Aromatherapy is the therapeutic use of plant-derived, aromatic essential oils to promote physical and psychological well-being. It is sometimes used in combination with massage and other therapeutic techniques as part of a holistic treatment approach.
Aromatic plants have been employed for their healing, preservative, and pleasurable qualities throughout recorded history in both the East and West. As early as 1500 B.C. the ancient Egyptians used waters, oils, incense, resins, and ointments scented with botanicals for their religious ceremonies.
There is evidence that the Chinese may have recognized the benefits of herbal and aromatic remedies much earlier than this. The oldest known herbal text, Shen Nung's Pen Ts'ao (c. 2700–3000 B.C.) catalogs over 200 botanicals. Ayurveda, a practice of traditional Indian medicine that dates back more than 2,500 years, also used aromatic herbs for treatment.
The Romans were well known for their use of fragrances. They bathed with botanicals and integrated them into their state and religious rituals. So did the Greeks, with a growing awareness of the medicinal properties of herbs. Greek physician and surgeon Pedanios Dioscorides, whose renown herbal text De Materia Medica (60 A.D.) was the standard textbook for Western medicine for 1,500 years, wrote extensively on the medicinal value of botanical aromatics. The Medica contained detailed information on some 500 plants and 4,740 separate medicinal uses for them, including an entire section on aromatics.
Written records of herbal distillation are found as early as the first century A.D., and around 1000 A.D., the noted Arab physician and naturalist Avicenna described the distillation of rose oil from rose petals, and the medicinal properties of essential oils in his writings. However, it wasn't until 1937, when French chemist René-Maurice Gattefossé published Aromatherapie: Les Huiles essentielles, hormones végé tales, that aromatherapie, or aromatherapy, was introduced in Europe as a medical discipline. Gattefossé, who was employed by a French perfumeur, discovered the healing properties of lavender oil quite by accident when he suffered a severe burn while working and used the closest available liquid, lavender oil, to soak it.
In the late twentieth century, French physician Jean Valnet used botanical aromatics as a front line treatment
|Bay laurel||Antiseptic, diuretic, sedative, etc.||Digestive problems, bronchitis, common cold, influenza, and scabies and lice. CAUTION: Don't use if pregnant.|
|Clary sage||Relaxant, anticonvulsive, antiinflammatory, and antiseptic||Menstrual and menopausal symptoms, burns, eczema, and anxiety. CAUTION: Don't use if pregnant.|
|Eucalyptus||Antiseptic, antibacterial, astringent, expectorant, and analgesic||Boils, breakouts, cough, common cold, influenza, and sinusitis. CAUTION: Not to be taken orally.|
|Chamomile||Sedative, antiinflammatory, antiseptic, and pain reliever||Hay fever, burns, acne, arthritis, digestive problems, and menstrual an menopausal symptoms.|
|Lavender||Analgesic, antiseptic, calming/soothing||Headache, depression, insomnia, stress, sprains, and nausea.|
|Peppermint||Pain reliever||Indigestion, nausea, headache, motion sickness, and muscle pain.|
|Rosemary||Antiseptic, stimulant, and diuretic||Indigestion, gas, bronchitis, fluid retention, and influenza. CAUTION: Don't use if pregnant or have epilepsy or hypertension.|
|Tarragon||Diuretic, laxative, antispasmodic, and stimulant||Menstrual and menopausal symptoms, gas, and indigestion. CAUTION: Don't use if pregnant.|
|Tea tree||Antiseptic and soothing||Common cold, bronchitis, abscesses, acne, vaginitis, and burns.|
|Thyme||Stimulant, antiseptic, antibacterial, and antispasmodic||Cough, laryngitis, diarrhea, gas, and intestinal worms. CAUTION: Don't use if pregnant or have hypertension.|
for wounded soldiers in World War II. He wrote about his use of essential oils and their healing and antiseptic properties, in his 1964 book Aromatherapie, traitement des maladies par les essences des plantes, which popularized the use of essential oils for medical and psychiatric treatment throughout France. Later, French biochemist Mauguerite Maury popularized the cosmetic benefits of essential oils, and in 1977 Robert Tisserand wrote the first English language book on the subject, The Art of Aromatherapy, which introduced massage as an adjunct treatment to aromatherapy and sparked its popularity in the United Kingdom.
Aromatherapy offers diverse physical and psychological benefits, depending on the essential oil or oil combination and method of application used. Some common medicinal properties of essential oils used in aromatherapy include: analgesic, antimicrobial, antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, astringent, sedative, antispasmodic, expectorant, diuretic, and sedative. Essential oils are used to treat a wide range of symptoms and conditions, including, but not limited to, gastrointestinal discomfort, skin conditions, menstrual pain and irregularities, stress-related conditions, mood disorders, circulatory problems, respiratory infections, and wounds.
In aromatherapy, essential oils are carefully selected for their medicinal properties. As essential oils are absorbed into the bloodstream through application to the skin or inhalation, their active components trigger certain pharmalogical effects (e.g., pain relief).
