Aromatherapy is a holistic treatment based on the external use of essential aromatic plant oils to maintain and promote physical, physiological, and spiritual wellbeing. The essential oils may be used in massage, added to a warm bath, used to moisten a compress that is applied to the affected part of the body, added to a vaporizer for inhalation, or diffused throughout a room.
The term aromatherapy ( aromatherapie in the original French) was coined in 1928 by a French chemist, René Maurice Gattefossé, to describe the therapeutic use of aromatic substances (essential oils) in wound healing. Gattefossé discovered the healing properties of essential plant oils accidentally; after burning his hand in a laboratory accident, he found that lavender oil healed his burns in a very short time. He then experimented with plant oils in treating soldiers wounded in World War I, and found that there were several essential oils that speeded physical healing. As the practice of aromatherapy expanded, it came to incorporate a holistic emphasis on healing or invigorating all levels of a person's being. In the United States and Great Britain, the contemporary practice of aromatherapy is often associated with naturopathy and Western herbal medicine. In Great Britain, aromatherapy is one of the most frequently used forms of alternative medicine; in the United States, many hospital-affiliated centers for the study of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) offer aromatherapy as well as other alternative approaches. Aromatherapy has also been added to holistic nursing board examinations in the United States within the last few years.
One of the basic concepts of mind/body medicine is that a positive frame of mind helps to keep people in good health. Aromatherapists maintain that essential oils derived from plants help people to slow down, relax from stress , and enjoy the sensory experiences of massage, warm water, and pleasant smells. Aromatherapy is thought to improve a person's mental outlook and sense of well-being by affecting the limbic system via the olfactory nerve, or the sense of smell. The limbic system is the area of the brain that regulates emotions. Relaxing and pleasant smells stimulate emotional responses of pleasure and relaxation. From a holistic perspective, aromatherapy is a form of preventive health care. Most aromatherapists believe that aromatherapy should not be used as a substitute for mainstream medical or psychiatric care, but as an adjunct to it.
Aromatherapy is considered to be a useful complementary treatment for the relief of depression, anxiety, insomnia , panic disorder , stress-related physical disorders, menstrual cramps, and some gastrointestinal complaints. For example, peppermint oil calms gastrointestinal spasms when ingested, or taken by mouth. Arecent Scottish study found that aromatherapy has a measurably calming effect on the symptoms of dementia in elderly people.
Aromatherapy can be used by itself, or combined with Swedish massage, shiatsu, acupressure, reflexology, or light therapy to reinforce the positive results of these treatments.
Although there are professional aromatherapists as well as practitioners of holistic medicine who offer aromatherapy among their other services, people can also use aromatherapy at home as part of self-care. There are many guides to the various techniques of aromatherapy and the proper use of essential plant oils available in inexpensive paperback editions.
People who are interested in using essential oils at home should be careful to purchase them from reliable sources. The U. S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate the manufacture of essential plant oils. Consequently, instances of consumer fraud have been reported. In the case of essential oils, the most common form of fraud is substitution of synthetic compounds for natural essential oils, which are expensive to produce.
Another precaution is to avoid applying essential oils directly to the skin as a form of perfume. Some essential oils such as oil of orange or oil of peppermint are irritating to the skin if applied full-strength. When essential oils are used in massage, they are always diluted in a carrier oil.
A final precaution is to avoid taking essential oils internally without a consultation with a physician or naturopathist. Possible exceptions may be peppermint oil and aloe vera.
Essential plant oils are prepared for use in aromatherapy in several different ways. Most are prepared by steam distillation, a process in which the flowers, leaves, or other plant parts are heated by steam from boiling water. The vapors that result then pass through a condenser that separates the scented water from the essential oil, which is siphoned off into a separate container. Other methods of extracting essential oils include expression, or squeezing, which is limited to citrus oils; enfleurage , in which flower petals are placed on a bed of purified fat that soaks up the essential oils; and maceration, in which the plant parts are crushed and covered with warm vegetable oil that absorbs the essential oils.
There are several different techniques for the use of essential oils in aromatherapy:
- Massage: This is the technique that most people associate with aromatherapy. For use in massage, essential oils are mixed with a vegetable carrier oil, usually wheatgerm, avocado, olive, safflower, grapeseed, or soya bean oil. A ratio that is commonly recommended is 2.5–5% essential oil to 95–97.5% carrier oil.
