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Aromatherapy: The Power of Scent


Aromatherapy uses plant-derived essential oils to gently stimulate the natural healing action of both body and mind. This enjoyable treatment can include an aromatic massage or bath, or diffusing a scent throughout a room.

Aromatherapy uses plant-derived essential oils to gently stimulate the natural healing action of both body and mind. This enjoyable treatment can include an aromatic massage or bath, or diffusing a scent throughout a room. Essential oils are very small molecules which are able to penetrate the skin and pass through capillaries into the blood and through cell walls. These oils contain hormones, vitamins, antibiotics and antiseptics. Depending on their chemical composition, essential oils can have one or more of the following properties: antiseptic (property of all essential oils), anti-inflammatory, stimulant, sedative, expectorant, diuretic, toning, bactericidal, spasmolytic, mucolytic, immunostimulant, antiviral and antifungal.

Among the plants rich in essential oils are anise, balm melissa, basil, camomile, fennel, elecampane, feverfew, juniper, lavender, marigold, marjoram, peppermint, pine, rosemary, sage, thyme, valerian and yarrow.

Did You Know?

The human nose is sensitive enough to detect fragrance diluted to one molecule per ten thousand billion air molecules.


Aromatic oils have been used throughout the ages for healing, religious ceremonies, as beauty aids and in perfumes. The ancient Egyptians used aromatherapy five thousand years ago and the Babylonians as far back as 1800 BC. Using essential oils for healing is mentioned in the Bible and was used by the ancient Greeks for medicines, by the Romans for beauty, and as antiseptics during the plagues in Europe.

Aromatherapy as we know it, was founded and named in 1937 by French chemist, Dr. Rene-Maurice Gattefosse. Working with plant materials in his laboratory one day, Gattefosse burned his hand and immediately immersed it in the nearest substance available, pure essential lavender oil. The oil took away the redness and healed the burn with startling speed. Gattefosse was so impressed that he started to research the healing properties of other essential oils, discovering a completely new healing discipline in the process.

In France today, aromatherapy is widespread and is routinely prescribed by physicians. Pharmacies sell remedies related to aromatherapy alongside conventional medicine. In England and Germany, essential oils are mostly used for their calming effects, as sleep inducers and as respiratory medications. In North America, aromatherapy has been steadily growing in popularity.

How Can It Help Me?

The gentle healing power of aromatherapy is used to treat many common problems. Baths are used to alleviate stress, headaches, fatigue, colds, flus, and aches and pains. Steaming and inhalation clear sinuses and cleanse and moisturize the skin. Compresses help in cases of bruises, abscesses, skin irritations, aches and pains.

Essential oils can have many medicinal effects. They can act on the stomach (stomachics, such as ginger); affect the production of urine (diuretics, such as dong quai); clear respiratory passages (expectorants, such as thyme and eucalyptus); reduce inflammation (anti-inflammatories, such as camomile, everlast and marigold); or eliminate parasites (antiparasitics, such as garlic and thyme).

PDF Table of Recommended Oils for Common Problems

How Does It Work?

Essential oils are highly effective remedies because their molecules are so fine that they can easily penetrate skin and body tissues, delivering healing substances in very effective ways.

Essential oils are administered in various ways and their aroma acts like a messenger with a short-cut to the brain, where it affects the limbic system. The limbic system is a kind of switchboard in the brain directly connected to brain centers that control blood pressure, breathing, heart rate, hormone levels and the nervous system. When essential oils are smelled, inhaled or absorbed through the stomach, the skin or any other body tissues, they directly stimulate the limbic system, creating pathways to affect physical, emotional and mental changes.

Researchers have shown that one group of essential oils is tranquilizing, capable of calming body and mind and imparting a feeling of well-being; another group of essential oils is stimulating, energizing body and mind and heightening mental awareness. Recent studies have shown that aromatherapy can be used to improve the mood and increase the awareness of Alzheimer patients and other patients with memory problems.

Essential oils have multilevel body-mind effects; they can clear your breathing passages on one level while simultaneously producing mental clarity and positive emotions. Even aromas too subtle to be picked up by the human nose have been shown to alter electroencephalogram (EEG) activity and increase the speed of completing visual tasks.

Unlike their synthetic counterparts, natural essential oils are very complex and have hundreds of chemical ingredients. The combination of main active ingredients with all the trace elements has a pleasing effect. Evidence shows that a natural extract is more effective than an isolated major active ingredient.

Essential oils are usually extracted from plants by a distillation process. They are very potent, volatile and powerful smelling and are not to be confused with "perfume" or "fragrance" oils which are synthetic and do not have therapeutic properties. The price of essential oils depends on plant availability and ease of extracting oils from plants.

Mix essential aromatherapy oils with a carrier oil (or combination of carrier oils) which acts as a base and as a lubricant for massage. The carrier oil should be of vegetable source and naturally extracted, not processed. Common carrier oils are sweet almond (good for dry skin), grapeseed (normal skin), soya bean (oily skin) and wheat germ (antioxidant, preservative, diminishes scarring).

