You may have heard the word “aromatherapy” tossed around when searching for essential oils or diffusers, but not actually know what it means. It’s actually quite intuitive: therapy using aromas. Aromatherapy is the practice of using the natural oils that can be extracted from flowers, bark, stems, leaves, roots and other parts of a plant to help improve and balance you both emotionally and physically. In addition to essential oils, aromatherapy encourages the use of other complementary natural substances such as vegetable oils, waxes, herbs, salts, sugars and muds. Synthetic substances such as fragrance oils are not the same as essential oils and do not provide any therapeutic benefits.
Aromatherapy assists the body’s natural ability to balance, regulate, heal and maintain itself, making it an excellent complementary therapy that treats the whole person rather than just the symptom or disease. Aromatherapy treatments are offered in practices such as massage centers, yoga studios, spas, hospice care, medical offices and many more, and can also be safely practiced as self-administered care at home.
The History of Aromatherapy
The term aromatherapy is credited to René Gattefossé, a nineteenth century French chemist and perfumist who studied essential oils. He badly burned his hand during an experiment and plunged it into the nearest tub of liquid which happened to be lavender essential oil. Amazed by how quickly his burn healed as a result of treatment with he began a deep study into essential oils and the treatment of wounds, skin cancer, ulcers, gangrene and spider bites. He titled his book “Aromatherapy” and thus the term was born.
However, aromatherapy has been a trusted practice among cultures spanning the globe for over 5,000 years before the term was coined. Ancient Egyptians are credited to have developed the first distillation machines to extract oils from certain plants. The practice of using infused aromatic oils as a mood enhancer is thought to have roots in China. The Greeks believed that the gods were gifted with the knowledge of perfume and fragrance, and practiced aromatherapy as a healing medicine.
Plants contain beneficial chemicals they use as a means of protecting themselves from predators such as insects and rodents, and to defend against fungus, bacteria and viruses. When a plant is distilled, these active ingredients are extracted with the oils and are preserved with alcohol. The result is a highly concentrated oily formula that allows people to harness the defensive and healing properties of plants. Because of their high concentration, essential oils used in aromatherapy practices are usually combined with a carrier oil or diluted in water before being applied to the skin. Essential oils can also be carefully blended together for a specific therapeutic purpose, creating a more complex aroma. This essential oil synergy is considered to be greater than each oil working independently. The key to aromatherapy is to use pure, therapeutic grade oils rather than those with synthetic ingredients.
The effects of essential oils can be experienced through the sense of smell which is linked to the deepest parts of the brain, governing basic instincts, thoughts and emotions, or physically to manage pain, inflammation, infection and disease.
Aromatically: Any essential oils can be used aromatically through the use of a diffuser, inhaling directly from a cloth or the bottle, or through the use of aromatherapy candles. Many studies have investigated the effects of aroma on improving mood, alleviating stress and reducing anxious feelings.
Topically: Essential oils can also be used topically, applying the oils directly to your skin, to help with skin irritations, blemishes, pain, inflammation and more. Essential oils should always be diluted before being applied to the skin. Aromatherapy is administered topically through massage, water baths, mud baths, steam rooms and more.
Internally: The internal use of essential oils is the perfect solution to target the immune or digestive system. Make sure only to ingest oils with extreme caution and under the guidance of an aromatherapy professional. Internal applications of essential oils include swallowing as part of health capsules, used in enhancing beverages or within cooking recipes.
As with any substance, precautions must be taken before use. Depending on a person’s medical history, they may have allergies or sensitivities to certain oils. Many oils should be avoided for use around infants, children and pets, as well as when pregnant or breast-feeding. In general, only use oils if you know for sure they are completely pure and always start with the lowest dose possible. It is best to consult with a professional before beginning any type of aromatherapy.
Buying from a Reputable Essential Oil Brand
Of course, Aromatherapy wouldn’t be possible without first getting your hands on some essential oils. There are many different brands to choose from, and it can be difficult to choose a trusted, and reputable brand. So, we put together a comprehensive guide to buying the best essential oils from trusted, reputable brands.
Professionals & Experts
Today there are a number of organizations that train and certify professional aromatherapists. Certification usually involves completing a number of hours of training, passing an exam, and supervised hours working with patients.
Aromatherapists are typically trained in
- History of aromatherapy
- Essential oil profiles
- Ensuring quality of essential oils
- Physiology of aromatherapy
- Treating medical conditions
- Contraindications and safety concerns
You can visit the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy to find a therapist in your area
An aromatherapist takes into account a person’s medical history, emotional state, health and lifestyle before planning a course of treatment. This holistic approach has been hugely successful because it treats the whole person and not just the symptoms of an illness. For example, many physical symptoms such as backaches, headaches or irritable bowel syndrome are often the result of stress rather than a physical problem. By looking at the causes of the stress, the aromatherapist can provide treatments to alleviate the condition in a much more efficient and long-term manner.
