By Courtney White Menezes
Nearly everyone has had an experience of being transported back into time by a smell.
One evening, we had some friends over and got to smelling all my bottles of essential oils. One particular smell stopped my friend in his tracks. His eyes got wide. “The bus station!” he exclaimed. I can’t remember which oil it was, but he time-traveled back to when he was at a bus station in São Paulo, Brazil many years prior. There was something in the cleaning solution they were using at the station, and it contained whatever oil it was that we were smelling. “This is crazy, I feel like I am AT the bus station. I miss Brazil!” The interesting thing was that he did not particularly like the smell. He was not comforted by feelings of being at that bus station. And yet he was flooded with a nostalgic mix of memory and emotion that was still endearing and sentimental.
It can be a very powerful experience. The how and why of this is tied into how the sense of smell is processed by the brain. And is the primary reason behind using aromatics in a therapeutic way.
What is essential oil?
The term “essential oil” is derived from the term “quintessence,” which represents the idea that matter is primarily composed of four physical elements: fire, air, earth, and water. The fifth element - or quintessence – refers to the spirit or life force. In the Middle Ages, it was believed that distilling or evaporating the “life blood” of the plants was akin to removing the spirit from the plant.
Distilling oils from plants was thought to be the removal of the “quintessence” or spirit from the plant.
Today, an essential oil is a highly-concentrated, volatile oil that is distilled or expressed from different parts of an aromatic plant, including flowers, zests, grasses, leaves, needles, twigs, resins, roots, seeds, and bark. “Volatile” simply means that the molecules are unstable and easily evaporated at normal temperatures. This is what causes them to leap into the air, and then our noses, where we are able to “smell” them.
The essential oil from a single part of a single plant can contain hundreds of different aromatic compounds, known as terpenes, which exhibit various physiological effects. Each of these phytochemicals has a purpose in the plant – repelling, protection, attraction, etc. – and those effects translate into how they can also help humans.
How to use essential oils
Essential oil use has been traced as far back as 4500 BC. Every known culture has used plants therapeutically and medicinally. There are many ways to use essential oils therapeutically, but for the purpose of this blog post - and because this is such a complex and controversial topic - I will focus strictly on using oils aromatically and topically only in “massage” concentrations.
There are several techniques for using an oil aromatically, a method also known as inhalation.
· Sniff the open bottle
· Put a few drops on a cotton ball, wool felt or other natural fibrous material to smell from
· Use an ultrasonic diffuser
· Wear specially-designed diffuser jewelry
· Place a diluted drop of oil in the palms, rub together and tent hands over the nose while inhaling deeply
When using oils on children, especially when starting out, it’s best and safest to always use a carrier oil such as coconut oil, sweet almond oil or olive oil.
Basically, any seed or nut oil will do. You should take care to use organic and/or pesticide-free, sustainably sourced carrier oils wherever possible.
The carrier oil helps to properly dilute the very concentrated essential oils while also delaying the evaporation of the oil into the air. It is an excellent way to use a small amount of oil over a larger part of the body, such as for massage. Overall, it gets you the most bang for your buck while reducing the chance of skin sensitivity or other adverse effects.
A good rule of thumb for dilution on babies and young children is to not exceed a 2.5% concentration. This is approximately 15 drops of essential oil per ounce of carrier, or 1 drop of essential oil to 30 drops of carrier.
Always do a patch test first. It’s also better to start small and build up to desired effect.
If any reaction does occur, cease use immediately and apply a pure carrier oil liberally.
Essential Oil Quality
For safety and efficacy, you want to ensure your oils are entirely pure and free from impurities, as well as properly distilled.
If an oil is not distilled under precise conditions and using the right equipment, you risk diluting or altogether losing important phytochemical constituents of significant therapeutic value. Further, using impure oils also increases the chance of adverse reactions such as skin irritation, sensitization and allergic response.
