By Kamyar M. Hedayat, MD
Web Exclusive – September 01, 2009
If I asked you to describe pregnancy, would one of the words you used be fragrant? Probably not. If you think of ways of describing pregnancy, scent is probably not one of them. When women do remember the scents of pregnancy, they tend to use such words as putrid (after throwing up from morning sickness) or acrid (from acid reflux) or hircine (i.e., goat-like; from the smell of amniotic fluid and afterbirth). It would seem that there’s nothing fragrant about being pregnant or delivering a baby. But throughout history, sweet scents and medical aromatherapy have been integral parts of pregnancy for women throughout the world. Modern medical aromatherapy has proven to be a versatile, effective, and enjoyable way to make today’s pregnancies fragrant ones.
Aromatherapy is a 5,000-year-old healing art that has been used for many purposes, from worship to perfumery. In ancient times, because priests were also healers and perfumers, aromatherapy was employed to heal the body, mind, and spirit. What better or more blessed event is there than pregnancy for addressing a woman’s needs, from cell to soul, with medical aromatherapy?
Aromatherapy makes use of essential oils extracted from plants and animals. These oils can be made from any part of a plant or tree, including the roots, leaves, bark, berries, or flowers, and are extracted by steam, carbon dioxide, or compression. Essential oils are liquids that naturally turn into a gas at room temperature, thus transmitting a scent—hence the aroma in aromatherapy. An essential oil has dozens upon dozens of healing compounds, most of which have no scent at all but are every bit as important in the healing process. Medical aromatherapy is more than just another pretty scent.
In therapeutic or medical aromatherapy, medical-grade essential oils are used to treat specific physical or emotional problems. Medical-grade means that the highest quality of care has been taken in growing and harvesting the plants, making the essential oil, and giving the workers a living wage. When a slow, careful process is used to make essential oils, they have the broadest possible range of active compounds, resulting in the greatest therapeutic effects. Look for a statement of this criterion when purchasing aromatherapy products.
Using Aromatherapy Safely in Pregnancy
Recently, I led a seminar for clinical psychologists in the use of essential oils. When a pregnant intern heard that I would be passing around essential-oil blends, she ran out of the room, trembling at the thought that these “dangerous” scents might harm her baby. But the artificially scented candles, soaps, detergents, and shampoos that people use every day present a far greater risk of harming a fetus than the pure, therapeutic molecules found in plants. A recent study in the journal Pediatrics showed that using artificially scented shampoos led to increased amounts in the blood of neurotoxins that had been absorbed through the skin.1 In other words, what goes on your skin goes into your blood, and what goes into your blood can affect your baby, for better or worse.
Essential oils should be treated as natural drugs, and every drug should be respected. The inhalation of pure, medical-grade essential oils is generally safe in pregnancy. However, if you have a history of seizures, avoid rosemary and hyssop essential oils. If you have high blood pressure (pre-existing or from preeclampsia), don’t use stimulating essential oils such as pine, juniper, grapefruit, black pepper, or rosemary internally, and avoid inhaling them directly from the bottle for more than 10 minutes per day.
When you inhale pure essential oils directly, do so from the cap instead of the bottle, so that the effect will be more gentle. To use aromatherapy blends on the skin, make a mixture of 1 to 5 percent, or as directed by an experienced aromatherapist. (A 5 percent mixture is five drops per teaspoon of oil; a 1 percent mixture is one drop in one teaspoon. Olive, sweet almond, and jojoba oils are the best blending oils to use.) Essential oils should be used internally only under the guidance of an experienced integrative healthcare provider.
Fragrant Pregnancy Today
From conception to delivery, aromatherapy can be an enjoyable part of pregnancy for a mother and her baby. Babies not yet born can smell what their mothers smell, and remember those smells after birth. Recent studies have confirmed this, and researchers have coined the term smell memory to describe it.2 In a future article, “The Fragrant Baby,” I will talk about how you can get a fussy baby to eat through smell memory and smell training. Aromatherapy can be a child’s first introduction to the natural world outside the womb, and can create an appreciation for nature and natural things that can remain deep in the baby’s soul.
Morning sickness is a feeling of stomach upset that many women experience during pregnancy. Clinical studies have shown that vitamin B6 and ginger tea can relieve mild morning sickness, and that it’s safe for the baby. But when morning sickness is worse than mild, the last thing you want to do is swallow a pill or drink a cup of tea, then try to keep it down. In these situations—or any time you want quick relief from morning sickness—aromatherapy can be ideal; just smelling the right essential oil or taking a few drops of a diluted essential-oil blend can work in seconds.
