Born in the French Alps, where aromatic medicinal plants abound and traditional medicine has been kept alive by local communities, Nicole Perez grew up in one of the most exquisitely scented landscapes on the planet. She moved to London in the 1970s and began studying a diverse array of healing modalities and complementary medicine techniques. She’s been a member of the International Federation of Aromatherapists since 1986 and over the years has served on its council.
How does smell affect mood?
Smells impact us whether we like it or not because we cannot stop breathing, therefore we cannot stop smelling. Most people will easily notice that a smell has made them feel hungry or sleepy, but not everyone is aware of the uneasiness some smells can trigger. This is because the olfactory system has a direct line of communication to the brain—and the limbic system, the part of the brain also referred to as ‘the emotional brain.’ This means that not only can smelling induce pleasurable sensations, but it’s also part of how the brain records emotional events and memories. Many of our moods originate from some obscure place within and may make it difficult for us to adjust to new situations. Essential oils are known to unlock the door to our past experiences and release emotions, so they can be used as tools to heal the past, in the form of a ‘smell therapy.’
How can we become more sensitive to the impact that smells are having on us?
Becoming more sensitive to how smells affect us requires a bit of ‘smelling education.’ Describing scents and scent perception is important in learning to appreciate different scents. This requires practice at smelling and describing the experience of a particular smell. It’s just the same as learning a new language. My teaching experience with Chinese students was interesting, as this group of students seemed to be more able to describe sensations and imagery summoned up by a scent than European students were. This could have been cultural and caused by language differences, as Chinese contains much more direct imagery than English, which is very helpful when describing a smell experience.
In addition to smells that are healing, there must also be some that are harmful. What scents should we avoid?
A word of caution, essential oils are safe to use as long as the correct usage, dilutions, and safety guidelines are followed.
However, some essential oils may contain potentially hazardous or toxic constituents and can cause skin and mucous membrane irritation, photosensitivity, and phototoxicity. Some groups of essential oils shouldn’t be used without training, and some essential oils should never be used in aromatherapy. The advice here is to research on the internet—there’s a lot of information concerning safety of essential oils, the adverse reactions, hazards, and toxicity of the essential oils you are planning to use. The International Federation of Aromatherapists in the UK also has information on its site concerning safety of essential oils and the do’s and don’ts of their usage. As a rule, avoid strong scents with children, pregnant women, and those who are physically or mentally vulnerable, as strong smell often means strong impact.
Don’t blend more than three to five essential oils together, and dilute these in an appropriate carrier before applying them to your skin or smelling them. If you have no information on an essential oil, then you shouldn’t be using it.
Essential oils can also be classified by the strength and tenacity of their odour. This is important because different individuals have different sensitivity to certain smells, and the olfactory perception of a smell and impact is very much an individual thing. For that reason, essential oils should first be smelled from a smelling strip, not directly from the bottle, and only one drop or two should be used.
Aromatherapy seems like a very subtle art. How much do people need to be in tune with the aromas in order for the therapy to work?
When we’re stressed or upset, we tend to be locked up in our own thoughts. Sometimes our thoughts are going round and round like a carousel, and we can’t snap out of this mindset. Essential oils work without special preparations; sometimes just using them in the background in a diffuser can really help us let go of the emotional knots we may hold. The great thing about essential oils is that they can have an immediate action on the brain and bypass the verbal dialogue that is keeping us tied to our negative thoughts.
One of the most important things for people to do right now is make their home a pleasant environment. From the kitchen to the bathroom, bedroom, and living room, what guidance can you give our readers on turning their homes into a place of relaxation, connection, and less stress?
There are many essential oil diffusers on the marketplace. My favourites are the ones that send a fine mist into the air and refresh the air; also, some have colours and are very pleasing to look at, which all help to relax. As for the choice of essential oils, scents that are associated with food (fennel, basil, mint, rosemary, citruses) are good during the day and before a meal and can open appetite, while others may help reduce appetite (peppermint, grapefruit, ginger, marjoram), depending on what’s needed. Usually, lighter scents that promote breathing are good during the day (myrtle, coriander, cypress, bergamot, may chang) to keep a clear head, while more sensuous oils are better for the evening (ylang-ylang, rose, jasmine, champaca, gardenia). More meditative oils (frankincense, lotus, clary sage, spikenard) or more sedative scents (lavender, sweet orange, cinnamon, mandarin) are better suited for the evening, and finally, any favourite scent may help someone feel more secure or confident.
Eating local and seasonal foods is an important part of Ayurvedic diets and traditional wisdom. Is there any kind of similar principal for aromatherapy, that is, should you use tropical scents during the Canadian winter, would that be a mismatch?
Matching the season to oils is good. Cinnamon, orange, clove, eucalyptus are all good for winter or Christmas while refreshing and cooling scents are better for hot summer, such as peppermint, lemon, lemongrass and yuzu.