Aromatherapy is the use of aromatic plant-based essential oils for therapeutic purposes. The goal of this practice is to promote physical, phychological and spiritual health and balance. The oils are concentrated extracts taken from various plant parts like the seeds, roots, leaves and blossoms
Even though we still don't really know how aromatherapy actually works and mainstream medicine is rather sceptical about its physical benefits, the popularity of the practice has increased. The use of essential oils is very popular as a natural and easy way for relieving stress. In addition, essential oils are widely used for beauty and body treatments. Specialized spas and beauty clinics employ them for this purpose.
Aromatherapy is fun to practice at home as long as we emply our common sense and caution is exercised at all times. Come to thing of it, we might be doing it already without even realising it. Aromatherapy in practice could be as simple as adding your favourite spice in a dish, arranging a fragrant bouquet of flowers or even wearing your favourite perfume!
Aromatic plants have been used for millenia in both the East and the West (ref encycl). In ancient Egypt, religious ceremonies included the use of scented waters, oils, incense, resins and various ointments. Herbal and aromatic remedies were employed by the Chinese as early as 3000 B.C. Ayurveda, a practice of traditional Indian medicine, also included herbal treatments.
The Romans and the Greeks were also aware of the medicinal properties of many different herbs. Herodotus was the first to record the process of distillation of turpentine around 425 B.C. Hippocrates, the Greek physician, wrote about an array of different medicinal plants. Many centuries later, the process of herbal distilation was mentioned by the Arab physician and naturalist Avicenna.
The modern history of aromatherapy begins in 1937 when French chemist René-Maurice Gattefossé published Aromatherapie: Les Huiles essentielles, hormones végé tales. An English version of the book was published in 1993. French physician Jean Valnet used botanical aromatics as an anticeptic treatment for wounded soldiers in World War II. His work was instrumental in the popularization of essential oil use for medical and psychiatric treatment in France. A bit later, French biochemist Mauguerite Maury popularized the cosmetic benefits of essential oils.
The first book on the subject in English was The Art of Aromatherapy written by Robert Tisserand in 1977. This made aromatherapy quite popular in the UK. In the 1980s, it started becoming popular in the USA as well.
Methods of Use
There are three different ways to use aromatherapy: inhalation, direct application on the skin and internal use. I must stress out that the third method should only be emplyed under the supervison of a certified aromatherapy specialist.
The easiest and simplest way to benefit from essential oils is to breathe them in. Inhalation can be direct or indirect. A very common practice is to put a few drops of the extract on a tissue or hankerchief and inhale gently. A small number of oils can be used as a steam treatment, added in a bowl of hot water. A commercial steam device can also be used for this method. This particular aromatherapy technique is used to treat respiratory problems and skin conditions. Alternatively, a warm bath with essential oils can have the same effects, not to mention that it is very relaxing.
In order to disperse the aromas over a large room or area, there are several devices available such as essential oil diffusers, vaporizers and light bulb rings. These are great aids for creating a healthier home environment.
2. Direct Application
Essential oils are very potent and they must be diluted in a lotion or carrier oil before you can safely use them on the skin. Carrier oils are also known as vegetable, fixed or base oils. These are usually made from the fatty parts of a plant (seeds, nuts, kernels) and they are “heavier” than essential oils (made from leaves, barks, roots).
Some examples of carriers used for aromatherapy include avocado oil, jojoba, hazelnut, olive oil, pomegranate seed, sesame, sunflower and sea-buckthorn berry oil. Other excellent options include safflower, sweet almond, grapeseed, hazelnut, apricot seed, or peach kernel. These are light oils that can be easily absorbed by the skin.
Standard dilutions of essential oils range from 2–10 percent.While some are safe to use at higher concentrations, others must be diluted even further to be used effectively and safely. Massage with essential oils is a common therapeutic technique. Another way is to use hot or cold compresses and soaks to treat muscle aches and pains.
