Aromatherapy is a form of alternative medicine that uses essential oils and other scented plant compounds to affect a person’s mood or health. Aromatherapy is a generic term used to refer to the various traditions of using essential oils and sometimes in combination with other practices such as alternative medicine or spiritual beliefs. It is particularly Western. Even though medical treatment that involves aromatic scents may exist outside the West, they may or may not not be included in this term.
Even though the roots of aromatherapy are in the use of aromatic oils it also involves the twentieth century innovation of using distilled plant volatiles. The word, aromatherapy, was first used by a French chemist by the name of Rene Maurice Gattefosse, in the 1920s. He devoted his life to researching the healing properties of essential oils after a lucky accident in his perfume laboratory. In this accident he set his arm on fire and thrust it into the nearest cold liquid which happened to be lavender oil. Surprisingly, he immediately noticed pain relief and instead of requiring an extended healing process like he had with previous burns, which caused redness, heat, inflammation, blisters, and scarring; this burn healed remarkably fast with minimal discomfort and scarring. Some of the main branches of aromatherapy are: aerial diffusion for environmental fragrancing or aerial disinfection, direct inhalation for respiratory disinfection, decongestion, expectoration, topical applications for general massage, baths, compresses, therapeutic skin care, oral, rectal, vaginal interfaces for infection, congestion, parasites, perfumery for body fragrancing, and annointments.
Some of the materials used in aromatherapy in addition to essential oils include: absolutes, phytoncides, herbal distillates or hydrosols, infusions, and carrier oils. Essential oils are extracted from plants mainly through distillation, such as eucalyptus oil, or expression, such as grapefruit oil. However, they can also be extracted from plant material by any solvent extraction. Absolutes are fragrant oils extracted from flowers or delicate plant tissues through solvent or supercritical fluid extraction, such as rose absolute. The term is also used to describe oils that are extracted from fragrant butters, concretes, and enfleurage pommades using ethanol. Phytonicides are various volatile organic compounds from plants that kill microbes. Many terpene based fragrant oils and sulfuric compounds from plants in the genus “Allium” are Phytoncides. However, they are less commonly used in aromatherapy because of their disagreeable odors. Herbal distillates or hydrosols are the aqueous by products of the distillation process, such as rosewater. There are many herbs that make herbal distillates and they have culinary uses, as well as medicinal and skin care. Common herbal distillates include rose, lemon balm, and chamomile. Infusions are aqueous extracts of various plant material, such as infusion of chamomile. Carrier oils are typically oily plant based triacylglycerides that dilute essential oils so that they can be used on the skin. Sweet almond oil is a popular choice.
Aromatherapy is supposed to be a treatment or prevention of diseases by using essential oils. Two basic mechanisms are offered to explain the effects. The first one this the influence of aroma on the brain, especially the limbicolfactory system. The second is the direct pharmacological effects of essential oils. Even though precise knowledge of the synergy between the body and aromatic oils is often claimed by aromatherapists, the efficacy of aromatherapy remains to be proven. However, some preliminary clincal studies show positive effects.
In the English speaking world, practitioners emphasize the use of oils in massage. The the UK, America, and Australia aromatherapy is regarded as a complementary modality at best and pseudoscientific fraud at worst. In France, where aromatherapy originated, its is incorporated into mainstream medicine. There, the use of the anti-septic, antiviral, antifungal, and antibacterial properties of oils in the control of infections is emphasized over the “touchy feely” approaches familiar to English speakers. Some essential oils are regulated as prescription drugs in France and can only be administered by a physician. French doctors use a technique called the aromatogram which tells them which essential oil to use. The doctor cultures a sample of infected tissue or secretion from the patient. Then the growing culture is divided among petri dishes supplied with agar. A different essential oil is added to each to determine which have the most activity against the target strain of microorganism.
In many countries essential oils are included in the national pharmacopeia. However, aromatherapy has not been recognized as a valid branch of medicine in the US, Russia, Germany, or Japan. At the scent level, essential oils activate the limbic system and emotional centers of the brain. When applied to the skin as massage oils they activate thermal receptors and kill microbes and fungi. Internal application of essential oils can stimulate the immune system.
Undiluted essential oils are called therapeutic grade, however, in some countries this is not regulated. Therefore, aromatherapists tend to take advantage of this situation to mislead claims about the origin and content used in the oils. Many chemicals that naturally occur in essential oils are manufactured by the perfume industry because they are cheaper. The difference between the naturally occuring chemicals and synthetic additives cannot be easily distinguished. The best way to tell is to smell them but this can take a lot of experience.
ESSENTIAL OILS AND USES
The price of the oil depends on the amount of harvest, the country of origin, the type of extraction method used, and how desirable the oil is. For example, Indian sandalwood is considered more desirable than Australian sandalwood because of the aroma and is therefore twice as costly mainly because the species that yields Indian sandalwood is endangered. Organic and wild harvested essential oils tend to be the most expensive ones. Some of the most popular oils are basil, bergamot, black pepper, citronella, tea tree, eucalyptus, sandalwood, thyme, clove, lavender, yarrow, jasmine, rose, sandalwood, ylang-ylang, and lemon. Basil is usually used in perfumes for its aroma. It also sharpens concentration, uplifts depression and relieves headaches and migraines. Bergamot is one of the most popular oils in perfumes. It is also an excellent insect repellent and can be helpful for both the urinary an digestive tracts. It is used for skin conditions like cold sores and chicken pox when combined with eucalyptus oil. In addition, bergamot is a flavoring agent in Early Grey tea. Black pepper oil has a sharp and spicy aroma. It is commonly used to stimulate circulation and for muscular aches and pains. When applied to the skin it is useful to treat bruises. Citronella oil which is obtained from a relative of lemongrass is used as an insect repellent as well as in perfumes. Tea tree oil is a popular antiseptic and disinfectant. Eucalyptus oil is often used in combination with mint to provide relief to airways from cold or flu. Clove oils is often used in dentistry as it is an antiseptic. Lavender oil is also an antiseptic and can soothe minor cuts and burns. It can also calm and relax and soothes headaches and migraines. Yarrow oil is used to reduce joint inflammation and relieve cold and influenza. Jasmine, rose, sandalwood, and ylang-ylang are all used commonly in perfumes. Lemon oil is uplifting and can be used as an anti-depressant. It has also been found to reduce stress.
Even though the pleasant scents of essential oils can boost relaxation and relax patients there is insufficient scientific proof of its effectiveness in general. Scientific research on the subject is limited although some testing has revealed antibacterial and antiviral effects. There are also safety concerns regarding essential oils because they are so potent that they can irritate the skin if they are not properly diluted with a carrier oil such as almond, hazelnut, or grape seed. There have been cases of toxic reactions such as liver damage and seizures. Aromatherapy oils and scents can have negative health consequences if not used correctly. Therefore, even though aromatherapy can prove beneficial for some it may not help others and the results vary depending on the individual.
[As seen in November 2007 of Rivaaj]