Aromatherapy is the use of essential oils, extracted from plants, trees, and herbs, for therapeutic purposes. Although aromatic plant oils have been used to treat various conditions for thousands of years, the term aromatherapy wasn't coined until 1928, when Rene-Maurice Gattefosse, a French chemist first used it. Gattefosse had earlier witnessed the curative capabilities of essential oils when he used them to treat wounds during World War I. After the war, he continued to experiment with various oils, and eventually classified them according to their "healing" properties: antitoxic, antiseptic, tonifying, stimulating, calming, and so on. In 1937, he published Aromatherapie, which remains a classic book on the subject (it is available in English).
Marguerite Maury, who built on Gattefosse's work in the 1950s, is credited with developing aromatherapy as a holistic therapy. She was also the first to tailor specific oils to an individual's health needs.
Today aromatherapy utilizes approximately 40 different essential oils, singly and in combination. Generally, they are helpful for treating stress and stress-related ailments, for invigorating the body, and for promoting general well-being. The oils are used in a variety of ways: They can be mixed with a bland carrier oil (such as a vegetable oil) and applied to the skin during a massage; they may be inhaled; or they can be added to your bathwater. You can do aromatherapy at home by buying the individual oils (they're commonly found at health-food stores and pharmacies) or you can visit a trained aromatherapist, who will probably mix up a blend of oils customized especially for you and your condition.
How Does It Work?
A considerable body of research shows that smell, the most acute of our senses, has a powerful influence on our bodies and minds. The scents from essential oils are believed to activate olfactory nerve cells in the nasal cavity, which then send impulses to the limbic system, the area of the brain associated with emotions and memory.
Proponents of aromatherapy believe that the aromatic oils work both emotionally and physically. Emotionally, they may make you feel better by evoking a pleasant memory (the smell of lemons might remind you of a cake a favorite aunt once made, for example). Physically, they may help to relieve certain conditions by stimulating the immune, circulatory, or nervous systems.
Aromatherapists stress that only pure, natural, unadulterated essential oils have true medicinal properties. Perfumes, shampoos, and bath oils scented with herbs may smell wonderful, but they are not intended to be therapeutic.
What You Can Expect
Aromatherapy can be a very useful addition to many treatment plans, but it is seldom the primary mode of therapy. Therefore, a consultation with an aromatherapist will usually take place in the context of other medical treatment. The practitioner may also be a massage therapist, an herbalist, or a homeopath. Aromatherapy is also often practiced at home, because the essential oils are easy and pleasant to use.
If you do seek out a professional, the therapist will want to know your general medical history, the level of stress in your life, and the reasons you are seeking treatment. Then the two of you will work together to choose the oil or oils that will most effectively address your complaint.
Be sure to tell the aromatherapist if you are pregnant or thinking about becoming pregnant, because there are certain oils that you should avoid (see "Cautions," below). The therapist also needs to know if you are using any homeopathic remedies, because the oils' strong smells can offset the effects of some homeopathic treatments.
Because reactions to smells can be idiosyncratic, it's important to let the aromatherapist know if you can't stand the smell of oranges or if the scent of pine brings back harrowing memories of summer camp.
Whether your treatment takes place in a practitioner's office or in your own home, the benefits of aromatherapy can be obtained in a number of ways:
- By direct application of the oils to the skin. Massage with aromatherapy oils allows the substances to be readily absorbed into the skin. To make an aromatherapy massage oil, simply add a few drops of an essential oil to a small amount of an unscented carrier oil, such as sweet almond oil or safflower oil. Certain oils, such as rosemary, are also used topically to help soothe joint and muscle pain. Always avoid the eyes when applying essential oils to the skin.
- By inhaling the scents. Breathing in the intense aromas of essential oils is often recommended for easing congestion due to colds, flu, or chronic sinusitis or bronchitis. For this purpose, an aromatherapist might suggest that you fill a basin with steaming water, add a few drops of eucalyptus or pine oil, and breathe in the fragrant fumes. You can also inhale essential oils by sprinkling a few drops on a handkerchief and breathing in the fumes (keep your eyes closed), or by simply removing the cap from the bottle and taking in the scent. For a less intense but still pleasant effect, some people like to use a special electrical device called a diffuser to disperse microparticles of an essential oil throughout a room.
- By adding the oils to a bath. Adding eight to 15 drops of an essential oil to your bath after the water has finished running creates a relaxing atmosphere and allows the oil to seep into your skin. It's best not to use soap in an aromatherapy bath, because it may interfere with the absorption of the oil.
There is no evidence in the medical literature that aromatherapy on its own can prevent or heal disease. However, several studies have shown its ability to promote recovery in certain conditions and to reduce stress. Researchers at New York's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center recently found that the vanilla-like smell of heliotropin helped patients relax while they were undergoing MRI scans. And a study of patients who had undergone heart surgery found that those who received a foot massage with neroli (orange) oil were less anxious than those who received the same massage with just plain oil.
In a controlled trial in Scotland, researchers reported that a few dabs of diluted thyme, rosemary, lavender, and cedar oils, rubbed daily into the scalp for seven months, proved highly effective, and safe, in treating alopecia areata, a stress-related form of hair loss.
Despite the lack of scientific research, European physicians and aromatherapists frequently prescribe certain oils for a variety of complaints, including sinusitis, colds and flu, digestive problems, insomnia, migraine, and muscle aches and pains. Among the more common aromatherapy recommendations are:
- Eucalyptus and wintergreen oils for relieving congestion.
- Jasmine oil for easing depression.
- Lavender oil for reducing anxiety and improving sleep.
- Lemon, orange, and other citrus oils for improving mood and increasing mental alertness.
- Peppermint oil for relieving nausea and aiding digestion.
- Rosemary oil for pain relief and muscle relaxation.
While aromatherapy is generally quite safe, it is important to keep in mind that it is a complementary therapy and not a substitute for conventional medical care.
How To Choose a Practitioner
Although aromatherapy is simple and safe enough to be done at home, seeing a trained practitioner may help you choose the right essential oils for the effects you want.
There is no licensing of aromatherapists in the United States, although Great Britain and other European countries do require it. In the U.S. it is possible for aromatherapy practitioners to receive "certification" for simply having completed course work in a few weekend seminars or by mail. Therefore certification should not necessarily be considered a reflection of clinical experience or competence.
To be sure you are seeing a qualified aromatherapist, consider working with (or getting a referral from) a massage therapist, chiropractor, or other practitioner who has had some clinical training.
- Essential oils should never be taken internally.
- To prevent allergic reactions, first test any essential oil on a small patch of clean skin. Mix a drop of the essential oil with a few drops of an unscented carrier oil, such as safflower oil. Place a bandage over the area and wait 24 hours. If no irritation occurs, you can use the oil. If you develop a rash, try another essential oil.
- If you become sensitive to an oil after using it for a while, stop using it.
- If you have asthma, consult your doctor before doing aromatherapy, because certain aromatherapy oils can trigger bronchial spasms.
- Unless you're very familiar with aromatherapy, it's best to avoid using it during pregnancy. The essential oils of basil, thyme, clary sage, calamus, mugwort, pennyroyal, sage, rosemary, juniper, and wintergreen can all harm the fetus or induce miscarriage if taken internally, or even possibly if applied externally.