What is Aromatherapy?
Aromatherapy can be defined as the ancient art and science of blending naturally extracted essential oils from aromatic plants, to balance, harmonise and promote the health of body, mind and spirit. Essential oils can only be extracted from aromatic plants, including flowers, leaves, roots, resins, seeds and fruit, with each essential oil having its own unique healing properties.
Aromatherapy comes from the word's “aroma” fragrance and “therapy” treatment. It was the French perfumer and chemist, Rene-Maurice Gattefosse, who coined the term “aromatherapie” in 1937 with his publication of a book by that name. Gattefosse’s intention for coining the term was to distinguish the medicinal application of essential oils from their perfumery applications.
Originating from herbal medicine, aromatherapy initially involved only the medicinal use of aromatic substances (essential oils). However, as the practice of aromatherapy has progressed over the years, it has adopted a more holistic approach encompassing the whole of a person’s health, both mental and physical, using a variety of different methods for application, as a therapy in its own right or in conjunction with other treatments and therapies.
Aromatherapy aims to enhance well-being, relieve stress and help in the rejuvenation and regeneration of the human body. It has been used throughout history in various forms of traditional medical practices of the world's greatest civilisations. Nowadays, aromatherapy is widely accepted by orthodox and complementary practitioners as one of the most comprehensive of the natural therapies.
What is an Essential Oil?
Essential oils are aromatic, volatile substances extracted from a single botanical source, by distillation or expression (citrus fruit peel only). When these methods cannot be used successfully e.g. jasmine flowers, solvent extraction is used resulting in ‘absolutes’. Explore different methods of extracting essential oils by clicking here. Essential oils have a very complex chemical composition which may vary from batch to batch, depending on the growing conditions. An essential oil may comprise of hundreds of different chemical compounds, all of which contribute to the characteristic aroma and specific therapeutic properties.
Essential oils are used synergistically in aromatherapy practice where their distinctive therapeutic properties may help various health conditions, from skin problems, muscular and arthritic pains to menstrual, respiratory and stress related issues. Research and clinical studies from around the world show the positive effects of aromatherapy, for example, the efficacy of some essential oils against MRSA (geranium and tea tree) or significant improvement in cognitive function in patients with Alzheimer’s disease (lemon and rosemary).
Some essential oils may present safety challenges such as skin and mucous membrane irritation or phototoxicity. Some interact with drugs (e.g. anticoagulants) or might not be suitable for those suffering from epilepsy or pregnant/breastfeeding women or babies, see safety page for more details.
Methods of Application
Essential oils are primarily absorbed into the body in two ways, via the skin or by inhalation via the olfactory system.
The Skin (The Integumentary System)
Essential oils are a complex blend of aromatic molecules with healing properties. Some of these molecules are so tiny that they have the ability to pass through the skin and into the bloodstream, which then allows them to circulate throughout the body, however as these components are very powerful, the Essential oil is too concentrated to be used directly on the body so they must be diluted in a vegetable carrier oil or other base before being applied to the body. Essential oils may be applied to the skin using the following methods:
- Massage: a base of a suitable carrier oil, cream or lotion is blended with a few drops of either a single essential oil or synergistic blend of essential oils and applied to the body or used to massage the body, allowing the aromatic molecules to penetrate the skin.
- Compresses: a few drops of selected oil(s) are added to a small quantity of water (either warm or cold). A cloth is soaked in the aromatic water then applied to the affected body area to use as a compress.
- Bathing: general bathing, sitz baths, hand or foot baths. A few drops of essential oil(s) are diluted in salts, dispersants, powders or milk. Essential oils can also be added to an unscented shower gel for use in the shower and also to unscented shampoo of natural organic ingredients.
The Respiratory and Olfactory Systems (the sense of smell)
Aromatic molecules in essential oils are inhaled through the nose and transmitted, via the olfactory bulb, to the limbic system in the brain. This is the part of the brain which influences the nervous and hormonal systems, and which is connected to higher functions such as memory and emotional behaviour. However, as the aromatic essential oils are breathed in, some of the aromatic molecules may also be absorbed through the lungs, and ultimately crossing over into the bloodstream. It is important to remember that each essential oil is actually a complex blend of many different aromatic molecules. These aromatic molecules combine together to create a distinctive fragrance and specific healing properties for each individual oil. Essential oils are inhaled via the following methods:
- Direct Inhalation: a smelling strip, or a bottle of undiluted essential oil is held about 10cms below the nostrils and several deep in-breaths allow the aromatic molecules to be taken in through the nose up into the limbic brain.
- Dispersion: essential oils are sprinkled or sprayed onto bed linen, furniture, tissues and handkerchiefs, allowing the aromatic molecules to be inhaled. Used as room sprays.
- Evaporation: a few drops of essential oils are combined with water and placed over a safe heat source. Heat causes the volatile aromatic molecules to diffuse into the atmosphere for a subtle form of inhalation. Burning essential oils is an effective way of disinfecting the air and of repelling unwanted insects.