Aromatherapy is the practice of using the natural oils extracted from flowers, bark, stems, leaves, roots or other parts of a plant to enhance psychological and physical well-being. These essential oils can be administered through massage, inhalation, compresses and baths. While commonly associated with pleasant applications for beauty and general relaxation, essential oils have complex chemical components that, like herbs, have medicinal properties that affect the body in a variety of ways to improve your health and general wellbeing. Understanding these uses requires training in the appropriate selection, preparation and application of these oils as well as knowledge of their toxicities, side effects and interactions with pharmaceutical drugs.
To understand how aromatherapy works we need to look at how these essential oils enter and affect the body.
When applied to the body, essential oils are able to penetrate the skin and are absorbed into the blood and lymphatic system, where they not only help to kill bacteria and viruses but also stimulate the body's immune system, thereby strengthening resistance to further attack.
Some essential oils increase the circulation and help with the efficient elimination of toxins, others promote new cell growth and encourage the body's natural ability to heal itself. Each essential oil has its own character and aroma, exhibiting a varying number of properties and benefits which are unique to itself, since no two essential oils are quite the same. Some essentials oils calm inflamed or irritated skin, relieve muscle spasms and tension.
The inhaled aroma from essential oils is believed to stimulate brain function. The aroma sends a signal directly to the Limbic System in the brain which is the centre of emotional response and also the place where memories are formed and stored. This is why essential oils have such a powerful effect on our moods and general state of mind.
Although the term Aromatherapy was not coined until the late 1920s, the roots of this widely used method of plant-based therapy run deep throughout our history. The use of essential oils dates back at least one thousand years, though humankind has used aromatic plants for incense, medicine and perfumery for thousands of years.
It is believed that the Egyptians invented the first distillation equipment, albeit rudimentary, and created oils infused with herbs for use in rituals, medicine, cosmetics, and perfumery. Years later Hippocrates (commonly referred to as the “Father of Medicine”) studied the effects of essential oils on health, and promoted their use for medicinal benefits.
The term 'aromatherapie' was coined by a French chemist named René-Maurice Gattefossé (1881-1950) who studied the medicinal properties of essential oils for many years whilst working in his families perfumery business. He had the opportunity to personally test his innovative theories when an explosion in his laboratory caused a severe burn to his hand.
He plunged his hand into a vessel of pure lavender oil which immediately reduced the swelling and helped accelerate the healing process. Most impressively, he was left with no scar. He was a prolific writer covering many subjects, but it was his passion for researching essential oils that eventually led to the publication in 1937 of his ground-breaking book, 'Aromathérapie: Les Huiles essentielles hormones vegetales'.
A French doctor named Jean Valnet followed the work of Gattefossé, and during World War 2 whilst working as a surgical assistant he used essential oils of chamomile, clove, lemon and thyme to treat gangrene and battle wounds. After graduating as a surgeon at the end of the war, Valnet continued to use essential oils to treat illnesses, and was the first ever to use them to treat psychiatric conditions. His inspired book, 'Aromathérapie - Traitment des Maladies par les Essence de Plantes' was released in 1964, and in 1980 translated into English and released under the new title of 'The Practice of Aromatherapy', putting aromatherapy on the English map.
Today, aromatherapy is one of the most popular of all complementary therapies, offering a wide range of highly effective treatments of illness and disease. At the same time, regular use of aromatherapy treatments and home-use products can help to strengthen the immune system, thereby establishing a preventative approach to overall health.
One of the reasons that aromatherapy has been so hugely successful is because it uses a holistic approach, whereby the aromatherapist takes into account the client's medical history, emotional condition, general health and lifestyle before planning a course of treatment. The whole person is treated - not just the symptoms of an illness - and this is in direct opposition to the modern trend of just treating the presented condition.
Backache, irritable bowel syndrome or headaches, for example, are often the result of stress and not actually a physical problem. Therefore no amount of pill-popping is really going to provide a long term solution since it only masks the symptoms without addressing the problems. By looking at the causes of the stress and providing treatments to ease and manage it, the aromatherapist may alleviate the condition in a much more efficient manner. However it is important to note that a client should first visit their GP for a diagnosis of any newly presenting conditions or symptoms.
Massage is one of the best ways to enjoy aromatherapy because you not only receive the therapeutic properties of the essential oils, but you also get the wonderful benefits of the massage itself. The therapeutic action of the essential oils when brought together with the revitalising effects of massage stimulate all of the organs in the body, plus the skin, muscles, nerves and glands. The increased circulation of the blood and lymph flow also assists with the clearing away of body toxins.
Because essential oils can influence our emotions, aromatherapy can help to lift depression, soothe irritable nerves and generally encourage a better state of mind. It has been discovered that relaxing oils such as Lavender, Sweet Marjoram, Clary Sage, Sandalwood, Frankincense and Ylang Ylang work by stimulating a neuro-chemical called serotonin that is naturally produced by the body to help relaxation and induce sleep. It is this action that makes these oils so invaluable in helping long-term conditions such as insomnia, stress and tension.