Aromatherapy What is it?
Aromatherapy is a way to improve the quality of life on a physical, emotional and spiritual level. Aromatherapy is already a part of our lives, although we may not have associated the name with the experience. Everyone has emotional responses, both pleasant and unpleasant, to certain scents. The idea behind aromatherapy is, first, to find the scents, unique for each individual, that evoke positive sensory feelings and emotions; and then to introduce those scents into our everyday life to enhance well being. Natural scents keep us connected to the earth and our selves.
A Bit of History
Aromatic medicine, the ancient beginnings of the art of aromatherapy, was recorded in both Egypt and India more than 4,000 years ago. The Egyptians used aromatic plants to create massage oils, medicines, embalming preparations; skin care products, fragrant perfumes and cosmetics.
At the beginning of this century, particularly in France and England, a movement by noted doctors and scholars in the naturopathic and medical communities prompted a reawakening to the benefits of natural medicine and aromatherapy. Today, aromatherapy is a commonly accepted alternative medicine.
The Practice of Aromatherapy
Aromatherapy uses pure essential oils, extracted from many parts of the plant (flower, leaf, resin, bark, root, twig, seed, berry, rind and rhizome) to relax, balance and rejuvenate body, mind and spirit, Aromatherapy is both an art and a science. Aromatherapists, armed with a technical understanding of oil’s constituents, artfully blend essential oils to produce new aromas.
The results of aromatherapy are very individual. While there is general agreement about the actions of certain oils, aromatherapy texts vary in their descriptions of the properties and characteristics of an essential oil. No two persons are affected by the same essential oil in exactly the same way. Even the same person can be affected differently by the same oil depending on surroundings, time of day or mood.
How it works
We perceive odors through thousands of olfactory nerves in our nostrils, which contain bundles of highly sensitive nerve cells. Unlike other nerve cells, these cells regenerate every 30 to 40 days. Specific aromatic molecules of essential oils react with specific nerve receptors, which in turn trigger electrochemical impulses that are conducted directly into the brain.
Aromas are transmitted to the limbic system, a part of the brain, which perceives and responds to memory, pleasure and emotions. Odor triggers the limbic system to release brain-affecting chemicals known as neurochemicals. Enkephalin reduces pain and creates a feeling of well being. Endorphins also reduce pain and induce sexual feelings. Serotonin helps relax and calm. Because the olfactory nerves are a direct extension of the brain’s limbic system, recognition of smell is relayed immediately, whereas recognition of taste, sound and touch is not as immediate.
The olfactory system of the human brain has a lock and key mechanism for remembering scents. This creates and individual perception of aroma, different preferences for scents and specific memory responses. The lock is the actual smell memory; the key is the scent, which opens the mind to the memory. In aromatherapy, the brain responds to the aroma of an essential oil by retrieving a past memory associated with the aroma. If the aroma is unfamiliar, the brain creates a new memory response. The memory responses can be relaxing, balancing, energizing, uplifting, etc. The sense of smell has the longest recall of all senses, so we tend to retain memories associated with aromas for quite some time.
What are essential oils?
Essential oils are the highly concentrated, volatile, aromatic essences of plants. Scientists agree that essential oils may perform more than one function in living plants. In some cases they seem to be a part of the plant’s immune system. In other cases they may simply be end products of metabolism. Essential oils contain hundreds of organic constituents, including hormones, vitamins and other natural elements that work on many levels. They are 75 to 100 times more concentrated than the oils in dried herbs.
Some plants, like rose and jasmine, contain very little oil. Their important aromatic properties are extracted using chemical solvent. The end product, known as an absolute, contains essential oil along with other plant constituents. Though not a true essential oil, absolutes are commonly used for perfumes.
Aromatherapy practitioners need pure essential oils for the highest quality. Essential oils absorb into the fluid surrounding the cells beneath the skin’s surface for a variety of effects including deep cleansing, nourishing, rejuvenating and balancing. Essential oils also diffuse into the air to provide olfactory benefits.
Just a few General Precautions
Essential oils are highly concentrated and should be used with caution and knowledge of their properties. Most personal applications require drops rather than ounces.
- Keep oils tightly closed and out the reach of children
- Never ingest essential oils
- Don’t use undiluted oils on your skin
- Skin test oils before using. Dilute a small amount and apply to the skin on your inner arm. Do not use if redness or irritations occurs.
- Keep oils away from eyes and mucous membranes
- If redness, burning itching or irritation occur, stop using oils immediately
- Some oils can be specially irritating to the skin
- Certain oils make the skin more sensitive to ultraviolet light (check before sun exposure)