On a cold, rainy, English February morning my radio alarm awoke me with an interesting report that concluded that homeopathy does not work. Apparently Exeter University, in association with the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital, had concluded that Arnica given for bruising was no more use than a sugar pill. Therefore people using homeopathic treatment were using a myth.
In these days of shortened sound bytes and failure to add context to broadcasts it would be great to get the whole story. But in this modern world of quick quick, gimme gimme information I am just left with the idea that homeopathy doesn’t work. Homeopathy is not new to this type of investigation and concern. This is hardly surprising as if it were “proven” by regular scientific method then one could consign the pharmaceutical industry to the dustbin. So that’s a most unlikely event!
In Aromatherapy we can draw many lessons from homeopathy. When I first studied Aromatherapy the two therapies were not initially considered compatible. In traditional homeopathy it was clear that strong smelling substances could affect the subtle vibrations of the homeopathic material. Later I became a consultant to Nelson’s, helping them to produce the Nelson & Russell range that was based around essential oils. It became evident to me during that time that Aromatherapy could lay alongside homeopathy very well indeed. I have never seen homeopathy in the light of a cure all but rather a reinforcement of the recipient’s immune system or perhaps something that tips the scale of healing in the favour of the patient. When I was young, our family doctor was both a general practitioner and homeopath. When I succumbed to pneumonia and my prospects of living were none to high, he resorted to the then new antibiotics that solved the problem. Similarly, I have long held the view that Aromatherapy is good for direct action where homeopathy is as much preventative as anything else.
Such has been the case with Arnica, which is taken homeopathically to reduce the probability of bruising or to enhance a quicker recovery. When bruising has occurred an Aromatherapist might resort to a direct application of St John’s Wort and Lavender. The reason for this, I suppose, lies in alternative and complementary medicine’s view of what health and disease really are. It is often said that orthodox medicine treats the symptom not the disease. Aromatherapy was presented to me as an alternative to that orthodox approach. However Aromatherapy, and essential oils in particular, have the enviable position of demonstrable results. In other words, many essential oils are seen to kill bugs that in turn are seen in orthodox terms to be at the root of diseases.
It was not so long ago that people in and around Aromatherapy were requesting proof of its effectiveness. Not the so called anecdotal proof, i.e. people have got better when using Aromatherapy but rather the clinical proof that was associated with protocols and double blind trials etc. If launching a commercial product or if we are looking for reproducible effect, such trials are excellent. It is not too difficult to make an assumption that x oil contains x chemical and therefore has x result at a certain or given dosage. The only problem left remaining is that the essential oil has to be itself manipulated to contain the right chemical.
It was Paul Bellaiche who particularly researched the anti microbial effects of essential oils and infection diseases. Bellaiche set up tests, providing an aromatogram for a variety of essential oils and their effect upon the pathogens associated with infectious diseases. The tests included such organism as staphylococcus aureus and klebsiella pneumoniae. Both in vitro and in vivo tests were undertaken. There are however, dangers in this approach – ones that homeopathy has, due to its very nature, avoided. The danger of slipping straight way to treating symptoms.
We have to ask “What is the nature of Aromatherapy”. It has in my opinion two faces - one that is very orthodox and the other which is relatively unexplored, quite unorthodox and widely practiced by most aromatherapists. We have to remember what disease is all about and to do this we have to reconsider what health is supposed to be. How does anyone kow that they are in need of “medical” attention. Let’s leave aside what orthodox medicine is so good at e.g. accidental damage, trauma and life saving surgery. Let’s go back to that famous saying “I don’t feel well”. What are the symptoms of this disturbance? General pain, itching, spots, vague feelings, feeling faint, tremors and so on. Something is happening inside us and eventually these symptoms can be traced directly to some organic disturbance. This may, however, not be the origin at all. It may simply be that the internal disorder has gone to the weakest spot in the human organism to express, in language of symptoms, the distress that is causing our disfunction and disease.
Sometimes I am asked what is the commonest form of cause of death. My answer is always simple and the same – old age, we wear out. Sometimes people find this hard to accept, failing to realise that our cells at some point are unable to reproduce effectively. Cells are not renewed fast enough or cells become faulty and replicate cells that malfunction. This ageing process comes to us all but these days we have a new problem - premature ageing. This phrase is often mentioned solely in relation to skin condition, but perhaps there is more to it than that. After all, the skin is just another organ, albeit the one that is most exposed to the outer world. If this major organ suffers too much stress, then it follows that a strain is put upon the rest of the organism.
Conversely we might ask what is health. Mankind asserts the right to be alive but also asserts it has the right to be healthy. The World Health Organisation defines health as not merely the absence of disease but also having physical, social and psychological well being. If that is the case, then most of us are distinctly unhealthy. It seems, we have an obsession with illness in the Western world yet we are living longer. Likely due to our longevity we seem more prone – or more interested – in disease.
What then does Aromatherapy address? What is it all about? We know that it has powerful effects like drug therapy and very unlike homeopathy. As any Aromatherapist knows, there are huge benefits associated with Aromatherapy that go far beyond simplistic treatment. In training we spend an enormous amount of time on the chemistry and the chemical groups of the plants.
From such training has come a fundamentalist approach implying Aromatherapy can only work at a straightforward chemical level. Many practicing therapists would disagree but find it difficult to articulate a reason for their view that Aromatherapy works in different realms. Of course, we rationalise and say that our sense of smell does have specific effects. For sure it has physiological effects. One smells food and as a learned response soon the digestive juices are running. That tells us that we can associate smells with something good or bad, something that will affect us. But is there more to it than that? From the point of view of homeopathy there has to be. There has to be some form of energy interplay, perhaps something that we can understand such as electromagnetism or electrical properties of molecules that may affect us one way or the other.