- Full-body baths: In this technique, the essential oil is added to a tubful of warm (but not hot) water as the water is running. The dosage of essential oil is usually 5–10 drops per bath.
- Hand or foot baths: These are often recommended to treat arthritis or skin disorders of the hands or feet as well as sore muscles. The hands or feet are soaked for 10–15 minutes in a basin of warm water to which 5–7 drops of essential oil have been added.
- Inhalations: This technique is used to treat sinus problems or such nasal allergies as hay fever. Two cups of water are brought to a boil and then allowed to cool for five to ten minutes. Two to five drops of essential oil are added to the steaming water, and the person leans over the container and inhales the fragrant vapors for five to ten minutes.
- Diffusion: This technique requires the use of a special nebulizer to disperse microscopic droplets of essential oil into the air, or a clay diffuser that allows the oil to evaporate into the air when it is warmed by a small votive candle or electric bulb. Diffusion is recommended for treating emotional upsets.
- Compresses: These are made by soaking four or five layers of cotton cloth in a solution of warm water and essential oil, wringing out the cloth so that it is moist but not dripping, and applying it to the affected part of the body. The compress is then covered with a layer of plastic wrap, followed by a pre-warmed towel, and kept in place for one or two hours. Aromatherapy compress es are used to treat wounds, sprains, bruises, sore muscles, menstrual cramps, and respiratory congestion.
- Aromatic salves: Salves are made by melting together 1 1/4 cup of vegetable oil and 1 oz of beeswax in a double boiler over medium heat, and adding the desired combination of essential oils.
- Internal use: Some essential oils such as oil of peppermint and cinnamon can be used to make teas or mouthwashes, or mixed with a glass of honey and water. The dose depends on the oil, but a physician, naturopathist, or other practitioner should be consulted.
Aromatherapists recommend the use of fresh oils and oil mixtures in the techniques described above. Both essential oils and vegetable carrier oils deteriorate over time and should not be kept longer than one or two months; thus, it is best to mix only small quantities of massage oils or salves at any one time.
No special preparation for an aromatherapy treatment is required on the patient's part.
Aromatherapy does not require any particular form of aftercare, although many patients like to rest quietly for a few minutes after a bath or massage with essential oils.
There are no risks involved in external aromatherapy when essential oils are diluted as recommended. Not all essential oils, however, should be taken internally. Benzoin and other essential oils derived from tree resins should not be used internally.
A few cases have been reported of dissociative episodes triggered by fragrances associated with traumatic experiences. Patients in treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or any of the dissociative disorders should consult their therapist before they use aromatherapy.
Normal results from aromatherapy include a sense of relaxation, relief from tension, and improved well-being.
Abnormal results include skin irritations or other allergic reactions to essential oils, and the development of traumatic memories associated with specific smells.
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Price, Shirley. Practical Aromatherapy. Second edition, revised. London, UK: Thorsons, 1994.
Buckle, J. "The Role of Aromatherapy in Nursing Care." Nursing Clinics of North America 36 (March 2001): 57-72.
Ilmberger, I., E. Heuberger, C. Mahrhofer, and others. "The Influence of Essential Oils on Human Attention: Alertness." Chemistry and the Senses 3 (March 2001): 239-245.
Simpson, N., and K. Roman. "Complementary Medicine Use in Children: Extent and Reasons." British Journal of General Practice 51 (November 2001): 914-916.
Smallwood, J., R. Brown, F. Coulter, and others. "Aromatherapy and Behaviour Disturbances in Dementia: A Randomized Controlled Trial." International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry 16 (October 2001): 1010-1013.
American Association of Naturopathic Physicians. 601 Valley Street, Suite 105, Seattle, WA 98109. (206) 298-0126. <www.naturopathic.org> .
International Aromatherapy and Herb Association. 3541 West Acapulco Lane. Phoenix, AZ 85053-4625. (602) 938-4439. <www.aztec.asu.edu./iaha/> .
National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA). 4509 Interlake Avenue North, #233, Seattle, WA 98103-6773. (888) ASK-NAHA or (206) 547-2164. <www.naha.org> .
Rebecca J. Frey, Ph.D.