Generally six drops of essential oil are used for each two teaspoons of carrier oil. For use on the face, reduce to four drops. Half these amounts should be used when treating children or the elderly.

PDF Table of Average Dilutions of Essential Oils for Different Applications

Did You Know?

Roses yield a scant one pound of essential oil from every two thousand pounds of rose petals.

How Is It Done?

An aromatherapist will start with a diagnostic interview to determine background, health, emotional states, and lifestyle.

If you want to try aromatherapy at home, start with one or two essential oils so that you can first learn what each of them can do for you before adding others. Some stores sell "starter kits" which contain a number of remedies. Always make sure that whatever you purchase is "pure essential oil."

The name aromatherapy is somewhat misleading as it suggests that essential oils must be inhaled in order to benefit from their healing powers. In fact, there are several techniques available:

  • Vaporizers A vaporizer can be used to launch minute particles of essential oils into the air. This method can act as a natural air freshener as well as a disinfectant. It can also facilitate breathing, and at the same time create an energizing or calming effect inside a room.

  • Heat sources Drops of essential oil are added to a small bowl of water, which is then heated over a tea light to spread the aroma and its effects throughout the room. For steaming, use essential oil in a bowl of very hot water. Put your head over the bowl and cover with a towel.

  • Fragrant water spray This is water to which a certain amount of essential oil has been added. The water can be used on hot summer days as a moisturizing skin spray or in the winter as a skin or air moisturizer to combat dry air. Use weak dilutions to prevent skin irritation.

  • Other external uses Because the minute molecules of essential oils penetrate tissues so easily, oils can be effective in baths, compresses, liniments, salves, massage oils, plasters or in direct applications to the skin. Essential oils should be diluted before applying to the skin. Add oil to your bath just before you get in. For dry skin, mix the oil with a carrier such as almond, olive or avocado oil. Make sure the oil is dispersed to avoid possible skin irritations. Compresses should be soaked in a mixture of essential oil and water. Certain conditions such as bruises and abscesses may require a compress infused with undiluted oil. For massage, the therapist will make a blend of oils that is pleasing to the patient and use it during the massage. Most people feel relaxed after the aromatherapy massage, some feel energized and others may feel lethargic.

  • Internal use Essential oils can be so strong that even one single drop can be completely overwhelming. To use essential oils internally, first make sure that the label specifies internal use. If no specific dilutions are given, start with one drop in half a cup of water and observe the effect. While essential oils are scientifically studied in England, Germany and France, it is still a little more difficult to get reliable advice about each oil in North America.

Even fewer drops of essential oils are needed than of tinctures. One drop of a healing mint oil, for example, taken in a cup of hot water, can cause your eyes to water and your sinuses to clear. For that reason, essential oils work well as inhalants and in steam baths. Essential oils can also be mixed for a synergistic effect. Essential oils can be used internally for colds, coughs, hoarseness, stuffy and runny nose, toothaches, headaches, sore throats and nausea. Externally, they are useful as inhalants, liniments and bath additives for headaches, nerve pains, exhaustion, chilblains, rheumatism, sprains and muscle cramps. Use antibacterial oils for minor scrapes and wounds and as a gargle. Carrying a small bottle of preparation is like carrying a miniature home pharmacy in your pocket. However, before using any essential oil remedy, read the directions because most essential oils have to be greatly diluted before use.

What Can I Do?

Because of the gentle nature of aromatherapy, it can be used safely in home treatment. Thoroughly educate yourself before trying it, especially when using in cases of pregnancy. (For more information, see Pregnancy Problems in the Conditions section.)

Store essential oils in a cool, dry place and keep tightly closed.

If you have allergies, it is a good idea to perform a skin patch test to determine any possible negative reaction.

PDF Table of Common Essential Oils and Their Characteristics

Where Do I Go Next?

Check with aromatherapy stores, natural food stores and essential oil suppliers. Talk to a knowledgeable person to become familiar with reputable companies that guarantee the purity of their oils. Deal with companies that are in the herb business and not in the food business. Essential oils produced for food flavoring do not adhere to the same standards of quality and purity as those specifically made for aromatherapy. The label should say "pure essential oil" instead of using deceptive terms, such as "essential fragrance," "botanical essence" or "natural perfume."

Essential oils vary in price, depending on the availability of plants and the percentage of oil they contain. If you see a line of aromatherapy remedies where every oil has the same price, you can be sure that the contents are not pure essential oil. Be prepared for high prices since it can take up to one thousand pounds of plant material to make one quart of essential oil. Remember, however, that a bottle will go a long way because only a few drops are used at a time.

Once you start using aromatherapy, you will find that it is a versatile and easy discipline. If aromatherapy keeps gaining in popularity, physicians may someday be prescribing it in North America as they do in France.



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