When sourcing your oils, steer clear of those you can find sold off the shelves at your local store. These have much higher rates of adulteration and run the risk of containing impurities. These cannot only be dangerous, but also reduce the quality and efficacy of the oils. While these oils may seem cheaper, you typically need to use far more of them to produce a desired effect.
According to Dr. Kurt Schnaubelt, Ph.D in Chemistry and renowned aromatherapy expert, per his book The Healing Intelligence of Essential Oils, “adulterated oils are never tolerated as well as their authentic counterparts.”
He elaborates by saying that certain degenerative and metabolic issues hinge on multiple systems of the body interacting simultaneously, noting that success in treating these issues is entirely dependent on the purity of the oils being used.
Children are far more sensitive than adults – their skin absorbs substances at many times the rate of an adult’s skin, they are more reactive to the presence of impurities like heavy metals and pesticides and they also have less-developed immune systems. Distilling aromatic plant material highly concentrates its constituents; imagine how it can also concentrate synthetic chemicals and other impurities.
So - while purity is always an important factor – it’s even more pronounced when working with a child.
Dr. Schnaubelt further explains that “most essential oils used for aromatherapy in the U.S. are fabrications and not genuinely and exclusively from a single plant source.” He indicates that the only way to ascertain whether an oil is genuine is to know its source – meaning that you are able to trace it all the way to the producer, distiller and grower.
The fact is, most companies buy their oils from third parties and have no direct relationship with the growers of the plants or the people who distill the oils. Before using any company, please call them and ask to be connected to their farms and distilleries so that you can verify where and how their oils are produced. Most are sadly not able to do this.
Our Fascinating Sense of Smell
One of the key contributors to the benefits of aromatherapy is the sense of smell itself.
To gain a true appreciation, one must first understand how the olfactory system works. It is the most unique of our physical senses, and is also the most primitive. Smell is actually the very first of the senses to develop in the womb and plays a significant role in our survival from the moment we are born.
But why is it so unique? The answer to that begins in our brain. Our sense of smell behaves very differently than the other physical senses.
“Our sense of smell is 10,000 times more sensitive than any other of our senses and recognition of smell is immediate. Other senses like touch and taste must travel through the body via neurons and the spinal cord before reaching the brain whereas the olfactory response is immediate, extending directly to the brain. This is the only place where our central nervous system is directly exposed to the environment.”
~The Olfactory Response - von Have, Serene Aromatherapy ~
Smell is the only sense that does not first route through the thalamus, which is the brain’s sensory triage center. With our other physical senses – including touch, taste, sight and sound, proprioception and balance – signals from the body are first sent to the thalamus where they are categorized and then relayed to the proper area of the brain for processing.
With olfaction, this is reversed, with smells first going to the temporal lobe in the forebrain – specifically the limbic system, which is the most primitive part of the brain. The limbic system is the key to using aromas therapeutically as it governs stress response, conscious perception, behavior, mood, motivation, emotions, and memory.
Only then is the signal sent to the thalamus. From there it is dispersed to the orbital frontal cortex, where we consciously “smell” the odor.
Notably, the limbic system is activated before we are conscious of a smell. That means that our brain and body will already have responded to a smell before we even know it’s there. The emotional response is innate and immediate.
Even people without a sense of smell are benefiting from the therapeutic effects.
How Children Can Benefit from Essential Oil Use
Following are five ways that essential oils are of therapeutic benefit to children.
Help Children Calm Down and Relax
Essential oils can help foster calming and relaxation by decreasing the “fight, flight or freeze” stress response of the sympathetic nervous system, while increasing the “rest and digest” calming response of the parasympathetic nervous system. These oils can also help to promote more restful sleep in children.
Oils that can help in this area that are considered safe to use on children include: lavender, Roman chamomile, orange, frankincense, cedarwood, ylang ylang, vetiver and patchouli.
Foster Concentration, Attention, Focus and Learning
Optimized learning can be gained by relaxing the body. It is very difficult for children to focus, retain information and learn when they are distracted, stressed or upset.
