What is aromatherapy?
Aromatherapy is the use of essential oils from plants for healing purposes.
The word aroma in aromatherapy is misleading because essential oils are
not solely used as inhalants. They can also be massaged into the skin or even
taken orally (although this is less common). Whether inhaled, absorbed, or
ingested, essential oils are gaining new attention as an alternative treatment
for infections, stress, and other health problems. (Note: essential oils should
never be ingested without specific instruction from a trained and qualified
What are essential oils?
Essential oils are concentrated extracts taken from the roots, leaves, or
blossoms of plants. Each essential oil contains its own mix of active
ingredients, and this mix determines the healing properties of the oil. Some
oils promote physical healing -- for example, some are able to relieve swelling
or fight fungal infections. Others are used for their emotional value -- they
may enhance relaxation or make a room smell pleasant. The essential oil derived
from orange blossom, for example, contains a large amount of ester, an active
ingredient thought to induce a calming effect. This may explain the tradition of
a bride carrying an orange blossom bouquet on her wedding day.
What is the history of aromatherapy?
Essential oils have been used for therapeutic purposes for nearly six
thousand years. The ancient Chinese, Indians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans used
essential oils in cosmetics, perfumes, and drugs. Essential oils were also
commonly used for spiritual, therapeutic, hygienic, and ritualistic
More recently, René-Maurice Gattefossé, a French chemist, discovered the
healing properties of lavender oil when he applied it to a burn on his hand
after an explosion in his laboratory. Following this unexpected finding, he
devoted his time to analyzing the chemical properties of essential oils and to
recording their value in treating burns, skin infections, gangrene, and wounds
in soldiers during World War I. In 1928, Gattefossé founded the science of
aromatherapy. By the 1950's massage therapists, beauticians, nurses,
physiotherapists, doctors, and other healthcare professionals began using
aromatherapy. In France, more than 1,500 trained physicians use essential oils
as an alternative to antibiotics.
Aromatherapy did not become popular in the United States until the 1980s,
when essential oils gained the attention of massage therapists, alternative
practitioners, and the commercial industry. Today, many lotions, candles, and
beauty products are sold under the name "aromatherapy." Unfortunately, however,
many of these products contain synthetic fragrances which do not have the
therapeutic substances found in essential oils.
How does aromatherapy work?
Researchers are not entirely clear how aromatherapy works, but many experts
speculate that our sense of smell plays a very important role. This sense is
incredibly powerful -- according to some estimates, about 10,000 times stronger
than any other sense. The "smell" receptors in your nose communicate with two
structures that are embedded deep in your brain and serve as storehouses for
emotions and memories. These structures are called the amygdala and hippocampus.
When essential oil molecules are inhaled, they affect these parts of the brain
directly. Researchers believe that stimulation of these structures influences
our physical, emotional, and mental health. For example, lavender is believed to
stimulate the activity of brain cells in the amygdala in the same way that
certain sedative medications work.
In addition to stimulating certain brain structures through your sense of
smell, essential oils can also influence mood through several other methods.
Aromatherapy massage is a popular way of using essential oils because it works
in several ways at the same time: it produces benefits from absorbing the oils
into the skin, from inhaling the oil's vapors, and from the physical therapy of
the massage process itself.
What happens during an aromatherapy session?
Professional aromatherapists, nurses, physical therapists, and massage
therapists can provide topical or inhaled aromatherapy treatment. Only specially
trained professionals can provide treatment that involves the ingestion of
At a typical aromatherapy session, the practitioner will ask about your
medical history and symptoms, as well as any preferences you may have for
certain scents. Depending upon the condition of your health, the practitioner
will instruct you to inhale essential oils either directly from a piece of
cloth, or indirectly through steam inhalations, vaporizers, or sprays. The
practitioner may also apply diluted essential oils to your skin during a
massage. In most cases, the practitioner will instruct you on how to continue
using aromatherapy at home. For example, many essential oils can be mixed with
milk or cream and added to a bath.
What is aromatherapy good for?
Aromatherapy is used in a wide range of settings -- from health spas to
hospitals -- to treat a variety of conditions. In general, aromatherapy appears
to ease pain, enhance mood, and promote a sense of relaxation.
