Aromatherapy is a form of healing that utilises the natural aromatic aspect of plants, the essential oils, both for their scent and for their inherent medicinal properties. These aromatic oils can be found in a wide range if species and are extracted (usually by steam distillation) from the seeds, bark, leaves, flowers, wood, roots or resin according to the type of plant.
The term ‘aromatherapie’ was first coined in the 1920s by the French perfumier Rene Gattefosse, who became involved in extensive research into the medical properties of aromatic oils after discovering, by accident, that lavender oil was able to speed up the healing process of severe burn and prevent scarring. When in 1928 he published a book of that name describing his discoveries, he re-ignited interest in what is essentially a long-standing healing tradition.
For although the word aromatherapy is new, the knowledge and use of aromatics and essential oils for healing purposes reaches back to the very heart of the earliest civilizations.
How does it work?
The word ‘aromatherapy’ can be misleading, because it suggests a type of healing which operates simply through our sense of smell. This is not true. The fragrance if essential oils is an important part of their overall nature, but only one aspect of it.
In an aromatherapy treatment, essential oils interact with the body in a variety of ways. When a massage oil is prepared with essential oils and rubbed into the skin, the essential oils are quickly absorbed through the cell tissue and into the bloodstream to be transported throughout the body. They can then interact with the organs and systems of the body directly.
Massage is the main method used by professional aromatherapists because it ensures a good absorption of the essential oils and is a very relaxing and healing experience in itself.
The oils are also absorbed into the body when they are mixed with creams or facial lotions. They are ideally suited to skin care, because they not only ‘act on site’ but also penetrate deep beneath the skin’s surface, helping to eliminate the problem at its source.
Essential oils are not greasy like vegetable oils, they are volatile liquids that easily evaporate into the air without leaving a trace behind.
When oils are used in the bath, a certain amount is absorbed through the skin and the rest is diffused into the air.
When essential oils are inhaled they are carried into the lungs and a proportion is absorbed via the alveoli into the blood. Vaporised essential oils are actually absorbed into the bloodstream faster than if they had been taken orally – a method which is best avoided!
The practice of vaporising oils using an oil burner or diffuser is particularly useful for respiratory infections or contagious diseases.
In addition, essential oils act on our emotional and mental states through their fragrances.
Our response to different scents is very individual, but there is no doubt that perfumes can help to evoke different moods and create a particular type of atmosphere.
The emotive fragrances of aromatic oils are thus combined with their physiological effect as they interact with the systems of the body. In this way, an aromatherapy treatment could be seen to work on a variety of different levels, where the physical and the emotional, the body and the mind, are both brought into play.
By employing different methods of application, aromatherapy can thus be used to deal effectively with wide range of common conditions, including skin problems such as acne, eczema and fungal conditions; respiratory disorders like coughs, bronchitis and sinusitis; rheumatism and arthritis; muscular aches and pains; as well as nervous and emotional difficulties.
Some complaints, especially of a chronic or long-standing nature, are best dealt with in a professional context, but one of the greatest pleasures of essential oils is that they can also be used simply, safely and effectively in the home.