Walk into Nishaan Sandhu's office near downtown Lexington, and the first thing you notice is the aroma that envelops you.
That smell isn't just for feeling good; it's also for healing.
Sandhu works with clients on aromatherapy cures. For the massage therapist and herbal consultant, part of the healing process lies in the nose and, from there, spreads through the body.
Aromatherapy has been used for hundreds of years as a complementary therapy — often in conjunction with massage or other integrative treatments.
On this morning shortly after Thanksgiving, Sandhu's office at Nourish Massage and Holistic Therapies is saturated with a heat-diffused blend of oils of rosemary, cardamom and lemon.
What does that do?
"It's for trying to be able to stay focused," Sandhu said.
Because there is a lot of ground to cover with aromatherapy, which is fun to sample but also is serious health business. Sandhu, who previously worked in an herbal-medicine clinic in Louisville, moved to Kentucky with her parents when she was 13. Her mother was a chef, and that led in a roundabout way to Sandhu's interest in aromatherapy.
"She always let me flavor the food," she said. "You use the senses there. Taste is a major sense of herbalism."
In herbal medicine, tastes and smells are thought to reflect some of a plant's healing properties. For Sandhu's clients, the aromatherapy oil selection process is frequently associated with finding a formula for use during a massage. But some clients have more specific and intense needs, Sandhu said.
She makes no claims that aromatherapy can cure everything, but she said some clients can find a difference in custom-blended aromatherapy products for insomnia, anxiety, lack of energy and respiratory ills.
In addition, custom formulation allows Sandhu to figure out which delivery system works best for a given client, including options such as steam inhalation, diffusion into a room, bath salts, oils or "essential oil packs" placed on the body.
Rubbing aromatherapy oil blends into the feet, for example, "is awesome" for delivering the essential oil's properties, Sandhu said.
Between whiffs of essential oils, Sandhu cleanses her smell palate by passing her nose over a small jar of coffee beans.
The oils themselves are as different as the plants from which they are distilled.
Clients react variously after a whiff of vetiver. For some, the aroma — a combination of freshly mown field and coffee — is sedating; others find it energizing. Cardamom, Sandhu said, is "the mover and the shaker" among essential oils, helping to thin mucus. Red mandarin "helps to calm a chatty mind," Sandhu said.
When presenting the oil to clients, Sandhu urges them to drop logic and instead focus on how the aroma makes them feel.
"When an oil resonates with them, you see a shift" in the way the person feels, she said.
Self-diagnosis with essential oils is discouraged because the products can be harmful if not diluted and mixed properly with a "carrier," such as an oil or salve.
But there is one oil that should be in almost every home, Sandhu said: lavender. She keeps some next to her spices in the kitchen and uses it for minor burns. The smell is soothing, and it helps the burns not to blister and scar, she said.
Sandhu also offers consultations on natural perfume, helping clients sort out which oils they would like to have mixed into a formulation.
"Each body is its own ecosystem," Sandhu said. "You need to know what's going in."