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Aromatherapy Articles

Aromatherapy for Immunity


Joie Power, Ph.D.

Psychoneuroimmunology is the branch of biomedical science that explores the relationships between the nervous system, emotions, and the immune system; it is concerned with the links between our states of mind and our states of health. It is one piece of a very complex puzzle - the puzzle of what creates and maintains health and well-being. Allergies, infections, autoimmune diseases, and cancer are illnesses that all arise from immune system dysfunction and all of us will suffer from at least some of these on occasion.

While virtually everyone catches occasional colds or has had an infection of some kind, people vary in how frequently they experience these problems and most never experience the more serious consequences of immune dysfunction, such as cancer. Since most people are faced with similar immune challenges, why do some stay healthy and some do not? Why do some people's immune systems seem to hum along while other people succumb to allergies, infections, cancer, and auto-immune disease? Of course this is a complicated question and the causes of illness are many and multi-factored. Genetics play a part and even luck is a factor, but a very significant contributor to immune system function, and therefore to health, is your state of mind.

The recognition of the mind/body connection and the discovery of its routes and mechanisms of operation, through the emerging field of psychoneuroimmunology (PNI), represents one of the most significant and promising medical advances of the last several decades. Since the time of Descartes, Western medicine has been ruled by the doctrine of dualism, which sees the mind and the body as separate and unrelated. It is precisely this separation that holistic therapies seek to overcome and in a very real way, advances in PNI are paving the way for the introduction of holistic practices into mainstream medicine.

So what exactly is this mind/body connection? The basic premise of mind/body medicine is that our thoughts, moods, and feelings influence our bodies at the physical level and express themselves in our health. The brain has often been called the organ of the mind. It is the source and executor of all that we think, feel and do and it is through the brain's structural and chemical connections with our other organs, glands, and tissues that feelings influence health.

The "Stress Response", described by Hans Selye in the early 1970's, still offers one of the best illustrations of the mind/body connection. The Stress Response occurs when a person experiences something that they perceive to be threatening. When the Stress Response is activated, the brain stimulates the adrenal glands to release a cocktail of chemicals that prepare the body for action. As a result of sympathetic nervous system activation the body experiences increases in blood pressure, respiratory rate, heart rate, blood flow to skeletal muscles and other physiological changes. These physiological changes aid the body in surviving an immediate threat by temporarily increasing strength, speed and aggressiveness and decreasing sensitivity to pain but they have also been shown to cause short term decreases in immune function.

The Stress Response has been with us throughout our evolutionary development but in earlier times it was self-limiting - it enabled us to save ourselves when a lion charged but then, because of built-in feedback loops, it shut off. Neural firing and chemical activity returned to baseline levels. Today, the Stress Response has become a threat to health because it is repeatedly provoked by routine events in our daily lives, like an angry boss or a hectic commute, and, for some, has become a chronic way of responding. Our nervous systems are in a constant state of excitation and the Stress Response, with all its physiological effects, is experienced over and over again. When this happens immune function is weakened, leaving us more susceptible to the development of many types of illness. In addition, the adrenal glands may become exhausted, leading to symptoms of weakness, dizziness, tiredness, headaches, memory problems, and allergies.

In the last decade, the medical community has come to realize that mental states and personality patterns are linked to the development of many illnesses and to the recovery from even more including cancer, arthritis, diabetes, asthma, lupus, allergies, multiple sclerosis, inflammatory bowel disease, psoriasis, chronic fatigue syndrome, and all kinds of infections to name but a very few.

PNI has given us some bad news about the high stress lifestyles that so many of us live. At the same, however, it has brought some very good news. The good news is that the body knows and can re-establish a more adaptive way of responding. Shortly after Selye began talking about the Stress Response, Herbert Benson, a Harvard cardiologist, began reporting on the Relaxation Response. He identified this response while studying the physiological changes that occur in people practicing transcendental meditation. The Relaxation Response also involves communication between the brain and other body systems and is characterized by decreases in blood pressure, respiratory rate, heart rate, and muscle tension.

The Relaxation Response has been found to counter many of the negative physiological effects of stress and to enhance immune system function and the body's capacity for healing. Many activities and lifestyle changes have been shown to support the Relaxation Response and to have beneficial effects on health. These include progressive relaxation, mental imagery, breath work, proper diet and exercise, biofeedback, massage therapy, aromatherapy and many others.

Psychoneuroimmunology and Vibrational Medicine:

In addition to evolving as physical beings, humans are also evolving as spiritual beings. As our subtle bodies evolve, we develop increased sensitivity to the energetic vibrations that surround us and there is increased exchange through non-physical channels between the subtle bodies and the physical body. As we observe the effects of mental states on the body we learn not only what is good for us as physical beings but also what is good for us as spiritual beings. Studies in PNI have shown us that chronic stress and emotions like depression, anger and fear have adverse effects on our physical bodies. There is good reason to believe that negative attitudes in general have negative health repercussions and it seems likely that if we developed studies to examine the immune and general health effects of such negative attitudinal and spiritual states as bigotry, sexism, intolerance and hatred in all its forms we would find that holding these patterns in the heart and mind makes us sick.

Vibrationally, we may consider anything with a negative resonance to be a "pathogen" that invades the mind, body and spirit and provokes a defensive response within both the physical and subtle bodies. Up to a point, our innate defenses will fight these pathogens off but this fight weakens us if it is continual and eventually we become sick in body and exhausted in spirit. Our vital essence is depleted and we simply don't have the energy for creating a healthy and happy life and for progressing along our paths as spiritual beings. This is a problem of epidemic proportions in modern societies yet you will never find a diagnosis for it in any medical text.

It is important to be aware of the vibrational quality of the thought patterns that we hold, as well as of the physical environment around us. The culture that we live in is one in which we are all exposed to a continual flood of negative thought forms: violence, aggression, greed, materialism, terror, hatred. We are also overwhelmed by other less obvious negative patterns in the form of attachments - to possessions, to power, to self-image and status. Just as you would not drink from a stagnant pool due to concerns of bacterial infection, be careful what you "drink up" from the world around you. Many thought forms are harmful to body, mind, and spirit; holding them in our consciousness drains us and squanders our energy.

The exploration of the subtle energies that act on human beings is leading to the development of a field called Vibrational Medicine. Although some of this knowledge is ancient, it has been lost in mainstream medical practice. As it returns to us and is expanded, we are discovering radically different technologies to improve our health and help us reach our full potential.

Implications for Aromatherapy                                          Go to top of Page

Many studies have shown that some significant indicators of immune system function are affected by psychological factors such as mood and perceived levels of stress. For example, natural killer cell activity is suppressed in situations of high stress. Chronic mood states such as depression are also accompanied by changes in the number and proportion of various immune cells. Simply viewing violent films leads to measurable decreases in immune efficiency and studies by the psychologist Paul Ekman have shown that even mimicking emotions has physiological effects. All of these measurable changes in the body's functioning play a potentially important role in the development of illness when the mood states that produce them are repeatedly experienced.

Essential oils have been shown to have significant effects on mood states and these effects are believed to arise from stimulation of the olfactory nerve which sends signals into the limbic system, an area of the brain involved in the regulation of mood and emotions. Since the nerve routes from the nose also extend ultimately to the hypothalamus, a brain area involved in coordination of immune function, essential oils may also exert more direct effects on the immune system. Preliminary studies by French physicians Franchomme and Penoel, showing that various essential oils and essential oil components (terpene alcohols) act directly on gamma-globulin levels, add support to this theory.

Many aromatherapists today believe that essential oils, through their well documented effects on emotional states, can play a significant role in supporting immune function and wellness by assisting with the creation of positive mood states and through facilitation of the relaxation response. Summarizing a vast amount of research on the effects of essential oils within the central nervous system and immune system, Michael Alexander states in his book, How Aromatherapy Works: Synthetic and Efficacious Pathways of Essential Oils in the Human Physiology, Vol. 1, that "There is no question that the mind can and does alter immunity. Psychological and emotional factors influence both cell-mediated and antibody mediated immune function... we can assume by the multitude of aroma experiments showing mood enhancement via olfactory input, that aromatherapy is a strong treatment modality which can be exploited to benefit mind-body immune control functions."

Many people believe that the source of most illness lies within the soul which expresses itself in the physical body through the subtle bodies. As Gabriel Mojay points out, this is the view of traditional cultures that make no distinction between spirit and matter. It is a view that has been integrated in modern times into the healing methods of many holistic approaches. Mojay, a specialist in Oriental medicine and aromatherapy, has written extensively on the ability of essential oils to act within the subtle bodies to clear the root cause of illness and establish a foundation for wellness. While these uses remain speculative in the minds of more scientifically oriented practitioners they are widely accepted in "energetic healing systems such as Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda.

Used as part of a comprehensive wellness program that also includes proper diet, stress management, exercise, counseling (when needed), other holistic interventions, and appropriate treatment of on-going medical conditions, aromatherapy, whether viewed in terms of the scientific support for its efficacy or from a vibrational perspective, can make a very significant contribution to health and vitality.

Sidebar - Using Aromatherapy to Create Wellness

Anyone can enjoy the beneficial effects of aromatherapy at home by following a few simple guidelines for use. First, purchase only 100% pure, therapeutic quality essential oils. Never use essential oils internally unless directed by your physician. Always dilute essential oils prior to use. In general, up to 4 drops of essential oil (either a single oil or a blend of two or more oils) diluted in a tablespoon of whole milk can be added to a bath or add up to 8 drops of essential oil to 3 tablespoons of vegetable oil for a full body massage. Never use an essential oil to which you may be allergic. Since some essential oils have special precautions, always consult a good reference book before use, especially if you are pregnant, nursing, or have a medical condition. Aromatherapy is most effective when used as one part of a comprehensive program of wellness.

By choosing from among the essential oils listed below, you can create beautiful blends to help heal the spirit, balance the emotions and support the immune system. Note that many oils have multiple uses and appear in more than category. Also, there are many other essential oils not listed here that have similar effects and uses.

  • Essential Oils for Relaxation:
  • Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
  • Roman Chamomile (Chamameleum nobile)
  • Clary Sage (salvia sclerea)
  • Bergamot (Citrus aurantium ssp. bergamia)
  • Marjoram (Origanum marjorana)
  • Rose Otto (Rosa damascena)
  • Neroli (Citrus aurantium var. amara)
  • Essential Oils to Help Lift the Spirits:
  • Sandalwood (Santalum album)
  • Ylang Ylang (Cananga odorata var. genuine)
  • Bergamot (Citrus aurantium ssp .bergamia)
  • Geranium (Pelargonium graveolens)
  • Melissa (Melissa officinalis)
  • Sweet Orange (Citrus sinensis)
  • Essential Oils to Ease Fear/Anxiety:
  • Sandalwood (Santalum album) - Note: Sandalwood should no longer be used due to THREATENED and ENDANGERED status
  • Frankincense (Boswellia carterii) - Note: Classified as ENDANGERED in Oman
  • Melissa (Melissa officinalis)
  • Patchouli (Pogostemon cablin)
  • Rose (Rosa damascene)
  • Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
  • Cedarwood (Cedrus atlantica)
  • Neroli (Citrus aurantium var. amara)
  • Essential Oils for Adrenal Support:
  • Geranium (Pelargonium graveolens)
  • Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
  • Essential Oils that Stimulate Immune Response:
  • Tea Tree (Melaleuca alternifolia)
  • Cajeput (Melaleuca cajaputi)
  • Niaouli (Melaleuca viridifloria)
  • Bergamot (Citrus aurantium ssp. bergamia

*This information is provided for educational interest and is not intended to diagnose, treat, or cure any disease.

Copyright © 2010 Joie Power, Ph.D. / The Aromatherapy School  |  All Rights Reserved

This article, "Aromatherapy for Immunity" was originally published by New Life Journal, March 2006

Dr. Power is a retired board certified neuropsychologist and former Assistant Professor of Surgery/Neurosurgery at the Medical College of Georgia, where she performed intra-operative cortical mapping with renowned neurosurgeon Herman Flanigan, M.D. She has over 20 years of clinical experience in both in-patient and out-patient settings and during her years of practice has also been both a practitioner and student of alternative healing methods, including herbal medicine, aromatherapy, Reiki, Chinese Medicine, and other energetic healing systems. Her extensive formal training and experience in the olfactory and limbic systems of the brain give her a unique qualification for understanding the actions of essential oils in the body. Dr. Power, founder of one of the earliest essential oil companies in the U.S. to specialize in therapeutic quality essential oils, is now a clinical consultant for Artisan Aromatics as well as an internationally known writer and teacher in the fields of aromatherapy and alternative medicine. Her approach to aromatherapy weaves together her solid scientific training and strong clinical skills with a holistic philosophy that honors body, mind and spirit. Dr. Joie Power is also the author of The Quick Study Guide to Aromatherapy and numerous published articles on aromatherapy and related topics.

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