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Aromatherapy is the practice of using those natural oils that have been extracted by different means from blossoms, seeds, bark, stems, leaves, roots or other parts of a plant to enhance your psychological and physical well-being. This is possible because essential oils offer healing on different levels at the same time. It is a true holistic practice, designed to affect the whole person, and not just the symptom or disease, while assisting the body's natural ability to balance, regulate, heal and maintain itself through the use of appropriate essential oils.
Aromatherapy is a form of alternative medicine where the inhaled aroma from essential oils can stimulate brain function while those same essential oils are absorbed through the skin, travelling through the bloodstream to carry out their healing process. There is an enormous variety of different essential oils that can be used – each has its own healing properties.
Aromatherapy essential oils have been used for therapeutic, hygienic, spiritual and ritualistic purposes for nearly 6,000 years. While China is thought to have first introduced the use of infused aromatic oils to enhance the mood, Egypt developed a distillation machine to extract oils from cedarwood, cloves, cinammon and other plant materials. They used these oils to embalm their dead. Megallus, a Greek perfumer, developed an aroma called megaleion derived from myrrh while Hippocrates is said to have practised aromatherapy (obviously before it was known as aromatherapy) to help to heal his patients.
The term "aromatherapy" first originated in 1937 when French chemist Rene-Maurice Gattefosse invented the French version of the word – aromathérapie - after he found that lavender oil helped to heal a burn he suffered in his laboratory. He also found that the oil took away the pain. This started a life-long interest in the healing power of essential oils and encouraged French surgeon Jean Valnet to use essential oils to help heal soldiers' wounds in World War II and thus prove the medical benefits of aromatherapy.
Between those early days and the discoveries in France in the 1930s and 1940s, the use of essential oils and herbs had waned - primarily because of the development of the microscope where chemists were able to isolate certain bioactive compounds and reproduce them synthetically. For example, this was how aspirin (or salicylic acid) was developed as a synthetic replacement for the herb White Willow Bark's pain relieving compound.
The argument in favor of synthetic versions was that they could have greater strength and did not have to rely on the vagaries of crops, their growing seasons and their harvesting. The natural aspect was ignored.
By the 1950s, massage therapists, beauticians, nurses, physiotherapists, doctors and other health care providers began using aromatherapy although it did not become popular in the USA until the 1980s. While today, many manufacturers have climbed on the band wagon with lotions, candles and beauty products being marketed as "aromatherapy", the consumer needs to be aware that many of these products contain synthetic fragrances that do not have the same properties as essential oils and can even be harmful.
As well as being inhaled, the art of aromatherapy means that oils can also be massaged into the skin and under the supervision of a trained naturopath or qualified specialist, occasionally taken by mouth. Each aromatherapy oil contains its own mix of active ingredients, and this mix determines what the oil is used for. Some oils are used to promote physical healing while others are specifically for their emotional value.
The main three different modes of application of aromatherapy are:
Aerial diffusion: for environmental fragrancing or aerial disinfection.
Direct inhalation: for respiratory disinfection, decongestion, expectoration as well as psychological effects.
Topical applications: for general massage, baths, compresses and therapeutic skin care.
While researchers are not entirely clear how aromatherapy may work, some believe that the sense of smell plays an important role. The "smell" receptors in your nose communicate with parts of your brain (the amygdala and hippocampus) that serve as storehouses for emotions and memories so that when you breathe in essential oil molecules, they could reach these parts of your brain and influence physical, emotional, and mental health. Other researchers and experts put forward a different point of view, believing that molecules from essential oils may interact in the blood with hormones or enzymes.
During an aromatherapy session, professional aromatherapists, nurses, physical therapists, pharmacists and massage therapists are all capable of providing topical or inhaled aromatherapy treatment but only specially trained professionals can provide treatment that involves taking essential oils by mouth. The practitioner will ask about your medical history and symptoms, as well any scents you may like and even asking asking you to breathe in a selection of essential oils either directly from a piece of cloth or indirectly through steam inhalations, vaporizers or sprays. If you find a particular scent unpleasant, your dislike of it may reduce its potential benefits to you.
