What Is Aromatherapy?

The area of Aromatherapy is concerned with the (human) inhalation and bodily application of essential oils. The tools of aromatherapy are essential oils and hydrosols, which are hopefully used to achieve the potential goals of good physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health and balance. Essential oils are obtained by a process called distillation, whereby selected plant materials are heated with water (or steam, or both) in an enclosed still, so that their volatile components are released from the plant, vaporize, and are present in the steam. The steam and vapor condense back to a liquid state. Due to differences in density, the essential oil (which often has an odor reminiscent of the plant) will separate from the water under gravity. The separated water contains water-soluble essential oil components and is termed the hydrosol, or hydrolate. In the interests of yield efficiency, this distillation water is returned in many designs of distillation and this process in termed distillation with cohabation. Finally, we should mention that the term essential oils, also usually includes the group of mechanically pressed citrus oils, which differ from the other oils in having several per cent of non-volatile components, including components such as furanocoumarins.


True Aromatherapy is not simply the use of products containing fragrance. Pure essential oils from plants, which have not been adulterated with added natural or synthetic substances, must appear in the product in quantities considered to be therapeutic and must ideally be of the finest quality. By the same token, hydrosols must be fresh, and be entirely constituted of the water collected from the condenser after the process of distillation. Other products, such as essential oils added to distilled water using a synthetic mixing agent, are sold as flower waters and are not hydrosols. In addition, many commercially available “so-called” aromatherapy products are compounded synthetic fragrances, maybe with a concessionary essential oil content (these are often found in larger stores and drug store chains). It is always wise to read the ingredients when choosing products labeled as “aromatherapy.”


Inhalation of essential oils and hydrosols affects our bodies in several ways. When inhaled, essential oil component molecules enter the nasal passages where they stimulate the olfactory nerve, sending messages directly into the limbic system of the brain. The limbic system is the seat of memory, learning and emotion. The inhalation of essential oils triggers changes within the limbic system which in turn can stimulate physiological responses within the body via the nervous, endocrine or immune systems. For example, if the aroma of Cinnamon is reminiscent to a particular individual of traditional hot apple pie baking in the oven, an emotional response such as comfort, warmth, and security may therefore accompany the inhalation of Cinnamon Cinnamomum zeylanicum essential oil. This emotional response, triggered by a mental association, creates a relaxed and comforted response from the body. Many essential oils can produce a relaxed, stimulated, or soothed state, even if we have no memory associations with them. Besides the emotional response, inhalation is very effective for respiratory complaints such as congestion. High cineol-types of Eucalyptus essential oil (E. globulus, E. polybractea, E. radiata, E. smithii) when inhaled through the mouth and nose, clears sinus passages and due to its anti-microbial action, can aid in the treatment of chest colds and flu.


Several different devises are used to fill the air space of a room with essential oils to maximize the therapeutic benefits of inhalation. Some use heat as a means of “evaporating” the essential oils, which spreads the essential oil vapor throughout the room. Candle diffusers and ceramic or brass rings placed on light bulbs are commonly used. These types of apparatus are sufficient for environmental fragrancing. Other diffusers consist of an electronically powered air pump and glass nebulizer which micro-ionizes the volatile oil allowing for the most efficient form of inhalation treatment, as well as fragrancing the room.


Used topically and properly diluted, essential oils have myriad applications for health, beauty and well being. Besides being used in massage and skin & body care, essential oils are used in medicinal and first aid preparations due to their anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal and other properties. Hydrosols are equally as versatile and are used for body care, symptoms of menopause, stress relief, and in culinary preparations.


While many consider aromatherapy among the simple home remedies, it is in fact both a specific science and a deeply complex art. Essential oils are the accumulated end products of secondary metabolic processes within the plant and consist of mixtures of complex chemical components. Many of these components have a potentially powerful healing capacity when appropriately therapeutically applied, but some can be harmful. The skilled Aromatherapist works with the client to develop a blend of oils that will suit the situation’s needs. The essential oils chosen work well together aesthetically, and as well as addressing the client’s particular complaint, may administer other needs. For instance, when addressing muscle pain, an Aromatherapist may create a blend of essential oils which will relieve the tension of the muscle, yet will also act upon the client mentally and emotionally to address the underlying cause of the muscle tension. This blend of oils, in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, is known as a “synergy.” The knowledge, awareness, and listening skills required to create synergies are quite involved.


From a toxicological point of view, under appropriate & specified conditions of use, essential oils are relatively safe, although some are irritant, some are known sensitizers (causing allergic reactions) and a few are highly toxic! Just because essential oils are considered a “natural” product, safety cannot always be assumed. In addition, many unscrupulous companies are currently producing “aromatherapy” products using synthetic fragrances with no thought (and sometimes little knowledge) of current safety practices. Even some so-called aromatherapy companies are recommending the very dangerous use of undiluted or irritant oils (in inappropriate routes via eyes and ears) while making medical claims in order to sell their product. Whilst it is wise to consult safety guidelines before using any aromatherapy product, there is also a clear need for wider education in this area.


There are no legal standards of aromatherapy training or certification in the United States, yet there are many schools and individuals offering aromatherapy training. Those practitioners calling themselves aromatherapists are most often trained in some other form of therapy, such as massage, aesthetician, or chiropractor, and have incorporated the use of essential oils into their practice. When seeking aromatherapy training, it is important for students to know the background and experience of the teacher. The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA) is a non-profit educational organization dedicated to the development of high standards of aromatherapy teaching and practice and is a good resource for ethical teachers and students. NAHA currently has in place Suggested Guidelines for Aromatherapy Education & Certification in an effort to provide guidance for students and teachers. In addition this organization provides safety and efficacy guidelines for interested parties.

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