Aromatherapy is a widely used term for a range of traditional therapies that use essential oils. These may include massaging oils, or any topical application that uses pure, essential oils - the essential oils are either absorbed through the skin or inhaled. We are not completely sure what the source of the benefit is - the massage, the smell or both.
The theory behind aromatherapyIt is believed that the inhalation of essential oils stimulates the part of the brain connected to smell - the olfactory system; a signal is sent to the limbic system of the brain that controls emotions and retrieves learned memories. This causes chemicals to be released which make the person feel relaxed, calm, or even stimulated. If the aromatherapy includes massage the effect is to further relax the person.
The essential oils are said to have a direct pharmacological effect. Aromatherapists claim there is a synergy between the body and aromatic oils; however there is no scientific proof that this is the case. Nevertheless, some preliminary clinical studies have revealed positive results.
Essential oils, phytoncides and other natural volatile organic compounds (VOCs) work differently. When targeting our sense of smell they activate the limbic system and emotional centers of the brain. When applied topically (onto the skin) they activate thermal receptors and destroy microbes and fungi. Internal application may stimulate the immune system (generally in prescribed form).
Aromatherapy is some countriesIn France, and much of Western Europe aromatherapy is incorporated into mainstream medicine as an antiseptic, antiviral, antifungal and antibacterial, much more so than in the UK, USA or Canada. In fact, there are some essential oils that are regulated as prescription drugs in France, and can only be administered (or prescribed) by a doctor.
French physicians use the aromatogram to help them determine which essential oil to use. The doctor will first culture a sample of infected tissue or secretion, and then grow the culture in petri dishes which are supplied with agar; each petri dish is inoculated with a different essential oil to decide which have the best activity against the targeted strain of microorganism. The best activity is the one that inhibits growth of the target microorganism.
Application of aromatherapyAromatherapy is generally applied in one of three ways:
- Aerial diffusion - the oils evaporate into the air. The aim is to give the air a specific fragrance or to disinfect it.
- Direct inhalation - the person breaths the evaporating oils straight in. This is commonly used for respiratory disinfection, decongestion, as well as for psychological benefits.
- Topical applications - applied onto the skin. Commonly used for massage, baths, and therapeutic skin care.
What can aromatherapy be used for?
- Muscular aches
- Body aches
- Circulation problems
- Digestive problems
- Menstrual problems
- Menopausal problems
- Depression - this study found that women with depression have their sense of smell affected. It adds that women who receive aromatherapy and suffer from depression may benefit from the treatment.
Popular aromatherapy products
- Basil - this is used to sharpen concentration and alleviate some of the symptoms of depression. Also used to relieve headaches and migraines. Should be avoided during pregnancy.
- Bergamot - said to be useful for the urinary tract and digestive tract. When combined with eucalyptus oil it is said to be good for the skin, and skin problems caused by stress, as well as skin affected by chicken pox.
- Black pepper - commonly used for stimulating the circulation, muscular aches and pains, and bruises.
- Citronella oil - this is a relative of lemongrass. It is commonly used as an insect repellent.
- Clove oil - a topical analgesic (painkiller) commonly used for toothache. It is also used as an antispasmodic, antiemetic (prevents vomiting and nausea) and carminative (prevents gas in the gut).
- Eucalyptus - often used for relief of the airways for people who have a cold or the flu. Commonly combined with peppermint.
- Geranium oil - this is commonly used as a diuretic (makes you get rid of water), astringent (draws together or constricts body tissues and is effective in stopping the flow of blood or other secretions), and antiseptic.
- Jasmin - this is said to have aphrodisiac qualities.
- Lavender oil - commonly used as an antiseptic for minor cuts and burns. Also used to help people relax. It is said to relieve headache and migraine symptoms. Also used to help people with insomnia.
- Lemon oil - used to give the person a mood-lift, also said to be effective for relieving the symptoms of stress and depression.
- Sandalwood - some say this has aphrodisiac qualities.
- Tea tree oil - said to have antimicrobial, antiseptic, and disinfectant qualities. Commonly used in mouth rinses.
- Thyme oil - said to help fatigue, nervousness and stress.
- Yarrow oil - used for cold and influenza symptoms. It is said to help reduce joint inflammation.
What happens during a visit to an aromatherapist?The aromatherapist will ask about the person's medical history, lifestyle, diet, and aspects of his/her current health. In the UK the aromatherapist will ask the patient's permission to inform his/her GP (general practitioner, primary care physician) that the patient is receiving aromatherapy treatment.
Aromatherapy has a holistic approach - the whole person is treated. Treatments are selected which physically and mentally suit the patient best. Depending on why the person wants treatment, and several other factors related to the person, the aromatherapist may recommend a single or a blend.
When preparing for a massage the aromatherapist will mix the chosen oils with a "carrier oil" which carries the oil and provides lubrication. It is crucial that people with nut allergies tell the aromatherapist because carrier oils are generally obtained from nuts and seeds.
The initial session usually lasts much longer than the subsequent ones - about two hours. Subsequent ones will last from approximately one to one-and-a-half hours.
What are the risks of aromatherapy?It is important to follow the product instructions carefully. Concentrated products may be poisonous before dilution and should be handled with care. If you have any of the following conditions you should be extra careful/cautious about aromatherapy:
- If you have an allergy, or allergies
- If you suffer from hay fever (a type of allergy)
- If you suffer from asthma
- If you have skin conditions, such as eczema or psoriasis Be extremely cautious if
- You suffer from epilepsy
- You suffer from hypertension (high blood pressure)
- Have DVT (deep vein thrombosis)
- You are breastfeeding
- Your are pregnant
Skin sensitivity to sunlight - essential oils derived from citrus may make the skin more sensitive to ultraviolet light, making the person more susceptible to sunburn.
Some oils may change the effectiveness of conventional medicines - if you are not sure, check with a qualified pharmacist or doctor.