In a study that included more than 8,000 pregnant women in labor, essential
oils (particularly rose, lavender, and frankincense) administered by qualified
midwives, lessened feelings of anxiety and fear, promoted a sense of well-being,
and reduced the need for pain medications during the delivery. Many women also
report that peppermint oil relieves nausea and vomiting during labor.
Massage therapy with essential oils may also be of value (together with
medications and/or therapy) for people with depression. The smells of the oils
are believed to stimulate positive emotions through the limbic system (the area
of the brain responsible for memories and emotions). However, the benefits of
aromatherapy with massage appear to be related to the relaxation effects of the
treatment as well as to an individual's belief that the treatment will be
Studies have found that chemical compounds in certain essential oils have
antibacterial and anti-fungal properties. Some evidence also suggests that
citrus oils may enhance immune function and that peppermint oil may promote
proper digestion. Fennel, aniseed, sage, and clary-sage have estrogen-like
compounds which may make them effective in relieving symptoms associated with
premenstrual syndrome, menopause, and the menstrual cycle.
Other conditions for which aromatherapy may be helpful include:
- Alopecia areata (hair loss)
- Agitation, including, possibly, agitation related to dementia
- Constipation (namely, abdominal massage using aromatherapy)
- Pain: Studies have found that people with rheumatoid arthritis, cancer
(specifically, topical chamomile), and headaches (specifically, topical
peppermint) require fewer pain medications when they use aromatherapy.
- Pruritis (itching), a common side effect for those receiving
Should anyone avoid aromatherapy?
Women in the first trimester of pregnancy as well as people with severe
asthma or a history of allergies should avoid all essential oils.
Pregnant women as well as people with a history of seizures should avoid
People with high blood pressure should avoid stimulating essential oils such
as rosemary and spike lavender.
Those with estrogen-dependent tumors (such as breast or ovarian cancer)
should not use oils with estrogen-like compounds such as fennel, aniseed, sage,
Caution should be exercised when considering use of aromatherapy in cancer
patients receiving chemotherapy.
Is there anything I should watch out for?
Most topical and inhaled essential oils are generally considered safe. You
should never ingest essential oils unless a trained professional advises you to
do so. Some oils are toxic and taking them orally could be fatal.
Rare side effects of aromatherapy can include allergic reaction including
rash, headache, liver and nerve damage, as well as harm to the fetus (this is
why aromatherapy should be avoided during pregnancy unless specifically
instructed by an expert).
Oils that are high in phenols, such as cinnamon, can cause skin irritation.
Dilute oil with water or a base massage oil (such as almond or sesame oil)
before applying to your skin and avoid using near your eyes. In addition,
essential oils are highly volatile and flammable so they should never be used
near an open flame.
Animal studies suggest that active ingredients in certain essential oils can
interact with some medications, but studies in people are needed to confirm.
Eucalyptus, for example, may clear certain medications, including pentobarbital
(used for seizures) and amphetamine (a stimulant used for narcolepsy and,
sometimes, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder) from the body more quickly,
which makes these drugs less effective.
The essential oils sold in stores are often mislabeled. For this reason, you
cannot be entirely sure that the amount of essential oil contained in the
bottle, or even from dose to dose (if the oil is in capsules), is the same as
what is stated on the label. A qualified aromatherapist can help you decide
which oils will be most effective for you and can direct you to high-quality
How can I find an aromatherapist?
While there are currently no boards that certify or license aromatherapists
in the United States, many professionals are members of organizations that
strive to improve public awareness of aromatherapy and increase the standards of
aromatherapy education and practice. To locate a qualified aromatherapist in
your area, contact the National Association of Holistic Therapy
(www.naha.org) at 1-888-ASK-NAHA. Many
aromatherapists are trained in some other form of therapy or healing system,
such as massage or chiropractic, and have incorporated the use of essential oils
into their practice.
What is the future of aromatherapy?
Although essential oils have been used for centuries, few studies have
investigated the safety and effectiveness of aromatherapy in people. While there
are many potential uses of aromatherapy in a wide variety of settings,
conclusive evidence of its effectiveness is lacking. Additionally, there are
some concerns regarding the safety and quality of certain essential oils. More
research is necessary before aromatherapy becomes a widely accepted alternative
remedy with clear medical indications.
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