pine. spices. vanilla. they're the scents of the season, harbingers of feasts, celebration and relaxation, and just plain pleasurable in their own right. You can accentuate the experience this solstice season with a foray into the world of aromatherapy. This branch of herbalism works to restore frazzled nerves and stressed organs with so-called essential oils, aromatic substances housed in tiny glands in the roots, wood, leaves, flowers or fruit of certain plants. (Only a small number of plants around the world yield essential oils.) Despite their name, essential oils aren't oily, and evaporate quickly into the air.
When inhaled, oils enter the bloodstream via the respiratory system. In an aromatherapy massage or bath they are absorbed into the blood through the skin. Aromatherapists also believe that essential oils have powerful effects on the brain's limbic system, which is involved in perceiving smell, experiencing emotion and regulating numerous hormonal activities. Europeans so respect the effects of essential oils that their use is integrated into conventional health care.
There are naysayers, though. Some who study smells say the healing claims of the essential oils' producers are overstated. The beauty of these substances, though, is that you don't have to believe in their medicinal effects to enjoy their luxury -- pleasure alone is healing!
Try diffusing an orange and vanilla mist into the air, add a few drops of cinnamon, rose and bay oils to a potpourri, or luxuriate in a lavender bath. Use sparingly, since large amounts may alter the menstrual cycle; avoid if pregnant. Let a drop of pine, cedar, spruce, balsam, sandalwood or cypress soak into a log, then put it on the fire for aromatic impact. You can spray your Christmas tree with a cup of water that has six drops of pine or another favourite tree essence mixed into it. Add a drop of your favourite scent to the melted wax at the base of a candle (careful, oils are flammable).
EXPERTS"Don't buy non-organic essential oils. They're full of agricultural chemicals. With the highest-quality oils, less is more. For a nice Christmasy fragrance, put a total of 30 drops of black spruce, cinnamon, clove and orange oils into 4 ounces water in a spray bottle. Add a tablespoon of vodka. You can also spray this on doorknobs or hands.'
SUZANNE CATTY, aromatherapist
"At the end of a shopping day, treat yourself to a footbath with three drops of peppermint oil. Adding lavender will help you unwind, and benzoin oil really helps aches and pains in the feet. Always carry a little bottle of lavender with you. A little dab on the temples, across the forehead and under the nose is good for calming and for tension headaches and road rage.'
VICTORIA GOODMAN Aromatherapist
"Odours exert their influence as a function of the meaning ascribed to them. It's an interpretation based on prior experience. The meaning of odours is not innate, and our responses to them are not pharmacological; they're learned and associative. As far as I know, there has never been any documentation that a physiologically meaningful level of molecules can be found in blood after exposure to an odour."
RACHEL HERZ, department of psychology, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island
"It's true that if a person is exposed to a perfume measurable levels are found in the bloodstream and in the milk of lactating mothers. There's a tremendous vascular bed in the nose. Many pharmaceutical companies have taken advantage of that and put their drugs into nasal sprays. Most of the claims for aromatherapeutic molecules, though, are just that -- claims -- and there's very little hard science backing them up."
CHARLES J. WYSOCKI, neuroscientist, Monell Chemical Senses Center, Philadelphia
"I think evolution has taught us that roses, forests, gardens smell good. There are smell associations hard-wired into the brain; certain fragrances signal safety or fertility. There's been some very simple and not very elegant data produced by researchers showing physiological effects with very small concentrations."
KURT SCHNAUBELT, scientific director, Pacific Institute of Aromatherapy, San Rafael, California