Elizabethan England didn't smell very good — not even in its palaces, whose floors Queen Elizabeth I ordered her underlings to strew with herbs. Releasing aromas when stepped upon, these sprigs of hyssop, sage, rosemary, and thyme were sixteenth-century air fresheners that battled the ambient odors of a pre-plumbing realm in which few people bathed.
"The queen loved lemons. She used them to help with her hygiene," said aromatherapist Elizabeth Anne Jones, who will discuss her new book Awaken to Healing Fragrance: The Power of Essential Oils Therapy at Mrs. Dalloway's (2904 College Ave., Berkeley) on Saturday, June 5. "She wore pomanders around her neck that she would sniff all day just so that she could stand living in those stinky castles."
Fragrant plants are still used as beauty and alternative-healing aids, but scientists now know more about how they do what they do.
"When you inhale the molecules from essential oils, they go into the olfactory nerve and from there to the limbic brain, where a fragrance registers as pleasant or unpleasant. Then it stimulates or relaxes the brain, depending on its chemistry," said Jones, who founded Santa Cruz's College of Botanical Healing Arts thirteen years ago. Among its programs is a 400-hour comprehensive in essential-oil therapy.
Inhaling aromas is an obvious way to use the oils, Jones explained, but it's not the only way.
"If I've eaten something that doesn't agree with me, I rub fennel oil on my stomach. It helps me digest, and I wake up feeling a lot better. The best way to use essential oils is by applying them directly to the skin. Their molecules have become so tiny through the distilling process that they penetrate the skin, get into the bloodstream, and travel in the body for four to 24 hours, going to whatever system or organ that particular plant works on.
"For example, lavender — the world's most popular essential oil — is great for the central nervous system, which is why it's used for reducing stress."
Sandalwood allegedly has soothing properties; rosemary oil reputedly strengthens the liver. Wielding antibacterial, antiviral, anti-inflammatory, and antifungal effects, essential oils are highly concentrated from enormous amounts of plant matter. About 160 pounds of lavender are required to produce just one pound of lavender oil.
"A pound of rose or jasmine oil requires about 10,000 pounds of plants. We're talking acres."
What inspires her most about these aromatic oils, whose use is mentioned in the Bible and other ancient texts, is their alleged effects not just on the body but on the emotions and spirit.
"They're not as strong as synthetics and pharmaceuticals, but they have no side effects," said Jones, who cites studies in which Kirlian photographs appear to reveal auras brightening and becoming more colorful after essential-oil treatments. "They're a much healthier, more natural, and more stable way to gently find a balance in your life." 4 p.m., free, MrsDalloways.com.