3. Internal Use
The third method is internal use of essential oils. This treatment should never be self-administered and can only be followed under the supervision of a qualified healthcare professional. I've heard that some people occassionally use certain extracts in cooking but I wouldn't recommend that. Essential oils are really complex, really powerful substances. In Greek, we have the word “farmakon” which can either mean medicine or poison. So, when you handle these extracts, remember that it cuts both ways. They are not meant to be used in cooking. After all, you can choose among a wide variety of very aromatic fresh herbs for creating delicious dishes.
Some Essential Oils Commonly Used in Aromatherapy
1. Bergamot (Citrus Bergamia)
2. Chamomile, Roman (Anthemis nobilis)
3. Clary Sage (Salvia sclarea)
This essential oil has a heavy, leafy and nutty aroma. It is a deep muscle relaxant and it eases the body and the mind simultaneously. Clary sage is considered helpful for high-blood pressure, stress related problems, digestive problems, asthma, migraines, muscle aches and pains, stress, depression, moodiness, and many more. It is a non-toxic essential oil, but it should be avoided during pregnancy.
4. Cypress (Cupressus sempervirens)
5. Frankincense (Boswelia carteri)
6. Geranium (Pelargonium graveolens)
7. Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
8. Lemon (Citrus limonum)
9. Neroli (Citrus aurantium). It is actually the orange blossom essential oil. It has a very sweet, floral and a bit bitter aroma. The freshly picked orange blossom flowers produce a very calming oil ideal for stress relief and emotional shock. It also helps with digestive problems, poor circulation and various skin conditions or imperfections. As with all citrus oils, it can also give your immune system a boost.
10. Patchouli (Pogostemon cablin)
The patchouli plant is native to Indonesia and the Philippines. It is also extensively cultivated in other regions for the production of the essential oil which has a strong earthy, sweet and spicy scent. Patchouli is very useful in skin treatments and it is also considered an effective cell regenerator. This essential oil ages well and it has a distinct exotic aroma. It soothes inflammation and it has antiseptic properties. Patchouli has a variety of other applications ranging from treating stress problems to repelling insects.
11. Peppermint (Mentha piperita)
12. Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
This list is far from exhausting since there are many more essential oils used in the practice of aromatherapy. These oils are often blended together in numerous ways to combine their properties and enhance their positive effects.
Precautions for Aromatherapy
Always purchase and use authentic, high quality essential oils. Certain aromatic plant oils are very toxic and shouldn't be used at all. These include (among others) bitter almond, pennyroyal, mustard, sassafras, rue, mugwort, camphor and wintergreen. Many extracts are also unsuitable for internal use, for example eucalyptus, wormwood and sage. It is important that you treat you essential oil bottles as medicine. In order to preserve the quality of your aromatherapy kit, keep your bottles tightly closed and put them in a cool location away from light. You must also store them somewhere safe, out of your children's reach.
That being said, little ones should be treated with aromatherapy only under the guidance of a certified aromatherapist or a healthcare specialist. While some essential oils may be totally unsuitable for kids, others can be used, but should be further diluted before they are safe for them. Some could also be inappropriate for pregnant or lactating women, or people with specific conditions and health issues.
Be always mindful of the dosage you use. This is the number one safety tip for aromatherapy. Aromatic plant oils shoudn't be used undiluted, at least not without being directed to do so by a trained healthcare professional or aromatherapist.
When aromatherapy is practised as directed, there are very few side effects and risks. However, some individuals may experience side effects and these vary depending on the type of oil you are using. One of the most common problems is an allergic reaction called contact dermatitis. Redness and irritation might occur if you apply a pure essential oil onto your skin. It is always best to do a small patch test with a new oil before you start using it regularly.
Phototoxicity may also be an issue when using citrus-based essential oils such as bergamot, lemon, lime, orange, and angelica. These can cause a hightened sensitivity to sunlight and therefore you should limit your sun exposure for at least four hours (some advise even more) after use.