My wife suffered from strong morning sickness for about three weeks when pregnant with our son, Hasan. What we found to work best was a combination of aromatherapy treatments. To stave off morning sickness, she took 10 drops of a 2 percent dilution of ginger essential oil. She would also rub the same mixture on acupressure point PC6, which helps with nausea. (PC6 is located two finger breadths above the inside of the wrist, in the hollow between the muscles in the middle of the arm.) For occasional feelings of nausea, she would inhale slowly for about 5 minutes from the same bottle of 2 percent dilution of ginger oil.
The varicose veins of pregnancy can be painful and unsightly. They are caused by increased pressure on the veins from the growing baby, and usually go away after pregnancy. Per teaspoon of blending oil, add 1 drop of the essential oils of black pepper, cypress, juniper, peppermint, and lavender, and apply topically three times per day.
Indigestion and Acid Reflux
Indigestion and acid reflux become noticeable in the second trimester and beyond. As the baby grows, the enlarging uterus compresses the stomach and intestines, leading to more and more pressure and less and less room for food. The best approach is to eat light, easily digestible foods and avoid gassy foods. Lemons, figs, melons, and licorice are natural ways to treat a sour stomach. Eat a few bites of melon 10 minutes before a meal, or any time you feel the acid reflux. Healing clays such as illite and bentonite can work wonders in minutes for reflux. Add 1 teaspoon to a few ounces of water. Stir and drink.
The digestion of foods, especially fatty foods, can be assisted by essential oils taken with meals. Mix 1 drop each of tarragon, lemon, and lavender essential oils per teaspoon of olive oil and take with meals. Use the same blend as a belly massage. Even smelling these oils from the bottle can give relief from bloating and indigestion.
Kicking is a good sign that your baby is vigorous and exercising his or her little leg muscles. But as the baby grows to the limits of the uterus and sits upside down in the birth canal, those kicks can feel more like a martial-arts tournament than a gentle exercise. The baby should be allowed to exercise in the womb, but if the kicking is painful (in the ribs) or keeps you from sleeping, then a little aromatherapy can go a long way. Our fragrant baby, Hasan, had a knack for kicking my wife every night at 11 p.m., just as she was getting ready to go to sleep. Smelling some Roman Chamomile essential oil off the cap would stop the kicking in one minute.
In the business of being born, time waits for no woman—or her uterus. In hospitals across America, more and more women are being pressured to have their labor induced—speeded up—though the administration of oxytocin, sold under the trade names Pitocin and Syntocin. Oxytocin is a natural hormone, produced by the bodies of both men and women, that plays a role in the feelings of love, social bonding, memory, trust, and generosity. Oxytocin also influences our ability to calm ourselves. In women, oxytocin stimulates the contraction of the uterus in labor and delivery, and milk letdown during breastfeeding.
Like most hormones, oxytocin is released by the brain in small pulses and is controlled through feedback loops that prevent the effects of the natural hormone from becoming overwhelming. Pitocin or Syntocin, however, are given continuously, which is not normal for the body. When oxytocin is administered from an external source in this way, the body has no way of shutting off the supply when the hormone’s effects become too strong.
From two weeks before Hasan’s anticipated due date, I applied to my wife’s belly a blend of the essential oils of clary sage, lavender, peppermint, and juniper. These oils help balance stress levels, tonify muscles, and ease cramping, which can affect the healthy contraction of the uterus. Juniper essential oil has been used traditionally as a tonic for the uterus. At the hospital, every time the nurse came in to tell us that if the contractions didn’t pick up in one hour they would start administering Pitocin, I would massage the contraction blend and perform Reiki on the back of my wife’s spine and around her uterus. Lo and behold, the contractions, measured on a monitor, would pick up within minutes. The nurse would walk in and, amazed, wonder what had happened. With persistence, we were able to avoid using Pitocin.
Vaginal Bleeding and Soreness
After pregnancy, the birth canal can be sore, bruised, or torn, and essential oils can be too strong for its tender lining. Fortunately, there is an even gentler side to aromatherapy, called hydrosols. Hydrosols are water-based byproducts of the distillation process by which oils are extracted from plants. Hydrosols still need to be diluted, but they’re great for people with sensitive skin, and even for infants. Many artisanal companies in the US make hydrosols, often on their own farms.
After birth, mix 1 teaspoon each of the hydrosols of peppermint, helichrysum, and chamomile, 1 teaspoon of rose water, and enough water to fill a 16-oz. spray bottle. This makes a refreshing, soothing aid for healing scars and cuts. Rosewater can be purchased very inexpensively from Middle Eastern grocery stores, as well as from hydrosol manufacturers.