Certain essential oils and carefully designed blends can help foster better attention and focus. Sesquiterpenes - a specialized type of molecule found in certain essentials oils – specifically help to increase oxygenation in the brain. They specifically can cross the blood-brain barrier. Increasing the amount of oxygen in the brain helps maximize focus, alertness, concentration and performance.
There is a highly-cited study that was done in 2001 by Dr. Terry Friedman that found a “statistically significant” improvement in the amount of impulsivity and attention to stimuli in children by using essential oils – specifically using valerian, cedarwood and lavender. The parents of the children in the study reported anecdotal improvements in focus and attention as well. The oils were simply inhaled aromatically any time the child was having scattered thoughts.
Reprogram Negative Behaviors
Many children will develop protective, survival-driven behaviors after negative experiences. For example, a child who was ridiculed at home may become socially introverted, or begin to show bullying behaviors against others. This is often due to painful, unresolved emotions or an emotion that is not healthily expressed.
There is a simple but specific 12-step process called the Aroma Freedom Technique, or AFT, which was developed by clinical psychologist Dr. Benjamin Perkus, that identifies and releases these negative thoughts, feelings and memories and helps get them flowing in a positive direction. Certified practitioners of this technique will use specific blends of essential oils to help children trigger a permanent shift in their outlook on themselves and the world. It effectively allows them to move towards growth and expansion while moving away from fear and doubt.
Reset Negative Emotional Patterns
Children are very easily subjected to stress in a variety of ways. They become quickly overwhelmed by emotion, which causes them to “lock up.” This can come from things like feeling anxious about a test at school, running late in the morning, forgetting their lunch, hearing their parents argue or not getting enough sleep. More sensitive children might feel stress over things like simple social encounters. Children who are feeling stress may not make the best decisions and might act out.
There is another simple technique developed by Dr. Perkus called the Aroma Reset Technique, which also works well with children. The technique incorporates specific essential oil blends to help release negative thoughts and feelings around these stressful situations. It is a 60-second process to clear a bad/negative mood by “resetting” the brain to place of peace, wholeness and calm. A trained AFT practitioner can show parents and caregivers how to apply this process not only on children, but on themselves.
Release Traumatic Memories
Due to their relationship in the brain’s limbic system, being in a particular emotional state will trigger memories of events that occurred while we were previously in that same emotional state. Dr. Perkus refers to this as “state-dependent learning.”
As discussed earlier, our autonomic nervous system, emotions and memory are all controlled by the brain’s limbic system.
Our brains also cannot distinguish between a perceived or real threat. Stressful memories will therefore repetitively trigger the “fight, flight or freeze” response of the sympathetic nervous system due to their highly emotional nature. This can further trigger things like nightmares, disruptive thoughts and flashbacks of the triggering event.
There is a technique developed by Dr. Perkus known as The Memory Resolution Technique, or TMRT. It seeks to stop this cycle using the power of scent alongside very specific instructions for focusing on and reevaluating the memory surrounding a traumatic, stressful or disruptive event. This technique may be performed on its own or in conjunction with AFT by a certified practitioner.
The key in both AFT and TMRT is that it triggers a permanent shift. The child is left with a personal mantra or affirmation along with a specific oil blend to help anchor the new positive thoughts and feelings.
COURTNEY MENEZES, CYT, AFT (AROMA FREEDOM TECHNIQUE) PRACTITIONER
She is also faculty for the 100-hour Yoga Therapy for Youth Training - leading the Aromatherapy for Youth module. See her faculty page.
Courtney Menezes is a work-at-home mom of four young children. Her passion is empowering women to discover their best selves throughout pregnancy, birthing and parenting. She loves guiding mothers and mothers-to-be towards holistic wellness, purpose and abundance. Courtney is a certified yoga instructor, Aroma Freedom Technique (AFT) practitioner, HypnoBirthing practitioner, HypnoMothering practitioner, Money Medicine Journey consultant, and is completing her certification coursework in French Aromatic Medicine and Clinical Aromatherapy through The New York School for Aromatic Studies.
Learn more about Courtney at http://yogalua.com