What is aromatherapy? How does aromatherapy work? What is the history of aromatherapy?

"Essentials" of this complementary medicine.

Aromatherapy is now a widely practised complementary medicine, using aromatic plant, flower, leaf, seed, bark and fruit essential oils to aid healing. The essential oils are usually extracted by a steam distillation process, and tend to be used either:

— holistically, where the oils are used (often with massage) to treat emotional and physical complaints

— clinically, used in combination with orthodox medical treatment (although this remains rare in the UK)

— aesthetically, which accounts for perhaps the most widespread usage, where the oils are used on special burners or diffusers in the home, or added to baths

How does it work?

Aromatherapy works on our sense of smell and by absorption into the bloodstream. About 15 per cent of the air we inhale goes to the roof of the nose, where olfactory receptors transport odours straight to a part of the brain called the limbic system. This area is connected with instinct, mood and emotion, and it’s thought that aromatherapy may stimulate the release of chemicals which in turn play a part in unlocking emotions (think how even the merest whiff of floor wax can zip you back to the classroom).

What is the history of aromatherapy?

It’s thought that ancient civilisations used ‘aromatherapy’ in many ways and for many reasons such as massage, bathing, medicinally, even for embalming bodies. The concept was probably originally used at around the same time in China, Egypt, the Middle East and by Native Americans, then brought to Europe by the Romans.

The practice of modern aromatherapy is largely attributed to a French chemist, Ren?-Maurice Gattefoss?. He began investigating the healing powers of essential oils in the first quarter of this century after noting how lavender oil seemed to aid the healing of a severe burn on his hand. He also published the first book on the subject Gattefoss?’s Aromatherapy in 1937, which is still available in print. The word aromatherapy stems from two Ancient Greek words: ‘aroma’ meaning fragrance or pleasant smell, and ‘therapeia’ meaning healing.

In the UK, the concept was re-introduced by Robert Tisserand in 1969; he began the first aromatherapy training institute in the early 1970s, and has written several books on the subject.

Can aromatherapy really be used to cure illness?

Aromatherapy seems to have the most beneficial effect on minor ailments, digestive problems, PMT, stress-related illness and some skin complaints. Some essential oils such as tea-tree oil are widely used for their antiseptic properties. Aromatherapy is extremely unlikely to cure major illness, and BUPA does not recommend that it is used on its own in place of conventional medicine. It can however, be used to help alleviate any psychological stress experienced by sufferers of major disease or illness.

More and more trials are being carried out to try and establish the health and healing benefits of aromatherapy. For example it is used with hypnosis in ‘post-hypnotic suggestion’, where people are taught to associate a particular smell with relaxation. This method was tested on a small sample of epilepsy sufferers, who, when they felt a seizure coming on, sniffed a particular oil and in many cases, prevented the seizure developing (1).

And, in February 1998, the UK Cancer Research Campaign began a ‘3-year controlled trial…that will study the effectiveness of (complementary medicine) in reducing the anxiety and depression associated with cancer, as well as physical symptoms such as pain. More than 500 patients will be randomly assigned aromatherapy, or relaxation therapy, or no additional treatment’ (2), so future developments remain to be evaluated.

How to choose an aromatherapist

Under current legislation, anyone can claim that they are an aromatherapist and set up shop. However, the Aromatherapy Organisations Council represents the majority of aromatherapists practising in the UK, and you may wish to contact them to find a therapist in your area, or if you are interested in training as an aromatherapist.

What happens at a session?

The first session may last up to two hours, including consultation and massage, consecutive sessions will probably last for an hour. The aromatherapist will ask you questions about your life in general, your work, your state of health and medical history.

They should have a wide selection of essential oils which they may use singly, or blend, but should always use diluted in a carrier oil (often almond oil), as essential oils can be harmful if put directly on the skin. The aromatherapist will advise you on a suitable course, but most people go for a weekly or fortnightly massage.

Some people may feel woozy after the massage, while others may experience a headache, but hopefully, you should feel relaxed and rejuvenated. If you experience any adverse reaction to the oils, ask the aromatherapist’s advice or see your doctor.

DIY aromatherapy and what to watch for

Aromatherapy is relatively easy to practice at home as we now have almost unlimited access to oils, candles, bath oils, diffusers and burners on the high street. But before you start using essential oils yourself, there are some important points to note:

— never ever drink (neat or diluted) essential oils

— never use neat oils on the skin; if using for massage, always dilute the oils in a carrier oil (eg almond, grapeseed or jojoba) according to the manufacturer’s instructions

— check with your GP if you are pregnant, as certain oils can be dangerous

— if you are worried that an existing condition such as high blood pressure or diabetes may be worsened by using essential oils, speak to your GP

There are many candles and bath oils which claim to be ‘aromatherapy’; many of these contain synthetic oils, not essential oils, and may not be as beneficial. Use them because they smell nice – don’t expect miracle results.

Common essential oils and their uses

For home use, you can use essential oils on a lamp-ring (or electric) diffuser, in the bath, or combined with a carrier oil for massage – just follow the manufacturer’s instructions. Depending on the effect you want, these are the most common uses for popular essential oils:

RELAXING: lavender (also antiseptic), camomile, jasmine, frankincense and myrrh (both can irritate when used on the skin or in the bath), neroli, orange, tangerine, ylang-ylang (over-inhalation may cause headaches)

REVITALISING: lemon (may irritate the skin, especially when exposed to the sun), grapefruit, cinnamon, juniper (also has antiseptic properties), vanilla, geranium, rosemary

STIMULATING: peppermint and eucalyptus (both act as decongestant when inhaled, but may irritate the skin so take care)

Other oils such as tea-tree oil are renowned for their antiseptic properties – but always follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

1.Rowlands, R; The Which? Guide to Complementary Medicine, Penguin Books Ltd, 1997, p92.
2.The Lancet, ‘Drugs & devices’, Volume 351, Issue 9099.

Source: BUPA UK–global health care orgainzation

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