The Physics of Aroma


For many of us the practise and business of aromatherapy takes over our lives.  We become busy with clients and patients.  We become less busy with sourcing essential oils, leaving this to favoured suppliers or even staff.  We talk about the ambience of our clinic, perhaps favouring white coats over eastern images, or vice versa.  Our concerns centre on the right to practise, the right organisation to join, which insurance to take out, which journal to read.  As in most things in western life, time begins to be of the essence and, for many, time is money.  Money makes the world go round.

Sometimes, maybe, we stop and contemplate this little bottle full of essential oil.  There it sits, full of a liquid. This we can see.  We know, if we pour it out on to the skin, a wound, a bruise, or if we take a little internally suitably diluted, it will have a physical effect.  We can refer to text books that tell us some of these effects: antibacterial, cicatrisant or febrifuge.

Aromatherapy has become very biased toward these effects.  We might call these chemical effects.  They are easy to understand effects.  And mostly, the essential oils applied in this topical or chemical way, work.  Medical authorities to essential oil sellers are pleased with these results.  Why?  Because they are better understood by the trained mind directed by so-called scientific rationale.  This science is based upon reproducibility of results and actions and analysis, both of results and applied substance.

This has long suited the trade of aromatherapy and essential oil sellers.  Their advertisements are full of price oriented offers, direct sales, ‘no middlemen’ claims and, above all, purity.  This purity is mostly defined by gas chromatography and the analytical traces are used as a fingerprint to establish a standard essential oil.

Many essential oils are therefore produced, blended, re-created, rectified, etc., etc., to conform to this standard known as purity.  This means that many essential oils are little more than standardised chemical soup. Cheap and cheerful and very suited to the context of application as described above.

Now, whilst contemplating our bottle of essential oils, let’s take the top off and see what happens.  An invisible vapour, or gas, emerges as the liquid volatises.  We see nothing.  We might if we’re very sensitive or lucky feel something with our fingers, perhaps a slight change of temperature or tingle.  Now everything is dependent on our nose.  Our reaction will depend as much upon us as an individual, our culture, our mindset, even our education, as much as anything else.  We have gone light years from hard medicine.

Last week I watched what appeared to be a small biro with a thin filament fibre optic on one end instead of a ball point, plunged into the neck of an essential oil to capture the smell, the fragrance, the volatile molecules, in a fraction of a second.  I watched the readout on a mass spectrometer, the analysis of every molecule taking place before my eyes.  As the analyst said ‘we can only look for what we know already exists.  There are so many peaks in natural fragrance that we do not know or understand or can identify’.

It was rather comforting for science to confirm that many natural substances have as yet undiscovered potential.  The instrument the analyst was using, in effect, measured the wavelength or vibration of the molecule.  These new techniques have as much to do with physics as they do with analytical chemistry.  In simplest language, chemistry finishes with the molecule. 

Below this we enter physics.  Critics of aromatherapy do not like us to enter this subject as there is a loss of control, a loss of analysis for them.  Again in simplest terms, it could have been argued that when you split the atom you would have ended with nothing rather than an explosion of energy. Physics is about energy the unseen laws and strange phenomena of an unseen immaterial world.

Aromatherapy has always been best described as an energy medicine in the same way that homeopathy has been described.  Recently in the UK there has been a major campaign to discredit homeopathy despite its continued popularity.  The cosmetics industry and the beauty industry have adopted both homeopathy and aromatherapy.  Whilst they have done much to popularise the terms they have also done much to discredit the therapies, particularly by oversimplification of product and low priced, poor quality product masquerading as ‘the best’.  The best in nature is never cheap either in food, drink or cosmetics.

Aromatherapy has always easily sat well with eastern energy medicines and with traditional plant wisdom.  Chinese, Ayurveda, Tibetan, and Unani medicines all resonate with the ideas of traditional western aromatherapy.  Delving into European history we soon come across ideas of alchemy that underpin much of western traditional herbal medicine.

