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Making Sense of Scents: Aromatherapy For Beginners

An in-depth look into aromatherapy.
By The Herb Companion staff
January/February 1999
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In the United States, where using scents to heal has moved into the mainstream, the term ­aromatherapy is broadly applied. Scented candles with names such as “Meditation” and “Sensuality” can be found at the checkout stand of the local market, along with spray bottles of scents designed to set a mood with the pump of an atomizer. The aromatherapy category has also come to include bath salts, shampoos, lotions, potpourris, and much more. The multitude of products is nothing new, though; historically, essential oils have been used in a variety of forms, depending on the culture and new discoveries about aromatherapy.

While a large selection is nice, it may be confusing when you’re just beginning to use aromatherapy. To help you be a wise consumer, we offer a little basic background.

The Discovery

Aromatherapy is a relatively new term, although the practice of using scents to heal is centuries old and crosses many cultural lines. Ancient Egyptians used scents (incense burners have been found in ancient tombs), as did the early Chinese, who employed scents in civil and religious ceremonies. During times of plague, Europeans carried pomanders made of oranges and cloves to mask odors and fend off diseases.

It wasn’t until the twentieth century, however, that the term aromatherapy actually came about. It refers to a specific form of holistic healing that involves carefully ­inhaling or applying herbal essential oils, which are volatile, aromatic plant compounds. René Gatefossé, a French chemist working in the lab of his family’s perfume business during the 1930s, is credited with coining the term. Gatefossé began researching the healing properties of herbal essential oils when he saw his own hand—burned accidentally while working—heal quickly and without scarring after he plunged it into a bowl of diluted lavender oil. In 1937, he published Aromathérapie detailing his research. During World War II, another Frenchman, Jean Valnet, a medical doctor, used essential oils to treat wounded soldiers, and an Austrian biochemist, Marguerite Maury, introduced the use of essential oils with massage techniques.

Today in France, more than 1,500 doctors have been trained in aromatherapy and prescribe essential oils routinely; in England, aromatherapy is used in hospitals to help patients relax and sleep after surgery.

Aromatherapy As A Profession

The aim of trained aromatherapists is to work with the body to promote health, not to provide a “silver bullet” cure. Generally speaking, an aromatherapist assesses both symptoms and an individual’s lifestyle—his or her diet, stresses, personal goals, and fears. From there, the aromatherapist determines which oil or blend of oils is appropriate.

Massage forms the major part of the treatment, and some aromatherapists consider the use of essential oils in therapeutic massage as the oils’ most effective purpose. Aromatherapists choose from among more than 400 essential oils as they work and, when preparing a massage oil, blend essential oils with a carrier oil. As they massage, the oil penetrates the body.

In the United States, no licensing agency for aromatherapists exists, nor does a national standard for certification. If you are seeking an aromatherapist, remember that many holistic health-care practitioners, including herbalists and naturopaths, use essential oils as part of their practice, so they may be able to direct you to an aromatherapist in your area.  Some aromatherapy schools have created their own certification standards, including required coursework and certified hours of practice.

Other Applications

“Clinical aromatherapy” refers to the use of essential oils to heal specific conditions. The technique is used by many health-care practitioners, including herbalists and naturopaths. Although not yet wholeheartedly embraced by Western medicine, clinical aromatherapy is based on scientific evidence that, in turn, is grounded in basic anatomy.

When we breathe, odors—volatile molecules that float through the air—fill the nostrils and travel up two narrow chambers to the olfactory epithelium, a receiver that extends from the outside directly into the brain. Odor molecules bind to receptors there, and neurons send messages to the brain’s olfactory bulbs, where other neurons reduce the complexities of odors. Mitral neurons send messages to the limbic system, the source of emotion and memory. Scientists say that some smells cause the limbic system to activate the hypothalamus and pituitary gland to stimulate hormone production; these glands control sex, appetite, and other body functions. Although much research remains to be done to determine the effects of specific essential oils on both mind and body, strong evidence exists to show that they do.

Another way of using scent is what some call “environmental aromatherapy.” It refers to diffusing essential oils into the air to enhance living space. The aim of this practice isn’t to mask foul smells but to cleanse the air. Diffusers are usually made of ceramic or glass, with a small container for water that is heated by a candle or electricity. Drops of essential oil are added to the water (the number of drops of essential oil is determined by the size of the room and the intensity of fragrance desired); heat releases volatile essential oil molecules into the atmosphere. Burning incense is a centuries-old method of diffusing essential oils into the air, as is the burning of scented candles.

The Pros And Cons Of Doing It Tourself

Aromatherapy can be practiced alone if you’re seeking relaxation or gentle invigoration. Diffusing scent into the air, adding herbal oils to your bath, or rubbing a few drops of diluted essential oil into your feet or hands are simple ways to do it yourself. And if you want to learn more, many books and other resources can provide you with good information on how to begin.

However, for more serious health conditions, consult a trained professional. Asthma, for example, should never be self-treated, and people undergoing chemo­therapy or treatment for serious illnesses such as AIDS shouldn’t try to heal symptoms associated with these conditions without a health-care provider’s guidance. Pregnant women should be especially cautious when trying to decide which essential oils they can use safely, and parents should always consult a health-care provider when considering using essential oils on children.

Scent Sense

The best chance for a happy experience with aromatherapy is to choose good-quality products. With the increasing number of products out there, this may sound easier said than done. But a few simple rules of thumb should help.

Keep in mind that not all scents are natural essential oils. Some are synthesized in the laboratory. If an oil is labeled “fragrance,” it’s probably synthetic. A good essential oil will come from a named botanical species and, when appropriate, a named carrier oil. Its aroma will be vigorous and lively, rather than simply strong. Occasionally, essential oils are “extended” by adding alcohol or cheaper vegetable oils, rather than a preferred carrier oil such as jojoba or almond oil. Look for both the botanical name and the carrier oil on the ingredients list of the essential oil bottle or accompanying information. Some essential oils, pure or already blended in carrier oil, come in tiny vials; these products should have ingredient information readily available in the packaging, with a clear description of how the product has been prepared and/or instructions on how to use it and whether you need to dilute the oil with a carrier oil.

Many commercial brands will also include instructions for use. One sampler of six essential oils in small vials, for example, includes specific instructions for using each, such as adding a couple of drops to bathwater or mixing them with an ounce of carrier oil.

Remember that essential oils come from plants, so the aroma of the best oils will vary from year to year because of changes in climate, rainfall, and soil conditions—all of which affect the herb from which the essential oil comes.

Store your oils in their bottles, preferably dark ones, in a cool, dry place. Be sure to keep your essential oils separate from medicines and from solutions that might be affected by the oils’ aromas. Keep caps tightly sealed to avoid evaporation.

It’s important that serious conditions be treated by a qualified health-care practitioner. Essential oils are most commonly used in preparations to relieve aches and pains, encourage relaxation, ease stress, and care for hair and skin. Some, such as the antifungal tea tree oil, can be used to fight minor injuries or irritations; others, such as essential oil of eucalyptus, can be added to a steam to help clear a stuffy head. Finally, take the sniff test. If you’re a healthy individual who doesn’t have a history of sensitivity but wonder whether a particular essential oil is right for you, put a small drop of the oil onto a cotton ball and sniff to make sure that you find the scent appealing. Don’t inhale right from the bottle—essential oils possess strong aromas and can cause a reaction when sniffed in this way.


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