Aromatherapy and Anosmia (Loss of the Sense of Smell)
Every so often, I receive emails from individuals with anosmia (the loss of the sense of smell) asking if aromatherapy can help them.
When safely and sensibly practiced, certain aspects of holistic aromatherapy may benefit those with anosmia because some essential oils and their constituents offer an array of therapeutic benefits that span well beyond the capability of perceiving their aromas. Anyone with anosmia should discuss this in person directly with their doctor before using essential oils. This article is intended to provide basic, general information.
Essential oils are comprised of an array of naturally occurring constituents like esters, oxides, alcohols, phenols and aldehydes. Without giving you a full lesson in chemistry, let's use Roman Chamomile Essential Oil and Lavender Essential Oil as quick examples. Lavender Essential Oil contains 40% linalyl acetate and Roman Chamomile Essential Oil contains 35% isobutyl angelate. [E. Joy Bowles, The Chemistry of Aromatherapeutic Oils (NSW, Australia: Allen & Unwin, 2003), 192-195.] Both linalyl acetate and isobutly angelate are esters. Esters are noted for their anti-inflammatory and sedative properties. You may haven noticed that both oils are common ingredients in recipes intended for relaxation and insomnia. Some essential oils, by way of the natural chemical constituents they contain, are naturally anti-bacterial or antiviral. All essential oils possess their own unique combination of constituents that make particular oils naturally well suited for one application or another.
Not all essential oils, however, are safe to use in holistic aromatherapy no matter how "nice" (or "not-so-nice") they smell. Some are considered hazardous oils within the field of holistic aromatherapy. Of course, method of usage can play a part, but it's more sensible to stick with using essential oils that are generally regarded to be safer.
The naturally occurring constituents described in the above paragraphs don't specifically rely on a person's sense of smell. Smoking is a bad habit and nicotine is harmful, but it makes for a decent analogy. Even though you may not be able to smell the tobacco or the smoke, the nicotine in the tobacco, once inhaled, is still absorbed into the bloodstream. You might not be able to benefit from perceiving the aroma of the essential oils, but the natural constituents (much like the nicotine in tobacco), can still enter the bloodstream.
However, anosmia can eliminate the ability to directly associate aromas and fragrances to memories. For example, if you had an abusive relative that often smelled of lavender, you may experience anxiety when smelling lavender prior to developing anosmia, even though lavender is naturally calming. On the other hand, you may have wonderful memories associated with the aroma of peppermint. Once you develop anosmia, however, you may no longer experience the aromatic and emotional associations to particular essential oils.
Madeleine Kerkhof-Knapp Hayes possesses a strong background in nursing, aromatherapy, palliative care and herbalism. She is the author of Complementary Nursing in End of life Care. When recently discussing anosmia and the benefits of essential oils in the Facebook group Sharing the Essential Oil Love, Madeleine mentioned that if you tell the individual with anosmia what he/she is smelling, that can still trigger the associated emotion(s).
A concern I have for those with anosmia is that it can be easy to accidentally use essential oils in excess. If you have anosmia and want to use essential oils, be sure you are working directly with your doctor or qualified healthcare professional and be especially careful to follow all safety precautions and stick with safe usage guidelines for the blends and recipes that you create. Be sure to properly dilute essential oils that you apply to your skin and avoid oils that can cause sensitization.