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Journey into aromatherapy between science and suggestion
Dott. Simone Gabbanini – Prof. Luca Valgimigli
What is aromatherapy or aromotherapy?
Aromatherapy is a holistic healing treatment that uses natural plant extracts, mainly essential oils, to improve psycho-physical health and well-being.
Humans have been using aromatherapy (without calling it that way) for thousands of years: the ancient Egyptians, as well as other peoples, incorporated aromatic plant components into resins, balms and oils to be used for medical and religious purposes, and this contributed, in the collective imagination, to associate essential oils with mysterious or magical substances.
But now we have a lot of scientific evidence on the anti-inflammatory, analgesic, antimicrobial and other effects of these substances and of their individual components.
When was the term “aromatherapy” born? Who was it invented by?
It was only at the beginning of the twentieth century that the word “aromatherapy” was coined by the French chemist and perfumer René-Maurice Gattefossé.
The anecdote tells that he accidentally burned his hand following an explosion in the laboratory, and used lavender essential oil to soothe the pain and promote wound healing.
This experience led him to study the possibility of using essential oils for therapeutic purposes. His book “Gattefossé’s Aromatherapy” published in 1937 is perhaps the first book on aromatherapy published by a scientist in which the use of essential oils in the treatment of pathologies is discussed.
The main impetus for the development of aromatherapy, however, is due to the French doctor Jean Valnet, who, starting from the writings of Gattefossé, deepened his knowledge and raised aromatherapy to the status of a true medical therapy.
Part of his research was already published in 1964 in the book “L’Aromatherapie”, but many other studies have followed up to the present day.
How does aromatherapy work?
Inhalation and topical application, i.e. local to the skin, of essential oils are the main methods used in aromatherapy, as they exploit the property of essential oils to penetrate the surface of human skin.
Once the skin barrier has been overcome, the components of essential oils propagate by diffusion in the extracellular liquids, to reach the bloodstream from which they reach the tissues and different organs, where they can carry out their action, as demonstrated in recent studies.
The inhalation of essential oils has an even faster action, thanks to their volatility and the ability to be absorbed through the respiratory tract.
Each essential oil has a number of unique healing properties, uses and effects. Often combinations of essential oils are used to create a synergistic blend with greater beneficial effects
Is there any scientific confirmation on the effectiveness of Aromatherapy?
Clinical studies have demonstrated the influence of essential oils on physiological parameters such as blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate and serum cortisol levels.
Even more interesting is the variation in the composition of the brain waves with concomitant psychological and emotional effects, following the inhalation of essential oils.
Although there is mounting evidence of measurable effects of essential oils on animal brains, more clinical research is needed to validate their influence on the human central nervous system. This will enable the development of essential oil-based drugs to treat mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety and dementia.
For the moment, the experimental evidence has given good results in the use of aromatherapy to manage pain syndromes, improve sleep quality, reduce stress, agitation and anxiety, soothe joint pain, treat sore head and migraine, fight bacteria, viruses or fungi, improve digestion, strengthen the immune system.
Regarding the action of essential oils through the skin, the numerous studies carried out in the BeC laboratories in collaboration with the University of Bologna have led to international publications of high scientific impact, concerning the percutaneous absorption of essential oils and their action as carriers for other cosmetic active ingredients.
BeC’s many years of experience in the use of essential oils has led to the development of a mouth spray, FreeGola®, with a balsamic, decongestant, protective and stimulating effect on the immune system.
More recently, knowledge has been channeled into the creation of an aromatherapy product by choice, namely the essential oil candle. The diffusion of essences favored by the heat of the fire represents in fact the oldest and most used holistic tool in history.
The Ritual candle from BeC’s Terra biocare® line is a 100% natural product, made with soy and coconut wax, and with a wooden wick that burns with a natural crackle, creating a warm fireplace atmosphere.
The fragrance was created in the BeC laboratories using only natural essential oils: a Helichrysum accord with citrus notes, harmonized by a hint of sage and a floral and balsamic embrace. The packaging is made with natural recyclable materials and water-based paints. Today it is available within two paths: Ritual Face and Ritual Body.
What are the aromatherapy effects of the Ritual candle?
It is an ideal product for aromatherapy. The natural fragrance was specially created to promote relaxation, meditation and balance with its own source, creating the optimal conditions for a holistic treatment.
It is said that the scent of Helichrysum stimulates the intuitive part of our brain, promoting meditation, creativity and personal growth, while the citrus notes favor concentration and mental clarity harmonized by the aromatic and floral notes to stimulate sensitivity and self-awareness.
Cyclooxygenase, lipoxygenase and the inflammatory process
Cyclooxygenase and lipooxygenase are the two families of enzymes that are commonly involved in the inflammatory process, through a complex of reactions which is called arachidonic acid cascade. This complex of reactions develops as follows: a first enzyme, a phospholipase cleaves the phospholipids of biological membranes, releasing arachidonic acid, a polyunsaturated fatty acid with 20 carbon atoms (eicosa-5Z,8Z,11Z,14Z-tetraenoic acid ; C20:4; ω-6). The arachidonic acid is then transformed by two parallel enzymatic pathways, that is, by two families of enzymes: the cyclooxygenase which transforms it into prostaglandins and thromboxanes and the lipooxygenase which transforms it into hydroperoxides which in turn transform into leukotrienes .