A few years ago I devised a fragrance and cosmetic system for the Japanese company Kanebo.  This they promoted as a smell therapy.  In this process I learned a lot about eastern medicine, the five elements and the principals of yin and yang and the desire for harmony. Being based in Glastonbury I was also well aware of local traditional and practises derived from medieval alchemy, especially the traditions of southern France.  The five elements of Fire, Earth, Metal, Water and Wood are common to many traditions even if the names are different.  The concept of Humours or Types of person and their needs are common.  All these relate to what we loosely call Energy Medicine.

One of the best books on the subject is called Aromatic Alchemy by Ixchel Leigh.  She deals with the healing aspects of nature’s vibrational medicines.  I have used the term ‘vibrational’ very deliberately.  The little biro I mentioned above works on wavelength and therefore vibration.  Because everything in nature is essentially a bundle of atoms held together only by what we might call, wrongly,(but it will have to do for this article) electricity or magnetism, everything has its wavelength or vibration.  Every human or animal has a wavelength, its own fingerprint.  This relates closely to the eastern idea of bringing things into harmony and why one essential oil’s fragrance deeply effects one individual in one way but not another.  Even a virus has its wavelength and therefore can be affected by something with an opposing or equivalent wavelength that can make life uncomfortable for it or shatter it.  Exponents of homeopathy will be familiar with this idea.  In terms of modern medicine this is completely unprovable and mumbo jumbo.  Principally because you can’t replicate something which is applicable to only one individual.  Also, because there is no money in individual medicine, only mass medicine.

There is some reluctant acceptance of these ‘alternative’ principles in governmental direction and edict concerning our well being and overall health and dietetics, exercise and lifestyle. Mass medicine is expensive.  All these new ideas on health are part of energy medicine and have long been part of traditional practise.  Only in very recent times have governments become seriously interested in this aspect of long term welfare for their nation.

Aromatherapists will be familiar with the idea of the patient or client being the terrain, or the ground, as applied to the individual.  We can also use the term ‘vibration’ or a more traditional name, constitution.  All these terms cover the strengths and weaknesses that we all carry from birth.  The terrain defines the general condition that underpins the background to any diseased state.  It is in the terrain that the aromatics carry out their therapeutic action.  Aromatherapy works at its best in the terrain. The aim of the therapy is to try to stop a repeat of the disease condition and we can clearly see from this why the term ‘harmony’ is used.  If the immune system, for example, is brought into play and homeostasis is present, then a person is less likely to succumb to a disease state.

We have all seen, or even experienced, cases where there is a strong desire to smell something, to take it in to make us feel better, to make us feel good.  We also know how difficult it is to explain in words how something affects us.  On the other hand it is easy for us to understand how a liquid applies to the soles of the feet or the base of the spine etc., can have a chemical affect on us.  We can talk of molecules in blood streams coming via our lungs and, even though these might be insignificant amounts, we can rationalise their effect.  On the other hand it is extremely difficult, if nigh impossible, to rationalise why a fragrant ambient atmosphere could induce a healing process from a specific disease.

The terrain is everything, some experts claim. It is finding the right essential oil that often counts and cheap and cheerful, standard products fall far short of aromatic or energetic medicine.  Fine for fun, perhaps fine for cosmo-massage, but there is often something missing from the purpose, the energy of a high grown lavender coming from a low pressure still.  Someone said ‘the effect is almost magic’. It’s probably more due to physics but that yet has to be proven – when we actually find a way of proving it!

About Jan Kuśmirek

Having brushed with the Security Services in my late teens and early twenties, I went on to become one of the world's leading exponents of aromatic medicine and skin care. I am an accepted authority on the subject and a sought-after lecturer. In the last few years I have turned my hand to literature and am the author of three spy novels that retell the European confilcts of the 20th century from a Polish perspective. The central character in the series - Teddy Labden - has resonated with the Polish media, who have claimed him as their own "James Bond".
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