Aromachology and Aromatherapy: Do You Know The Difference?

Aromachology and Aromatherapy both promote the positive effects of fragrance on mood and emotion but that may be where the similarity ends.  References in commercial writing often blur their distinctions leaving many readers confused.  Read on and learn the difference.

Aromachology is the scientific study of the effects of fragrance on human psychology and behavior.  This term was coined in 1989 by what is now the Sense of Smell Institute, a division of The Fragrance Foundation, which in turn is the non-profit, educational arm of the international fragrance industry.  Aromachology emphasizes controlled scientific study, deals only with the psychological effects of fragrance, and considers both natural and synthetic odorants.  Aromachology is driven by corporate sponsorship and ultimately endeavors to identify fragrance applications that have commercial opportunities.

Aromatherapy is the therapeutic use of plant essential oils to improve physical health as well as psychological health.  The term was first used in 1928 by French chemist Rene-Maurice Gattefosse to describe the healing action of aromatic plant essences but the use of herbs and plant oils dates back to antiquity.  The practice of Aromatherapy remains an integral part of folk medicine.  The pharmacology of essential oils is seldom studied scientifically as there is no commercial incentive to do so.  Aromatherapy uses only pure, natural essential oils, each with specific attributes for healing, and how they smell is secondary to their therapeutic action.

The two disciplines appear to overlap where aromatherapy uses inhalation of diffused oils to treat conditions related to mood and emotion, such as anxiety, depression, lethargy, or irritability.  But even in this circumstance, there is an important distinction.

Aromatherapy does not endorse the use of artificial fragrances that have no therapeutic value and can not affect mood beyond the psychological effects of “odor memory”.  On the other hand, researchers in Aromachology will point out that the special virtues of essential oils are not supported by a substantial body of clinical evidence.  But is there really a conflict?

The fact that our emotions are affected by fragrance is widely accepted.  Memory and emotion are often strongly associated with odor.  We have all experienced it.  A whiff of a particular odor and our minds are suddenly flooded with a memory and the emotions associated with that memory.  There is an anatomical basis for this phenomenon.  Within the human brain the primary olfactory cortex, which processes information about odors, is directly connected to the amygdala, which controls the expression and experience of emotion, and the hippocampus, which controls the consolidation of memories.  These are primitive functions that have been around since the time in early evolution when we needed to use our sense of smell for survival.  Controlled studies would suggest that our appreciation of an odor and our emotional response to it, are determined by the emotional context in which the odor was first encountered, even if the association is subtle and we are not consciously aware of it.  This is why our appreciation of odors is such a personal matter and why there are significant differences in odor preference from one culture to the next.

Both natural and synthetic odorants can trigger a psychological response which is at the heart of Aromachology but only the appropriate essential oil will cause a specific physiological response which is the healing goal of Aromatherapy.

Are the claims of Aromatherapy unproven?  It is true that there is little scientific research into the pharmacology of essential oils.  Lack of funding is the primary reason.  Essential oils are not patentable and so with a few exceptions, there is no commercial incentive for conducting research.  On the other hand, thanks to Aromachology controlled studies have validated some of the historical claims for essential oils.  For example, it has been proven that Rosemary enhances cognitive performance, Peppermint is invigorating and Lavender is relaxing.  The practice of Aromatherapy has withstood the test of time.  Within western cultures, its popularity as a complementary medicine continues to grow.

In reality, there is no conflict between Aromachology and Aromatherapy because they have different agendas and neither invalidates the other.  In the end, Aromachology may prove to be of great benefit to Aromatherapy by adding the weight of modern research to the large body of common knowledge that has supported it for hundreds of years.

by Marilyn Flook


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