In addition to physical benefits, aromatherapy has strong psychological benefits. The volatility of an oil, or the speed at which it evaporates in open air, is thought to be linked to its specific psychological effect. As a rule of thumb, oils that evaporate quickly are considered emotionally uplifting, while slowly-evaporating oils are thought to have a calming effect.
Essential oils commonly used in aromatherapy treatment include:
- Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobilis). An anti-inflammatory and analgesic. Useful in treating otitis media (earache), skin conditions, menstrual pains, and depression.
- Clary sage (Salvia sclarea). This natural astringent is not only used to treat oily hair and skin, but is also said to be useful in regulating the menstrual cycle, improving mood, and controlling high blood pressure. Clary sage should not be used by pregnant women.
- Lavender (Lavandula officinalis). A popular aromatherapy oil that mixes well with most essential oils, lavender has a wide range of medicinal and cosmetic applications, including treatment of insect bites, burns, respiratory infections, intestinal discomfort, nausea, migraine, insomnia, depression, and stress.
- Myrtle (Myrtus communis). Myrtle is a fungicide, disinfectant, and antibacterial. It is often used in steam aromatherapy treatments to alleviate the symptoms of whooping cough, bronchitis, and other respiratory infections.
- Neroli (bitter orange), (Citrus aurantium). Citrus oil extracted from bitter orange flower and peel and used to treat sore throat, insomnia, and stress and anxiety-related conditions.
- Sweet orange (Citrus sinensis). An essential oil used to treat stomach complaints and known for its reported ability to lift the mood while relieving stress.
- Peppermint (Mentha piperita). Relaxes and soothes the stomach muscles and gastrointestinal tract. Peppermint's actions as an anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, and antimicrobial also make it an effective skin treatment, and useful in fighting cold and flu symptoms. In addition, research in 2002 found that peppermint scent helped athletes run faster and perform more push–ups than control subjects with odorless strips under their noses.
- Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis). Stimulating essential oil used to treat muscular and rheumatic complaints, as well as low blood pressure, gastrointestinal problems, and headaches. Recently. Brain scans have shown that fragrance of rosemary increases blood circulation in the brain.
- Tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia). Has bactericidal, virucidal, fungicidal, and anti-inflammatory properties that make it a good choice for fighting infection. Recommended for treating sore throat and respiratory infections, vaginal and bladder infections, wounds, and a variety of skin conditions.
- Ylang ylang (Cananga odorata). A sedative essential oil sometimes used to treat hypertension and tachycardia.
Essential oils contain active agents that can have potent physical effects. While some basic aromatherapy home treatments can be self-administered, medical aromatherapy should always be performed under the guidance of an aromatherapist, herbalist, massage therapist, nurse, or physician.
The most basic method of administering aromatherapy is direct or indirect inhalation of essential oils. Several drops of an essential oil can be applied to a tissue or handkerchief and gently inhaled. A small amount of essential oil can also be added to a bowl of hot water and used as a steam treatment. This technique is recommended when aromatherapy is used to treat respiratory and/or skin conditions. Aromatherapy steam devices are also available commercially. A warm bath containing essential oils can have the same effect as steam aromatherapy, with the added benefit of promoting relaxation. When used in a bath, water should be lukewarm rather than hot to slow the evaporation of the oil.
Essential oil diffusers, vaporizers, and light bulb rings can be used to disperse essential oils over a large area. These devices can be particularly effective in aromatherapy that uses essential oils to promote a healthier home environment. For example, eucalyptus and tea tree oil are known for their antiseptic qualities and are frequently used to disinfect sickrooms, and citronella and geranium can be useful in repelling insects.
Because of their potency, essential oils are diluted in a carrier oil or lotion before being applied to the skin to prevent an allergic skin reaction. The carrier oil can be a vegetable or olive based one, such as wheat germ or avocado. Light oils, such as safflower, sweet almond, grapeseed, hazelnut, apricot seed, or peach kernel, may be absorbed more easily by the skin. Standard dilutions of essential oils in carrier oils range from 2–10%. However, some oils can be used at higher concentrations, and others should be diluted further for safe and effective use. The type of carrier oil used and the therapeutic use of the application may also influence how the essential oil is mixed. Individuals should seek guidance from a healthcare professional and/or aromatherapist when diluting essential oils.
Massage is a common therapeutic technique used in conjunction with aromatherapy to both relax the body and thoroughly administer the essential oil treatment. Essential oils can also be used in hot or cold compresses and soaks to treat muscle aches and pains (e.g., lavender and ginger). As a sore throat remedy, antiseptic and soothing essential oils (e.g., tea tree and sage) can be thoroughly mixed with water and used as a gargle or mouthwash.
Some essential oils can be administered internally in tincture, infusion, or suppository form to treat certain symptoms or conditions; however, this treatment should never be self-administered. Essential oils should only be taken internally under the supervision of a qualified healthcare professional.
As non-prescription botanical preparations, the essential oils used in aromatherapy are typically not paid for by health insurance. The self-administered nature of the therapy controls costs to some degree. Aromatherapy treatment sessions from a professional aromatherapist are not covered by health insurance in most cases, although aromatherapy performed in conjunction with physical therapy, nursing, therapeutic massage, or other covered medical services may be covered. Individuals should check with their insurance provider to find out about their specific coverage.