Orthodox medicine generally supposes that homeopathy is nonsense and is no more than sugar pills. That’s always been their position. On that basis we must suppose that the many satisfied users of homeopathy were never ill in the first place because they got better. In other words, the placebo effect comes into play. On this basis the majority of people who go to see doctors aren’t ill at all. So wouldn’t it be better if the doctors gave most of us sugar pills to see which of us got better and just concentrated a few powerful drugs on those few that didn’t! This would save an enormous amount of money and probably in the process put the drug companies out of business.
Aromatherapy, however, spans both camps. Unlike orthodox treatments but similar to homeopathy Aromatherapy addresses only the individual. The individual’s response to an essential oil is the fundamental issue for the Aromatherapist. Penoel and Franchomme concur with this idea. At Fragrant Studies we have always laid strong emphasis on the bacteria that is present in and on every human being and which is unique only to that human being. Therefore every treatment should take into consideration the total individuality of the person, whether that be in their physical form, the bacteria they carry, the way they think, the way their immune system works. They are not a machine. They can be overpowered or parts of their system can be overpowered by strong drugs, natural or synthetic, and that can in certain circumstances be beneficial. Or alternatively the seat of the problem can be addressed. An essential oil working at many different levels is especially good at this. They have physical effects, they have mental effects, they have memory effects, it is even said they have psychic effects.
Professor William Tiller of Stamford University proposed that Western medicine simply went as far as defining an organism as having a function and structure based upon chemistry. Adjustment of the chemistry would in turn change the structure and therefore alter the function for good or for ill. However he took this a lot further than that, pointing out that chemistry is in turn affected by electro magnetic energy fields and below this, other energy fields exist especially in terms of physics. Each and every one affects function or health. Each feeds backward and forward to each other in a loop.
It is clear that we have a material science that we seem to largely understand. It is also clear that we have an immaterial science, perhaps an aetheric science that we just as clearly do not understand. Anyone that uses Aromatherapy knows just how well essential oils bridge that gap. We probably know more than we ever did about the anatomy of the sense of smell, yet equally we know nothing as to its real effects. There are some fine theories about and increasing tomes on the subject and one can argue about stereo chemistry, vibrations and polarity – which I enjoy doing. I yet have to grasp how an insect sees by following an odour molecule. I yet have to grasp that odours have colours outside my visible spectrum, that they contain information packages which I apparently cannot interpret. Perhaps I have to learn not to interpret them but to but to allow them to act. How they act will be an interaction with me, and only me, with my consciousness, with my being, perhaps with my reason for symptoms of illness.
Let me illustrate this by one of my first experiences in Aromatherapy. A young woman came to see me about recurring tonsillitis. Typically I viewed the problem as probably a streptococci infection, perhaps a virus, perhaps some other fungal infection such as aspergillus. So I had many options with essential oils. I recommended diffusers, inhalations, throat rubs etc. However, being fairly new to Aromatherapy and following my tutor to the letter, in those days I treated most things with a back massage. At first glance, to someone looking in, that seems as ridiculous as homeopathy seems to be to some orthodox practitioners! However I stuck to what I was taught. On about the third visit, following the last massage, this person went on to tell me all about their brother, their relationship with their brother and their parents and how stifled they had been. Well, I listened. Later I was surprised to learn that the tonsillitis that had been a problem for a number of years had disappeared following that last visit. The young woman concerned went on to teach English in Paris and married happily. Over the last few years I lost contact but I guess she did well.
So what was this very real tonsillitis all about? What was it that ended the illness? How could I say? All I am convinced about is that it was not the inhalations, neither do I believe that we would have had the conversation if the back massage hadn’t taken place. So what was triggered in the psyche? What unknown communication took place? In any event there was an ending of a very real problem. How on earth could that be replicated in a double blind trial in a hospital? Frankly it would be impossible. It may be very irritating to those who hold to very orthodox views and rather in a blinkered way stop at chemistry in their understanding of human beings. If anything we are as much an electrical animal as we are a chemical one.
So whilst at one level we understand Aromatherapy unfortunately at another level like homeopathy Aromatherapy will stand as something that is yet unproveable by normal means. So if we know that to begin with, why do we keep trialling it? Why keep on thinking in terms of trials, whether this be Aromatherapy, homeopathy or any similar therapy. Being rather simplistic I stick to the view that if it doesn’t work people wouldn’t pay good money for it!
I see Aromatherapy working very well with animals. Some animals better than others, for example with horses. Similarly with homeopathy. It is quite amusing in that animals don’t talk to us, certainly don’t understand homeopathy but get better when treated with it. That’s even more magical and mysterious than most scientists could possibly allow for, almost as bad as allowing a horse to sniff an essential oil and its respiratory disease clears up. That’s the trouble with alternative therapies – they are so darned difficult to pin down!
Perhaps it all boils down to this at the end of the day. Any massage therapists can tell you that some people just massage better than others and heal others well. Yes – it does seem to be a gift. Unfortunate from the point of view of materialistic science but true. Could it then be, as our physicist friends would tell us, that it is quite possible for the participants in an experiment to influence the outcome. In other words if you are of a certain mind type before the event then the outcome is influenced. Convenient of course, and it sounds like a get out clause for alternative medicine, but this is a phenomenon which is being more closely looked at by science. Certainly with something as ephemeral as an essential oil that seems to radiate its odour far beyond its apparent physical presence it makes sense to say that we know little about the information packages we call essential oils and how they travel.
If you want to think about something really weird, then think about this – thioterpineol is a minute constituent of Grapefruit oil. However if we took 10 mls of this essential oil and evenly distributed it throughout the atmosphere. That’s not a lot to go round the world. The entire population of the earth would be able to smell it. That’s what I call really weird.