What is aromatherapy?

Considered to be an alternative practice, aromatherapy is the use of essential oils (concentrated extracts from the roots, leaves, seeds, or blossoms of plants which contain active ingredients) for their healing qualities. Some oils promote physical healing by, for example, treating swelling or fungal infections; others are used for emotional well-being in that they may enhance relaxation and make a room smell pleasant. Essential oils can be massaged into the skin or on rare occasions, taken by mouth, but this should never be done without specific instruction from a trained and qualified specialist. Whether inhaled or applied to the skin, essential oils are gaining new attention as an alternative treatment for infections, stress, and other health problems, though in many cases, scientific evidence is still lacking.

What is the history of aromatherapy?

Essential oils have been used for nearly 6,000 years: the ancient Chinese, Indians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans used them in cosmetics, perfumes, and drugs And they were also commonly used in spiritual, therapeutic, hygienic, and ritualistic settings.

More recently, René-Maurice Gattefossé, a French chemist, discovered the healing properties of lavender oil when he applied it to a burn on his hand. He then started to analyze the chemical properties of essential oils and how they could be used to treat burns, skin infections, gangrene, and wounds in soldiers during World War I.

By the 1950s, aromatherapy was an alternative treatment utilized by some massage therapists, beauticians, nurses, physiotherapists, doctors, and other health care providers.

But in the United States, aromatherapy did not become popular until the 1980s. Today, although many lotions, candles, and beauty products are labeled for “aromatherapy,” many of these products contain synthetic fragrances that do not have the same properties as essential oils.

How does aromatherapy work?

Researchers are not entirely certain as to how aromatherapy works. Some experts believe the “smell” receptors in the nose communicate with parts of the brain (the amygdala and hippocampus) that store emotions and memories. When you breathe in essential oil molecules, they may stimulate parts of your brain that influence physical, emotional, and mental health. For example, scientists believe lavender stimulates the activity of brain cells in the amygdala in a way that is similar to how sedative medications work. Others think that molecules from essential oils may interact in the blood with hormones or enzymes.

Aromatherapy massage is a popular practice in applyingessential oils because it works in several ways at the same time. Your skin absorbs essential oils and you also breathe them in. Plus, the massage itself enhances this experience.

What happens during an aromatherapy session?

Professional aromatherapists, nurses, physical therapists, pharmacists, and massage therapists can provide aromatherapy treatment.

At an aromatherapy session, the practitioner will ask about your medical history and symptoms, and will inquire about scents you may like. You will likely be directed to breathe in essential oils directly from a piece of cloth or indirectly through steam inhalations, vaporizers, or sprays. During a massage, the practitioner may also apply diluted essential oils to your skin. In most cases, the practitioner will instruct you in how to use aromatherapy at home–for example, by mixing essential oils into your bath.

Why aromatherapy?

Aromatherapy is used in a wide range of settings to treat a variety of conditions. Generally, it seems to help in relieving pain, improving mood, and promoting a sense of relaxation. In fact, several essential oils including lavender, rose, orange, bergamot, lemon, and sandalwood, among others—have been shown to relieve anxiety, stress, and depression.

Several clinical studies suggest that when qualified midwives used essential oils (particularly rose, lavender, and frankincense) during labor and delivery, women felt less anxiety and fear, had a stronger sense of well-being, and had less need for pain medications. Many women also report that peppermint oil relieves their nausea and vomiting during labor.

Massage therapy with essential oils (combined with medications or therapy) may help people with depression. The scents are thought to stimulate positive emotions in the area of the brain responsible for memories and emotions, but the benefits may also be related to
relaxation caused by the scents and the massage. A person’s positive thoughts about treatment will also influence the outcome.

In one study, Neroli oil helped reduce blood pressure and pre-procedure anxiety among patients undergoing colonoscopies.

Chemical compounds from some essential oils have shown antibacterial and anti-fungal properties. Some evidence also suggests that citrus oils may strengthen the immune system and that peppermint oil may help with digestion, and fennel, aniseed, sage, and clary sage have estrogen-like compounds which may help relieve symptoms of premenstrual syndrome and menopause. Still, substantiation is somewhat lacking.

Other conditions for which aromatherapy may be prescribed include:

  • Alopecia areata (hair loss)
  • Agitation, and possibly agitation related to dementia
  • Anxiety
  • Constipation (abdominal massage plus aromatherapy)
  • Insomnia
  • Pain—for example, in patients with rheumatoid arthritis, cancer (using topical chamomile), and headaches (using topical peppermint) in many cases require fewer pain medications when they use aromatherapy.
  • Itching, a common side effect for those receiving dialysis
  • Psoriasis

Who should avoid aromatherapy?

Pregnant women, people with severe asthma, and people with a history of allergies should only use essential oils under the guidance of a trained professional and with their physicians’ knowledge.

Pregnant women and people with a history of seizures should avoid hyssop oil and those with high blood pressure should avoid stimulating essential oils, such as rosemary and spike lavender.

Those with estrogen-dependent tumors (such as breast or ovarian cancer) should not use oils with estrogen-like compounds such as fennel, aniseed, sage, and clary sage. Further, people receiving chemotherapy should consult a doctor before trying aromatherapy.

 Posted on : April 30, 2013

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