problems and any other physical manifestations of stress that arise during the course of initial detox and into any recovery program for any length of time. One study found that women with depression have their sense of smell affected. When these women receive aromatherapy, their symptoms are improved by the treatment. Ideally, the uses and applications of aromatherapy will continue long after the official recovery process is completed.

Because aromatherapy is a literal communion with the essence, or “soul”, of a plant, it puts its user in immediate communion with the natural world — it is “nature in a bottle”, so to speak. Even in the most urban, concrete and steel environment, the smells evoke plant life, which represents something altogether — and almost shockingly — different than those in addiction recovery are concerned with.

Sitting still with a bottle of essential oils is an elemental exercise in meditative being-ness, and can help teach mind-quieting skills. Demonstrated uses of aromatherapy to alleviate common ailments such as headaches, anxiety, depression and other side effects of addiction recovery, can be one of many ways the addict learns new coping skills. Because the patient can use aromatherapy himself, there is a degree of empowerment in the choice to use it, as the person in recovery learns the value and benefits of fundamental and nurturing self-care.

The following list of essential oils are my picks for great tools in addiction recovery aromatherapy:

Basil: This can be used to sharpen concentration and alleviate some of the symptoms of depression. It is also good to help relieve headaches and migraines (but should be avoided during pregnancy).

Bergamot: Useful for the digestive tract and for treating upset stomach from stress; also good for working with sadness.

Frankincense: Aids meditation; fortifies and quiets the mind. Good for mitigating grief and nervous tension. Its comforting action is helpful for anxious and obsessive states linked to the past.

Ylang Ylang: Antidepressant, good for panic attacks; its exotic, floral scent acts as a mild sedative.

Eucalyptus: Stimulating and cleansing, commonly combined with peppermint and used when feeling sluggish and low of energy. Helps with headaches and fevers that burn as a result of fatigue or stress.

Clary Sage: Deeply relaxing and euphoric. Eases feelings of depression and helps when feeling run down emotionally and physically; helps with mental fatigue (avoid during pregnancy).

Lavender: It helps relieve headache and migraine symptoms, as well as insomnia; excellent for bringing about a state of calm and relaxation.

Cypress: Helps to build emotional and mental resolve. It has a calming and soothing effect on irritability and anger.

Lemon: Used to give a mood lift and bring about clarity; restores vitality and works as an overall tonic to uplift and energize.

Thyme: A stimulating and protecting oil that has a strengthening effect on the nerves; ideal for the treatment of physical and mental exhaustion, and beneficial to the immune system.

The two easiest methods for aromatherapy use are:

Direct inhalation: The person breathes the evaporating oils straight in from a small ¼-ounce vial of the essential oil. The oils can also be dropped onto a tissue or handkerchief, which is then held under the nose.

Dropped into a warm water bath: 10-15 drops are added to the bath for soaking. The added benefits of the warm water and time spent quietly soaking are present with this application.

Aromatherapy does sometimes have side effects. However, they tend to be very mild and do not last long. These could include nausea, headaches and some allergic reactions. It should be noted that fragrance oils, perfumes and other artificially made substitutes for pure essential oils cannot produce the same results.  Organic essential oils are also preferred over conventionally grown, for the same reason organic foods are preferred: There are no pesticide or herbicide residues for you to ingest, as well as interfere with the results.

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