Among the many forms of alternative therapies, aromatherapy is gaining popularity as more people use it than ever before for a variety of reasons including pain management, mood enhancement, and increased cognitive ability.
History of Aromatherapy
Not much is known about the history of aromatherapy, although it has been in use for over 6,000 years. Egyptians are credited with first extracting oils from plants to embalm the dead. Chinese were first thought to recognize the mood enhancing effects of essential oils. Greeks, Indians, and Romans used the oils for spiritual, therapeutic, hygienic, and rituals. The word “aromatherapy” was coined in 1937 by a French chemist, Rene-Maurice Gattefosse. He was intrigued by the healing power of essential oils after a burn incident. Soon after, French surgeon Jean Valnet used essential oils during World War II to help heal soldiers’ wounds, and proved the medicinal properties of essential oils.
What is Aromatherapy?
Aromatherapy is the use of essential oils derived from plants. The oils are obtained from barks, leaves, seeds, fruits, and flowers of plants. Most essential oils are used in the cosmetic industry to perfume lotions and creams. However, holistic aromatherapy uses essential oils that have healing properties. Most common essential oils used in aromatherapy are lavender, rosemary, chamomile, marjoram, jasmine, peppermint, lemon, geranium, bergamot, cedarwood, and eucalyptus.
Essential oils are extracted from plants by steam distillation or pressing (expression). Distillation is the more common method of extraction.
How Does Aromatherapy work?
Aromatherapists believe that essential oils are directly absorbed through the skin and circulated throughout the body through the bloodstream. Essential oils also have an anti-inflammatory property, which may help with arthritic and muscular pains. Some essential oils like eucalyptus oil are a major component in herbal preparations commonly used to ward off colds and coughs.
Our sense of smell plays an important role in aromatherapy. The nerve cells that are linked to the sense of smell are located inside the nose and directly connect to the brain. The essential oils in plants release molecules and stimulate these nerve cells called olfactory nerve cells, which in turn send a message to the brain to understand the smell, setting off a physical and emotional response in our body. Essential oils have a calming effect on the skin, for example, lavender oil soothes the skin after a burn and is a popular calming agent.
Aromatherapists believe that essential oils interact with hormones and enzymes in the body and affect our blood pressure, heart rate, and respiratory rate.
Use of Aromatherapy
Aromatherapy helps patients dealing with chronic stress, pain, and depression. The immune system is stimulated by aromatherapy. Essential oils relieve muscular tension. It helps deal with insomnia. Different essential oils are used for relief with different symptoms such as:
- Stress relief – chamomile, lavender, lemon, and orange
- Anxiety and fear – bergamot, chamomile, cedarwood, lavender, jasmine, rose, and sandalwood
- Fatigue – basil, bergamot, sage, peppermint, rosemary, and sandalwood
- Memory enhancers – basil, cypress, lemon, peppermint, and rosemary
- Aphrodisiac – jasmine, sage, sandalwood, vanilla, and rose
Cancer patients use aromatherapy to deal with anxiety, pain, depression, stress, and fatigue. It helps to reduce symptoms associated with radiotherapy and chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. Aromatherapy helps with hair loss, digestion, constipation, itching, and psoriasis.
Sources for this article include:
- Burt S. Essential oils: their antibacterial properties and potential applications in foods–a review. Int J Food Microbiol. 2004 Aug 1;94(3):223-53.