Simply scentsational: the art of aromatherapy
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Simply scentsational: the art of aromatherapy

Entering a bakery, the enticing smell of fresh-baked bread sends you careening back to your grandmother's kitchen, when life seemed warm and safe and full of comfort. The sweet scent of roses wafts past you and suddenly you're at your high-school prom, wearing a blood-red corsage and dancing with the boy of your dreams.

Aromatherapy, the use of essential oils which are extracted from the blossoms, leaves, stems, fruits and roots of plants, is becoming increasingly popular as we search for ways to enhance our health, happiness and sense of well-being. The part of our brain associated with smell is closely connected to the limbic system, concerned with our most subtle responses such as emotion, memory, sex-drive and intuition. Besides bringing aesthetic pleasure to users, aromatherapy is believed to stimulate the immune system, reduce stress, relieve pain, and help heal a wide range of physical and emotional disorders.

This "new" healing art, actually centuries old, dates back to ancient Egypt, where aromatics were used in beauty products, healing rituals, massage and embalmment. The Greeks, who perfumed their food and wine as well as their bodies, burnt sweet incense in temples, city squares and at specially constructed altars, hoping that this would appease the gods. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, believed that a daily aromatic bath and a scented massage could prolong life; he also encouraged physicians to disinfect their clothing and hands with a mixture of sandalwood, camphor and rosewater.

In the early 1900's, a French chemist named Rene Gattefosse laid the foundation for modern aromatherapy when he burned his hand, plunged it into a nearby vat of lavender essence and was amazed to see how quickly the burn healed. Dr. Jean Valnet, a French ex-army surgeon, began using essential oils to treat wounds and burns, and, even today, many French physicians prescribe aromatherapy for its therapeutic and healing properties.

Health benefits

Aromatherapy proponents claim that aside from promoting relaxation, the use of essential oils can activate immune activity, lower blood pressure, stimulate digestive processes and cause the release of endorphins ("feel good chemicals") in the brain. There are more than 300 commercially available essential oils, but only between 50 and 100 have health-giving properties and are suitable for use in aromatherapy. Essential oils, which are natural, volatile substances extracted from plants by a distillation process, can contain anywhere from fifty to as many as two hundred different chemical components.

All essential oils are antiseptic, and many possess antiviral, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. According to Dr. Alan Pressman, D.C., Ph.D., C.C.N., a chiropractor and board-certified dietitian and author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Alternative Medicine, lavender, made from the flowering tops of the lavender plant, is "the one essential oil that's really essential for the home first-aid kit." Lavender massage oils or compresses are useful for sore joints and muscles; putting a few drops on a hanky and breathing in the smell can chase away tension headaches. Steam inhalations using lavender can relieve colds, sore throats and bronchitis. The Nurse's Handbook of Alternative and Complementary Therapies suggests lavender is also useful in relieving stomachache, colic, toothache and teething pain.

Some other popular oils to consider:

  • Tea-tree oil(melaleuca alternifolia) -
  • distilled from the Australian tea tree plant. It has strong antiseptic, antifungal and sedative properties, and is helpful in healing wounds, clearing up skin irritations, and fighting fungus infections like ringworm and athlete's foot. It can also aid in relieving the discomfort of cystitis and yeast infections, and may relieve aching joints and muscles as well as the pain and itching of cold sores and herpes blisters.
  • