Aromatic medicine is widely misunderstood, under-appreciated, and underutilized. When most people hear the term “aromatic medicine,” their mind immediately goes to this box of essential oils and aromatherapy – which of course, these modalities are forms of aromatic medicine, but this encompasses only a small fraction of the true art of aromatic medicine.
The world of aromatic medicine is a harmonious tapestry of nature's healing gifts, intricately woven together to create a holistic approach to health and well-being. Both aromatic plant extracts and herbs contain countless properties that can support our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health.
Too often, herbal medicine and aromatherapy are kept separate, when in fact, they work in synergy with each other. Each practice is powerful on its own, but when you weave together the realms of aromatic healing and herbalism, each application amplifies the other, expanding your work with plants in a profound way. By marrying these two modalities, you are maximizing your potential for healing.
When the philosophies of aromatherapy and herbalism come together and their applications are harmonized and utilized cohesively, you can reach beyond the capabilities that you have when remaining within just one practice or the other. It creates new possibilities for healing, growth, transformation, and inspiration through an entirely new system of health. It encompasses both practices and through that, it also creates a modality of its own. This is the essence of true aromatic medicine.
Bridging the Gap Between Aromatherapy and Herbalism
In ancient times, traditional aromatherapy and herbalism weren’t seen as separate; they were used side-by-side when addressing health and wellness. Aromatherapy, in its more traditional form, and herbalism are woven together into the same fabric of most ancient medicine practices. You see this time and time again in cases throughout history.
One classic example is Rosemary – one of the most widely known and used aromatic plants with a rich history extending far back to ancient times. You’ve likely used Rosemary as a culinary herb, but it also can be utilized in aromatic and herbal medicine. Both the ancient Greeks and Romans cherished Rosemary for its magical, spiritual, and medicinal properties.
Rosemary was commonly burned as incense to fumigate, cleanse, and purify the air in hospitals to help prevent infection due to its antimicrobial properties. The aroma was also utilized to support a wide variety of mental and emotional struggles, like grief, as well as enhancing brain function and memory.
In addition, Rosemary has been traditionally used internally to support the digestive, cardiovascular, respiratory, and nervous systems, and topically for a wide variety of skin issues. The path of aromatic medicine teaches us how to understand and get the most out of our work with plants in a variety of ways and applications, beyond strictly using essential oils, or strictly using teas or tinctures.
Holistic medicine focuses on the entire person, not just their symptoms. The concept of holistic healing looks at the whole person – not just the physical body – but also the mind, emotions, and soul of that person. In the holistic medicine view, a person is made up of many interconnected pieces, and if one piece becomes weak or ill, it can affect other parts of the body as well, almost like a domino effect or chain reaction. Everything is connected.
In the same way, when we step into the realm of aromatic medicine, we start to work with aromatic plants in a more holistic manner as well, expanding from a limited view of only taking herbs internally or just working with their aroma, for example. When we look at a plant from all angles and apply the many gifts it has to offer to healing, we receive a more extensive remedy selection that encompasses more of our needs.
Healing is holistic and there are many factors involved. Think about it like a wheel. The hub, or center of the wheel, is optimal health and well-being. Each spoke is a different factor that is connected to your health and impacts it. Examples of spokes could be medicinal modalities, like pharmaceutical drugs, supplements, herbalism, aromatic medicine, aromatherapy, acupuncture, massage, chiropractic care – the list could go on and on. Other spokes include lifestyle factors like diet, sleep, exercise, smoking, stress, social relationships, and so much more.
If one spoke of the wheel is missing, the wheel might still be able to turn. But the more spokes that are broken, or absent altogether, cause the wheel to malfunction or simply stop working completely. That means if you are not utilizing enough spokes in your optimal health wheel, your overall health and well-being are at risk of breaking down, eventually leading to illness.
Many spokes in the wheel have the ability to impact your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health; sometimes it may affect just one of these realms, but oftentimes, it is a combination of them or even all four. A great example of this is Lemon Balm, an aromatic plant that influences our physical, emotional, and mental health.