There are two cyclooxygenase isoforms indicated with type 1 and type 2, briefly COX-1 and COX-2. COX-1 is the enzyme present in most cells (except red blood cells), and is constitutive, that is, it is always present. COX-2 is an inducible cyclooxygenase isoform: it is constitutively present in some organs such as brain, liver, kidney, stomach, heart and vascular system, while it can be induced (i.e. developed if necessary) following inflammatory stimuli on the skin, white blood cells and muscles.
There are various types of lipooxygenase that lead to different products, the most important in the inflammatory process is 5-lipooxygenase, 5-LOX.
Prostaglandins, Thromboxanes, and Leukotrienes
Prostaglandins, Thromboxanes, and Leukotrienes are chemical messengers or mediators, that is, molecules that bring a message to specific cells and activate or deactivate metabolic responses in these cells. They, therefore, have a function similar to hormones, only that, unlike what hormones do, the chemical message is carried only at a short distance, that is, only to the cells that are in the vicinity of the place where the mediators were produced. There are different prostaglandins, different thromboxanes and different leukotrienes that carry specific messages. In many cases these act as mediators of the inflammatory process , therefore they trigger all the events that are involved in inflammation:
– vasodilation with consequent blood supply (redness),
– increased capillary permeability with consequent fluid exudation (swelling or edema),
– stimulation of nociceptive nerve signals (pain),
– on-site recall of immune system cells that attack a possible invader (chemotactic action)
– activation of the biosynthesis of fibrous tissue to strengthen or repair the affected part (even if there is no need)
– generations of free radicals that can chemically destroy an invader (but also damage our tissues, i.e. they just “shoot in the middle”).
Prostaglandins and thromboxanes, however, also play important physiological roles in normal conditions, i.e. in the absence of inflammation. For example, they regulate the secretion of mucus that protects the walls of the stomach, they regulate the biosynthesis of cartilages and synovial fluid in the joints, they regulate vasodilation, hence the correct flow of blood in the various local districts, and more.
Triglycerides are the main components of most oils and fats. These are heavy, non-volatile and little polar molecules, insoluble in water, made up of glycerol (or glycerin) esterified with three molecules of fatty acids: therefore, it is a tri-ester of glycerin, from which the name derives. Each fatty acid contains 8 to 22 carbon atoms (commonly 16 to 18) and can be saturated, mono-unsaturated or poly-unsaturated. The size of the fatty acids and their saturation determines the physical and sensorial properties of the triglycerides, which can appear as oils (liquids at room temperature) or fats (solid or semi-solid) and can have greater or less greasiness and smoothness on the skin. Unsaturated triglycerides or with shorter fatty acids are more fluid and have greater flowability.
Fatty acids (saturated, mono-unsaturated and poly-unsaturated)
The name fatty acids is commonly used to indicate those organic acids that are found in the composition of lipids, that is, in animal and vegetable oils and fats, both in the free form and in the form of esters with glycerol (e.g. in triglycerides), or they are esterified with “fatty” alcohols, that is, long chain alcohols, to form waxes. Fatty acids are carboxylic acids (formula R-COOH) which have a long carbon chain (R), unlike common organic acids such as acetic acid and propionic acid, which have 2 or 3 carbon atoms in total, respectively. Fatty acids are defined as saturatedif they do not have double carbon-carbon bonds, (called “unsaturations”), they are defined mono-unsaturated if they have only one, they are defined mono-unsaturatedpoly-unsaturated if they have two or more double bonds (see figure). The term omega-3 (ω-3) or omega-6 (ω-3), refers to the position of the first double bond starting from the bottom of the chain of carbon atoms: if the first double bond is encountered after 3 carbon atoms the fatty acid is classified as omega-3 , if after six carbon atoms omega-6 , as shown in the figure. The most common saturated fatty acids are palmitic acid (16 carbon atoms and no double bond, C16: 0) and stearic acid (18 carbon atoms, 18: 0), the most common mono-unsaturated is the oleic acid, typical of olive oil (18 carbon atoms and 1 double bond in position 9, C18: 1; ω-9), while the most common poly-unsaturated are linoleic acid and linolenic acid, progenitors respectively omega-6 and omega-3 (see figure).
Terpenes and terpenoids
Terpenes or terpenoids are a large family of natural molecules, typically containing 10 to 30 carbon atoms, which are biosynthesized from a common “brick”, isopentenyl pyrophosphate (IPP), containing 5 carbon atoms (see figure). The discovery that the repetitive brick consists of 5 carbon atoms is relatively recent, while it was once assumed that the entire family was created by repeating a brick of 10 carbon atoms, which was called “terpene”. Therefore, the molecules with 10 carbon atoms (such as limonene, see figure) were called mono-terpenes, i.e. composed of a single brick, diterpenes those with 20 carbon atoms (e.g. the cafestol that gives the aroma to the coffee), triterpenes those with 30 carbon atoms (e.g. beta-carotene). Since molecules made from 15 carbon atoms were also found (such as bisabolol), it was thought they contained a terpene and a half, and were called sesquiterpenes (from the Latin semis = half + atque = and). Today it is known that the repetitive unit is composed of 5 carbon atoms, therefore it is easy to understand how mono-terpenes contain two (see figure), sesquiterpenes three, diterpenes four, triterpenes six.