The adage "You get what you pay for" usually applies when purchasing essential oils, as bargain oils are often adulterated, diluted, or synthetic. Pure essential oils can be expensive; and the cost of an oil will vary depending on its quality and availability.
The method of extracting an essential oil varies by plant type. Common methods include water or steam distillation and cold pressing. Quality essential oils should be unadulterated and extracted from pure botanicals. Many aromatherapy oils on the market are synthetic and/or diluted, contain solvents, or are extracted from botanicals grown with pesticides or herbicides. To ensure best results, essential oils should be made from pure organic botanicals and labeled by their full botanical name. Oils should always be stored in dark bottles out of direct light.
Before using essential oils on the skin, individuals should perform a skin patch test by applying a small amount of the diluted oil behind the wrist and covering it with a bandage or cloth for up to 12 hours. If redness or irritation occurs, the oil should be diluted further and a second skin test performed, or it should be avoided altogether. Individuals should never apply undiluted essential oils to the skin unless advised to do so by a trained healthcare professional.
Individuals should only take essential oils internally under the guidance and close supervision of a health care professional. Some oils, such as eucalyptus, wormwood, and sage, should never be taken internally. Many essential oils are highly toxic and should not be used at all in aromatherapy. These include (but are not limited to) bitter almond, pennyroyal, mustard, sassafras, rue, and mugwort.
Citrus-based essential oils, including bitter and sweet orange, lime, lemon, grapefruit, and tangerine, are phototoxic, and exposure to direct sunlight should be avoided for at least four hours after their application.
Other essential oils, such as cinnamon leaf, black pepper, juniper, lemon, white camphor, eucalyptus blue gum, ginger, peppermint, pine needle, and thyme can be extremely irritating to the skin if applied in high enough concentration or without a carrier oil or lotion. Caution should always be exercised when applying essential oils topically. Individuals should never apply undiluted essential oils to the skin unless directed to do so by a trained healthcare professional and/or aromatherapist.
Individuals taking homeopathic remedies should avoid black pepper, camphor, eucalyptus, and peppermint essential oils. These oils may act as a remedy antidote to the homeopathic treatment.
Children should only receive aromatherapy treatment under the guidance of a trained aromatherapist or healthcare professional. Some essential oils may not be appropriate for treating children, or may require additional dilution before use on children.
Certain essential oils should not be used by pregnant or nursing women or by people with specific illnesses or physical conditions. Individuals suffering from any chronic or acute health condition should inform their healthcare provider before starting treatment with any essential oil.
Asthmatic individuals should not use steam inhalation for aromatherapy, as it can aggravate their condition.
Essential oils are flammable, and should be kept away from heat sources.
Side effects vary by the type of essential oil used. Citrus-based essential oils can cause heightened sensitivity to sunlight. Essential oils may also cause contact dermatitis, an allergic reaction characterized by redness and irritation. Anyone experiencing an allergic reaction to an essential oil should discontinue its use and contact their healthcare professional for further guidance. Individuals should do a small skin patch test with new essential oils before using them extensively.
Research & general acceptance
The antiseptic and bactericidal qualities of some essential oils (such as tea tree and peppermint) and their value in fighting infection has been detailed extensively in both ancient and modern medical literature.
Recent research in mainstream medical literature has also shown that aromatherapy has a positive psychological impact on patients. Several clinical studies involving both post-operative and chronically ill subjects showed that massage with essential oils can be helpful in improving emotional well-being, and consequently, promoting the healing process.
Today, the use of holistic aromatherapy is widely accepted in Europe, particularly in Great Britain, where it is commonly used in conjunction with massage as both a psychological and physiological healing tool. In the United States, where aromatherapy is often misunderstood as solely a cosmetic treatment, the mainstream medical community has been slower to accept its use.
Training & certification
Certification or licensing is currently not required to become an aromatherapist in the United States; however, many states require that healthcare professionals who practice the "hands-on" therapies often used in conjunction with aromatherapy (e.g., massage) to be licensed. There are state-licensed educational institutions that offer certificates and/or diplomas in aromatherapy training. Individuals interested in aromatherapy treatment from a professional aromatherapist may be able to obtain a referral from one of these institutions, or from their current healthcare provider.
Lawless, Julia. The Complete Illustrated Guide To Aromatherapy. Rockport, MA: Element Books Ltd, 1997.
Schnaubelt, Kurt. Medical Aromatherapy: Healing With Essential Oils. Berkeley, CA: Frog Ltd, 1999.
Claps, Frank."Training Scents: You May be Able to Sniff Your Way to Better Workouts with Tricks from the Aromatherapist's Bag." Men's Fitness (May 2002):34.
Stanten, Michele, and Selene Yeager."Smell this for Instant Energy: the Easiest Way to Boost your Workouts. (Fitness News)." Prevention (April 2002):76.
National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy. 836 Hanley Industrial Court, St. Louis, MO 63144. 888-ASK-NAHA. <http://www.naha.org.>
Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.