The practitioner may also apply diluted essential oils to your skin during a massage while explaining how to use aromatherapy at home such as by mixing essential oils into your bath or by other methods.
An aromatherapy massage session can give you three distinct health benefits in one: your skin absorbs the essential oils, you breathe them in and you experience the physical therapy of the massage itself.
Aromatherapy benefits include stress, headache and insomnia relief, mood boosting, the regulation of hormones, immune system boosting, muscle relaxation, blood circulation, healing of skin conditions – everything from acne, chapped skin and lips, insect bites and athlete’s foot. Aromatherapy is being used to treat bronchitis, sore throats and now even Alzheimer’s Disease because it can be effective and much safer to use than more conventional treatment methods. It is high on the list for those looking for natural treatment alternatives. Aromatherapy can distract you from current stress, induce positive memories and emotions, or treat an emotional state.
However, there are some situations when people need to be more careful about using essential oils. These include pregnant women, people with severe asthma and those with a history of allergies. In such cases, essential oils should only be used under the guidance of a trained professional. In addition, high blood pressure sufferers should avoid stimulating essential oils, such as rosemary and spike lavender while those with estrogen dependent tumors (such as breast or ovarian cancer) should not use oils with estrogen-like compounds such as fennel, aniseed, sage and clary-sage.
Although there are no boards that recognize, certify or licence aromatherapists in the USA, many of these practitioners are members of professional organizations so when wishing to locate a qualified aromatherapist in your area, a good starting place would be to contact the National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy at www.naha.org. In addition, many aromatherapists are trained in other forms of therapy or healing such as massage or chiropractic, and include aromatherapy in their practice.
Due to the different growing locations, the amount of plant material needed for a good yield, the method of extraction and more factors, essential oils for aromatherapy can and will differ greatly in price. These oils should be sold and stored in amber, blue, green or dark purple glass bottles as they are very sensitive to UV light. Avoid purchasing oils that have been stored in clear glass bottles or have been kept in or near a window. The NAHA (as mentioned above) sends out news to members so you can know if an essential oil is endangered or there are other issues which suggest finding a good quality product for that specific oil is unlikely. Suppliers who are members of a a professional organization who focus on true aromatherapy, education and safety are more likely to be concerned with providing the best possible essential oils.
Effectiveness and Citations
Although essential oils have been used therapeutically for centuries, there is little published research on many of them. According to the University of Minnesota, this is beginning to change as more scientific studies on essential oils are conducted around the world with current clinical studies in the USA, Europe, Australia, Japan, India and Canada. Many of these studies describe the remarkable healing properties of various oils.
- In one study, Neroli oil helped reduce blood pressure and pre-procedure anxiety among people undergoing a colonoscopy.
- In test tube studies, chemical compounds from some essential oils have shown antibacterial and anti fungal properties.
- Other studies suggest that citrus oils strengthen the immune system and that peppermint oil may help with digestion.
- Fennel, aniseed, sage and clary sage have estrogen like compounds, which may help relieve symptoms of premenstrual syndrome and menopause.
- Several clinical studies suggest that when essential oils (particularly rose, lavender, and frankincense) were used by qualified midwives, pregnant women felt less anxiety and fear, had a stronger sense of well being, and had less need for pain medications during delivery.
- Many women report that peppermint oil relieves nausea and vomiting during labor.
- Studies have found that people with rheumatoid arthritis, cancer (using topical chamomile), and headaches (using topical peppermint) require fewer pain medications when they use aromatherapy.
There are some unique problems when conducting research on essential oils:
– Essential oils are not standardized
– It is difficult to conduct blind studies with aromatic substances
– It is difficult to get approval and funding for research on essential oils and
– It is difficult to tell what caused the outcome
Apart from the internet, there are several books on the subject of aromatherapy available, giving interested people a permanent reference tool, and these include:
Aromatherapy: A Complete Guide to the Healing Art by Kathi Keville & Mandy Green
The Complete Book of Essential Oils and Aromatherapy by Valerie Ann Worwood
Aromatherapy Workbook by Marcel Lavabre
Aromatherapy A-Z by Patricia Davis
http://www.naha.org/ - The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy