Aromatherapy - Essential Oils
Introduction: The discovery and development of aromatherapy
Aromatherapy is a growing form of alternative medicine, shown to encourage and support a variety of natural healing processes. The use of natural aromatherapy oils has seen the most dramatic growth in popularity of any form of complementary medicine in the US in recent years; a testament to the faith that users of aromatherapy oils place in their healing qualities (Kessler et al., 2001). The energising and esoteric healing qualities of oil aromatherapy has had an undeniably positive impact on the mental and physical health of users throughout centuries (Mojay, 1996).
Aromatherapy can be defined as “the use of concentrated essential oils extracted from herbs, flowers & other plant parts to treat various diseases” (Cooke & Ernst, 2000, p. 493). Although the term ‘aromatherapy’ was coined less than a century ago, the medical benefits of fragrant, essential oils have long been recognised. In fact, some researchers argue that therapeutic practices that we would recognise today as aromatherapy are one of the earliest forms of practiced medicine (Kelville & Green, 2012). Scholars in ancient Egypt and India perfected the science of distilling plants and herbs to extract the natural aromatherapy oils within. These essential oils were used for a variety of purposes; from insect repellents and relaxants through to cures for digestive and circulatory conditions. Natural fragrances also had a spiritual dimension, with many herb and plant oils used in ancient religious practices.
Aromatherapists operate on the basis that illnesses are the result of imbalances in a patient’s physical, emotional and mental processes. They believe that the proper application of natural aromatherapy oils can address and counteract these imbalances, leading to an increase in the patients’ well being (Nguyen & Paton, 2008). Aromatherapy treatments do not proscribe a standard dose of essential oils. Instead, treatments vary according to the individual characteristics, needs and afflictions of the individual. This makes aromatherapy a highly personalised and targeted form of medicine.
There are many uses for natural aromatherapy oils. The essential oils can be inhaled or can be physically applied to the skin at home or by a professional aromatherapist as party of a therapeutic massage. People who buy aromatherapy oils to apply to the skin get both benefits; as the oils are applied one cannot help but also inhaled the fragrance. Some people who buy aromatherapy oils also apply the essential oils to their pillow, so that they can inhale the healing benefits of the oils while they sleep. This can be particularly effective for users who suffer from insomnia. Other people who buy aromatherapy oils use them in their bath; a mix of ten drops of essential oil (soothing oils such as lavender and sandalwood are best for this; oils such as lemon and oregano should be avoided as they can cause irritation to users’ skin after prolonged contact) with a cup of salt is an effective treatment for circulatory, skin and respiratory problems (Zielinski, 2016).
Evidence for the healing qualities of natural aromatherapy oils.
People who buy aromatherapy oils have reported a number of health benefits, ranging from positive impacts on the user’s psychological wellbeing and energy levels through to stimulating hormone production, improving metabolism and lowering levels of stress and anxiety. Halcon (2002) reports that oil aromatherapy is most commonly used to manage symptoms of stress and anxiety; essential oils from frankincense and lavender are most effective for this (Cavanagh & Wilkinson, 2002).
Previously seen as a ‘pseudo-science’ with little medical benefit, more and more researchers are taking a careful look at the effects of natural aromatherapy oils. As a result, there is a growing body of experimental evidence to support beliefs about the benefits of aromatherapy. As Lis-Balchin (1997, p. 324) reports, whilst the actual way essential oils work in healing is unknown, “there is strong in vitro evidence that essential oils can act as a microbial or antioxidant agent, or have a pharmacological effect on various tissues.”
In their 2006 study, Rho et al. observed that the practice of oil aromatherapy can produce instant, scientifically measurable changes in the blood pressure, level of muscle tension, skin temperature and brain activity of the research participants taking part in the experiment. MacMahon & Kermode (1998) have shown that oil aromatherapy can have a positive, tangible impact on users’ self-esteem, menstrual pain, and insomnia. Cooke & Ernst (2000) report that, as the healing qualities of natural aromatherapy oils gain wider scientific recognition, the use of oil aromatherapy is being applied to ever more areas of conventional health care, such as midwifery and cancer care. Stea et al. (2014) report that encouraging results have been found showing a reduction in feelings of anxiety and nausea in patients prior to and following surgery. The use of lavender, peppermint and orange essential oils were highlighted for this purpose. This combination of complementary and conventional medicine shows that aromatherapy is increasingly trusted by the medical establishment.
In addition to healing, natural aromatherapy oils have preventative qualities too. Zielinski (2016) reports that the antibacterial qualities of clove (Eugenia caryophyllata) essential oils can assist with preventing the onset of skin conditions, whilst rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) has been shown to normalise blood pressure. This suggest that the regular use of oil aromatherapy can forestall the onset of health conditions. Natural aromatherapy oils such as tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia) are also widely known to be effective at cleaning and healing burns scratches and insect bites. Used correctly, tea tree oil could become a natural and effective alternative to over-prescribed antibiotics.
Fragrant, natural aromatherapy oils have a long history of helping users to overcome and prevent health conditions. It seems that medical science is catching up with the long-help believes of aromatherapy oils users, showing that there is clinical evidence for many cures based on essential oils. Hopefully, as the scientific research improves in future, so too will our understanding and appreciation of the healing qualities of aromatherapy.
- Cavanagh, H. M. A. & Wilkinson, J. M. (2002) Biological activities of lavender essential oil. Phytotherapy Research, 16: 301-308.
- Cooke, B. & Ernst, E. (2000) Aromatherapy: A systematic review. British Journal of General Practice, 50: 493-496.
- Halcon, L. (2002) Aromatherapy: Therapeutic applications of plant essential oils. Minnesota Medicine, 85 (11): 42-44.
- Kelville, K. & Green, M. (2012) Aromatherapy: A complete guide to the healing art. New York: Random House.
- Kessler, R. C., Davis, R. B., Foster, D. F. et al. (2001) Long term trends in the use of complementary & alternative medicinal therapies in the US. Annals of Internal Medicine, 135: 262-268.
- Lis-Balchin, M. (1997) Essential oils & aromatherapy: Their modern role in healing. Perspectives in Public Health, 117 (5): 324-329.
- MacMahon, N. & Kermode, J. (1998) Can aromatherapy oils promote sleep? International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 11: 926-927.
- Mojay, G. (1996) Aromatherapy for Healing the Spirit: Restoring Emotional and Mental Balance with Essential Oils. Rochester: Healing Arts press.
- Rho, K., Han, S., Kim, K. & Lee, M. S. (2006) Effects of aromatherapy massage on anxiety and self-esteem in Korean elderly women. International Journal of Neuroscience, 116: 1447-1455.
- Nguyen, Q. & Paton, C. (2008) The use of aromatherapy to treat behavioural problems in dementia. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 23: 337-346.
- Stea, S., Beraudi, A. & De Pasquale, D. (2014) Essential Oils for Complementary Treatment of Surgical Patients: State of the Art. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, doi:10.1155/2014/726341
- Zielinski, E. (2016) Heal your gut with essential oils. Atlanta: Health Publishing.
By Sarah Harrington, HopeWind Health