Breastfeeding is the most natural and wonderful way for a mother to nourish and nurture her newborn, and its benefits are beyond question. Short milk supplies can come about for many reasons, including dehydration and stress. To improve milk production, nursing mothers should drink plenty of fluids, eat well, and rest whenever possible.
Mix 1 drop each of hops and fennel essential oils with olive oil and apply to the breasts (but not the nipples); this may help stimulate milk production. A bath with Epsom salt and sea salt, and relaxing essential oils such as rose, lavender, geranium, and Roman chamomile, can also help relieve tension, thus improving milk production that has diminished due to stress.
A preventive regimen is more effective than waiting for cracked nipples to occur. A recent Iranian study showed that peppermint essential oil was more effective than lanolin in preventing cracked nipples.3 Add 1 drop of peppermint essential oil to 4 oz. of coconut oil and apply to the affected area.
Fragrant Mind: Aroma Psychology
Pregnancy and parenthood can be wonderful and deeply fulfilling events in a person’s life. Hollywood movies tend to depict pregnancy as a carefree time, but the reality is that, as exciting as these events are, many women experience waves of emotions as they yo-yo between fear and joy, doubt and self-confidence. These feelings contribute to the ups and downs experienced by women and men, from the first attempt at conception through birth.
Aromatherapy is an ideal way to deal with such emotions—the sense of smell is directly linked to the center of emotions and memory in the brain. Essential oils, which contain the “essences” of the plants, carry deep archetypal messages that work on the physical and spiritual bases of illness to heal body, mind, and soul. For example, consider the rose: Even when a rose is in full bloom, its petals are still bunched together, not wide open like a daisy’s. Its scent is attractive and heady, but its thorns keep you from getting too close. The essential oil of rose opens the heart, encouraging a willingness to connect emotionally with others without compromising your own values, or being taken advantage of, or being picked apart, petal by emotional petal. Ginger, on the other hand, is a tough tuber that grows deep within the earth in cold, dark layers of nutrient-rich soil. Ginger is full of vitality; grounding and stabilizing, it brings you “back to earth.”
Conflicts About Being Pregnant
Sometimes, the excitement of feeling a child growing in your uterus is mixed with fears about your ability to be a caring, competent, protective mother. Essential oils that support a strong will and stability, such as juniper or cedar, are good to inhale or diffuse in the air when these feelings arise. Calming oils such as rose or geranium also help you let go of worries. To help develop a mature spiritual approach to mothering, work with frankincense or sandalwood by diffusing them in the air during meditation, or using them in the bath during quiet, reflective times.
Fears About Labor
For fear that affects the pit of your stomach, ginger and galbanum can be helpful. To create a sense of being grounded in and respecting your body, ginger and vetiver are helpful. If your sense of insecurity is based on a fear of not having support during labor, spikenard can be helpful. To settle your mind, try melissa, marjoram, or lavender. To motivate yourself, try grapefruit or lemon. To melt away negative thoughts, try sage or holy basil. Inhaling or diffusing these oils are the most effective ways to benefit from them.
Pregnancy and birth are among the most wonderful events in a woman’s life. Aromatherapy with medical-grade essential oils and hydrosols can emotionally enhance the experience of pregnancy and ease the feelings of discomfort that come from time to time. From the tender moments of conception to the dramatic time of birth, medical aromatherapy can help create a fragrant pregnancy.
1. S. Sathyanarayana, C. J. Karr, P. Lozano et al., “Baby Care Products: Possible Sources of Infant Phthalate Exposure,” Pediatrics 121, no. 2 (February 2008): e260-e268.
2. B. Schaal, L. Marlier, and R. Soussignan, “Human Foetuses Learn Odours from Their Pregnant Mother’s Diet,” Chemical Senses 25, no. 6 (December 2000): 729-737.
3. M. Sayyah Melli, M. R. Rashidi, A. Nokhoodchi et al., “A Randomized Trial of Peppermint Gel, Lanolin Ointment, and Placebo Gel to Prevent Nipple Crack in Primiparous Breastfeeding Women,” Medical Science Monitor 13, no. 9 (September 2007): CR406-CR411.
Dr. Kamyar M. Hedayat is a Stanford-trained pediatric specialist and holistic physician in San Diego, California, and the author of Natural Cold & Flu Remedies for Your Child: What To Do When Your Child Is Sick (forthcoming in October from Square One Publishing). He is also the president and founder of Aroma MD, the only North American company specializing in organic medical aromatherapy with medical-grade essential oils. He can be reached at http://www.aromamd.net under “Ask the Doctor.”