Aromatherapy & HIV

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Essential Oils
Aromatherapy may offer a host of possible benefits, from destressing to boosting immunity
by Robert Zukwoski

essential-oilsThe use of essential oils for healing, both emotional and physical, has been a part of the holistic wellness landscape for a very long time. In fact, some evidence suggests that the practice of using essential oils for medicinal purposes dates back around 6,000 years and has origins across the globe in places such as Greece, China, Egypt, India, and Rome—just to name a few. The word aromatherapy may imply that inhalation is the singular use of aromatic oils. This is not always the case. Certain oils can be applied to the skin and others even ingested. Of course, this depends on the type of practitioner you see and your specific needs and goals. Personally, mint and lavender are a part of my own aromatic rituals. Not only do I apply them to my body and use the scent, but I make tea from them. Mint is known for its positive effects on digestion and lavender is known to potentially reduce anxiety and stress, aid in sleep, and is said to possess anti-inflammatory properties. No matter how you intend to use essential oils, it is of the utmost importance that you work with a trained, experienced professional. There are dosages, contraindications, dilutions, allergies, drug interactions, and more that must be taken into consideration.

For individuals living with HIV/AIDS, aromatherapy may be used to relieve stress and fatigue or to address specific health concerns. Some believe, for example, that the use of certain essential oils may boost immunity and white blood cell production. Roman chamomile, lemon, bergamot, pine needle, myrrh, and tea tree are among these oils. Certainly, more research is needed to definitively make a solid claim that essential oils can boost immunity, but these are ideas you can explore with your complementary and alternative medicine specialist.

In my own massage therapy practice and in therapeutic massage environments, essential oils are used via inhalation and by application to the skin. The oils are mixed with “carrier” oils before application. Using this method, we employ not only the scent of the oil during its use, but as the skin is a porous organ, the oil can be absorbed into the body.

The olfactory aspect, or sense of smell, of aromatherapy is a powerful tool. The sense of smell is one of the oldest senses we have from an evolutionary point of view. Creatures with olfactory senses use them to find and identify food, sense danger and even as a mating tool. The sense of smell is how we react and interact with our environment. When a scent enters through the nose, the molecules interplay with the olfactory organs and quickly interact with the brain. The molecules of essential oils can also interact with the respiratory system and lungs when inhaled through the nose or mouth. This is why eucalyptus is a popular scent for certain upper respiratory issues.

We also have to consider the emotional brain, or more anatomically speaking, the limbic system. When we encounter an aroma, the brain is affected through receptor sites. The limbic system interacts with the section of the brain that controls a variety of physical and emotional processes. This is why scents evoke physical reactions, thought, memories and emotions. All of us have likely had the experience of a memory being triggered by a smell or odor. Reactions to scent are very personal and unique and their affects can vary greatly from individual to individual. It is common, for example, for the scent of food to invoke emotion. To this day, for example, cinnamon is a scent I use often, as it reminds me of holidays, long ago, when my family would bake for days in preparation for holiday gatherings. Oddly enough though, there is even a specific scent to water that comes from a garden hose. I often walk by people watering the flowers and gardens in their front yards and I am immediately reminded of working in the garden with my grandfather during the summers of my childhood. In my travels, I have never encountered an essential oil called “garden hose water.” It doesn’t sound all that appealing from a marketing point of view, though I would buy it.

Some of my favorite essential oils are clary sage, which is a deeply relaxing and comforting essential oil noted for its euphoric properties; geranium, which is known to be balancing, stabilizing and uplifting; helichrysum, a powerful cleansing and regenerative oil; lemongrass, which is not only a stimulating experience but is used to relieve muscle pain and reduce body aches; neroli, which is known for its antidepressant affect and relaxing properties; sweet orange, said to instill optimism and happiness, and ylang ylang, known for its uplifting and relaxing properties.

If you are curious about aromatherapy’s possible benefits, seek out a CAM specialist and start following your nose.


After a lengthy career in the arts and LGBT activism, Robert Zukowski pursued his goal of a career in complementary and alternative healthcare. He is a New York State licensed Massage Therapist, a Certified Medical Massage Therapist and is certified by the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork. In addition to his hands-on work, he is a writer and lecturer in the field of therapeutic massage therapy.