Lemon Balm can help calm your digestive system and soothe your nervous system, melting away stress, anxiety, and digestive upset. The aromatic elements of Lemon Balm are also known to be uplifting to the mood and emotional heart, helping to dispel depression. According to clinical herbalist Guido Masé, this plant is uplifting to a dejected spirit – so much so that tLemon Balm is often referred to as “liquid sunshine.”
When it comes to holistic health, everything in the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual body is connected, and aromatic medicine is an important key to accessing and healing the emotional realm. One of the most common pitfalls within the herbalism community discussions surrounding essential oils and aromatherapy is the absence of how aromatic medicine has a profound impact on our emotional realm. This topic is often left out or overlooked, which means this powerful healing tool is under-utilized, leading to a misunderstanding of aromatherapy and aromatic medicine.
What is Aromatic Medicine?
One common misconception is that essential oils are the essence of aromatic medicine. Essential oils are profound and effective forms of medicine, but they’re not the only tools in the aromatic medicine kit. Essential oils are only one part of aromatic medicine and are what essentially make up the world of modern aromatherapy. But aromatic medicine is so much more than just that.
Aromatic medicine is much more than simply aromatherapy or just herbalism. It is a beautiful central point where they come together and a melting pot of modalities – it is the middle path.
Aromatic medicine encompasses a more holistic view and includes many different types of botanical preparations and applications. It is not limited to the use of essential oils, but expands into various methods of use like hydrosols, herbal-infused oils, botanical perfumes, incense, salves, balms, and even ingested extracts like aromatic teas, cordials, and tinctures.
Surprisingly, aromatic medicine goes beyond the sense of smell, enlivening your taste buds and stimulating other sensations within the body as well. As a matter of fact, volatile oils from aromatic plants can enter your body through your mouth, not just your nose. Through a phenomenon called retronasal olfaction, when you ingest aromatic plants, the food or liquid releases odors in your mouth that travel up your throat where they're processed by receptor cells in your nasal cavity – the same area that processes smells that enter your nose. At the same time, a plant's non-volatile components make their way to the stomach where they’re processed for healing.
By ingesting aromatic plants, you are practicing aromatic medicine. In this way, herbal preparations like cordials, glycerites, and herbal teas with aromatic plants are also potent methods of aromatic medicine. Even a simple action like incorporating an aromatic plant such as Sage, Rosemary, Oregano, Thyme, Bay Laurel, and so on, into your culinary dishes, is the practice of aromatic medicine. There are countless preparations within the realm of aromatic medicine that can expand and enhance your current practice with aromatherapy or herbalism.
Another important facet of aromatic medicine is the use of topical application, which can bring healing in a wide variety of ways through the skin using different botanical applications to bring balance and healing to the muscular-skeletal, nervous, immune, respiratory, digestive, and other systems. When you apply herbal preparations topically, your skin absorbs those ingredients and plant materials, which are internalized into your body. By applying aromatic plants to your skin, you are also practicing aromatic medicine.
the beautiful fabric of nature's healing gifts
If you feel like you’ve hit a wall in your healing journey and are searching for answers, or are feeling like there may be something missing in your work with plants, aromatic medicine may hold the key. Embracing holistic healing is a rewarding lifetime commitment of dedication and exploration of the human body, psyche, emotions, and plants. As you dive into your healing journey, you become an active participant in the process – you are the needle and thread weaving together the beautiful fabric of nature's healing gifts.
Aromatic healing and herbal medicine have always existed intertwined with one another, but somewhere throughout history, they were split up and isolated by humans. While aromatic medicine and herbalism may appear different on the surface, they share a deep-rooted connection – the potential to heal with plants as your allies. Overcoming the separation between aromatherapy and herbalism can bring about a more holistic, synergistic, and expansive plant practice.
Article Written By Melissa Szaro
© 2023 The Northwest School of Aromatic Medicine. All rights reserved.
*The statements above have not been evaluated by the FDA, and are for educational purposes only. This article is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. This article should not be taken as medical advice. Please consult your physician before you use this information for health purposes.