Going for a pong

The Skeptic 7.1

Here I sit in an aromatic haze. Not rough shag, I hasten to add, nor Old Holborn, a fine cheroot, nor even one of those mysteriously legal marijuana substitutes which lurk in the personal ads. No, my noxious companion is bergamot aromatherapy oil, simmering in a clay burner. (It worries me that I may be the first contributor to The Skeptic to write under the influence of aromatherapy.)

Bergamot oil is made from the rind of the fruit, and has a strange odour (at least to my nose) which is half citrus and half wood. It is far from unpleasant, and the brochure that comes with the bottle states that it is `good for the skin, with a warm and balancing effect on the emotions'. This calls for a scientific evaluation. I observe that since my skin is still intact and I feel fairly cheerful, it must work. Yet another alternative therapy ratified.

Aromatherapy has been on my mind of late, because this part of Manchester seems to have been bombarded from all sides with mind-altering smells. Our local sewage works apparently sees its principal function as generating an indescribably disgusting smell, scheduled to coincide with tea-time. One wonders about the plan to house the Olympics here. If Manchester does succeed in its bid, my advice would be to invest heavily in Consolidated Noseplugs.

The bergamot oil has certainly helped with the sewage works, and we've all felt smooth-skinned and contented. The only one to turn his nose up at the bergamot is Bounce, a dog we've been looking after for friends. He took one sniff and made a swift exit, preferring instead to eat something horrible he'd found underneath the freezer. Later Bounce made his definitive statement on the matter by misbehaving during his walk and running onto the forbidden territory of the golf course, where he relaxed in a stagnant pond. Back at home, he steamed smugly, overpowering the bergamot with his own, less pleasant, contribution.

Recently, the aromatherapy business has been growing rapidly, and there is an increasing crossover between its status as an `alternative therapy' and a handy source of nice smells which are (by and large) not tested on animals. For many, it makes a refreshing change from the acrid clouds one associates with the self-styled white-coated `aroma technicians' stationed at department store cosmetics counters. I had always believed that aromatherapy was basically harmless, when used sensibly, but I began to have doubts when I read a recent self-help book advocating the use of aromatherapy, often in conjunction with homoeopathy, to treat a variety of conditions including depression, cystitis, eczema, shingles, haemorrhoids, sunburn and whooping cough. Maggie Tisserand's Aromatherapy for Women (Thorsons, 1990) is typical of many of the books in the area. Although I have no doubt that books of this kind are written with the highest of motives, and there is no suggestion of charlatanism or unethical practice, what comes across most strongly is the question of `attitude'. One of the strongest attractions that people feel for so-called alternative therapies is that they offer a person-centred approach, instead of the traditional Western doctor-centred system. But the blame for modern dissatisfaction with the G.P.'s surgery surely lies with the medical community itself, not with the fundamental principles of the system. The doctor who starts writing the prescription as soon as you enter the surgery, and then gives you all of three minutes of his valuable time is the worst advertisement for traditional scientifically-based healing. Naturally, the friendly face in the aromatherapy shop, who's happy to chat for hours, and to be interested in you, is a welcome alternative.

As Maggie Tisserand says: `when we are sick we have to put our trust in someone or something, and that someone can be a doctor, a pharmacist, or yourself, and that something can be a doctor's prescription, an over-the-counter drug, or aromatherapy. The choice is yours.' She's absolutely right. Making a choice is easy. The trick is to make the right choice, and to stay healthy. Bounce trusts his nose, and he never goes wrong. But then he's a dog.



©Toby Howard 1995

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