Aromatherapy can also be practiced safely through self-care in your own home using aromatic methods such as diffusion (though it is best to consult a professional before using essential oils topically or internally). Through research of different essential oils and their benefits one can easily devise their own treatment of essential oil blends. These can then be dispersed into the air using a diffuser or candle, or simply smelled straight from the bottle. In today’s age, essential oils are readily available in stores and online, making the joys of aromatherapy accessible to anyone.
Humans have been using botanical essences for thousands of years, both as perfumes and to treat ailments. The Greek physician Hypocrites documented the effects of over 300 plants and their essences for use in medicinal practices. During the Bubonic Plague of the 14th Century it was noted that less people died of the plague in areas where frankincense and pine were burned in the streets. A French chemist in 1928 submerged his burnt hand in a tray of essential oil of lavender and was astonished to discover his hand healed with no infection or scarring. This lead to lavender being introduced to many hospitals in France, following which an outbreak of the Spanish influenza resulted in no reported deaths of hospital personnel.
In today’s age, fragrances can be manufactured. Although the scent of lavender can be synthesized using linalool, it is a harsher and less rounded scent than the real thing. The chemical complexity of a pure essential oil is crucial for its effectiveness. Essential oils today are removed from plants by steam distillation or mechanical expression and are touted not only for use in perfumes but also in diffusers, bathwater, through topical application and even for ingestion. Mood, stress, insomnia, and pain are some of the many ailments thought to be improved through therapeutic use of essential oils. But is all this too good to be true?
What the Research Says
When it comes to research concerning the use of essential oils, there just hasn’t been enough. One review of the research surrounding aromatherapy only discovered 200 publications of essential oil research, the results of which were inconclusive overall (1). But, that’s sometimes how science works, just because we can’t measure the effect (yet) doesn’t mean it isn’t there. It takes time for new treatments and remedies to catch up with traditional medicine. With so many different essential oils being applied to such a wide range of uses there is a need for far more studies surrounding its use.
Here’s what some recent studies have concluded:
There are, however, some exciting implications for essential oils being supported by research. Various essential oils (most notably tea tree oil) have been effective fighting antibiotic resistant bacteria (2). This suggests tea tree oil could be effective for use against infections, in soaps and cleaning products and even treating acne and scarring. Diffusing rosemary has been shown to improve cognitive performance (3), lavender has been shown to reduce post-operative pain (4), and the scent of lemon has been effective in reducing nausea and vomiting in pregnancy (5). So, although much of the research has been inconclusive thus far, the number of successes seen through experimentation warrant deeper investigation through well-designed studies.
The Placebo Effect
If the inconclusive nature of the research to date leaves you unconvinced of essential oil effectiveness, then consider its use as a pleasing placebo. The placebo effect has been known to bring about remission in chronic disease, reduce headaches and coughs, induce sleep and relieve post-operative pain. The placebo effect is a complex neurobiological reaction that increases feel-good neurotransmitters and increases brain activity in regions linked to moods and self-awareness, providing a therapeutic benefit. The ritual of engaging in an activity for self-help such as taking a medication or diffusing an oil can trigger the placebo effect, regardless of the effectiveness of the treatment. And not only that, but the placebo effect can work alongside an effective treatment increasing its potency. The stronger of an effect that you expect, the greater the treatment’s result is, making you happier and healthier.
In other words, thanks to the placebo effect, even if essential oils don’t work, thinking they do has the same effect as if they did.
The Benefits of Good Smells and Scent Association
Placebo effect aside, research has shown that simple exposure to pleasant odors can improve mood and productivity in subjects compared with those in an odor-free environment. A certain smell has no personal significance until it becomes connected to something that has meaning. For example, smelling a loved one’s perfume can conjure the person in your mind more than just a photo. Or more practically, when studying for a test you can utilize a certain scent, and if you bring that scent with you to the exam it can improve your ability to recall the information. By becoming aware of the way specific odors affect you, you can use the information to enhance your health and well-being.
Any pleasing smell can lift mood, but recent studies suggest that sweet smells work best. A sweet taste reduces pain by activating opioid and pleasure systems in the brain. Through our memory of the taste, a sweet smell will activate the same systems. This same method can be applied to relaxation. By smelling a certain scent when you are in a relaxed state, you can then utilize that scent to induce a feeling of relaxation even when it isn’t present.
Well, Do They Work or Not?
Essential oils may or may not work as advertised and it is very hard to tell because so little research has been done. The small amount of research that there is does show some exciting implications for their use physiologically in fighting stress, gastrointestinal symptoms, acne, drug-resistant bacteria and more. However when it comes to the effects of specific essential oils on mood the evidence is fuzzy. Utilizing essential oils as a pleasing smell in your day to day life can have powerful effects on both mood and physiological symptoms through scent association and the placebo effect. Since aromatherapy has few adverse effects, there’s no harm in using this to your advantage, and you may be curing yourself in the process. The truth is, that’s just too good ignore.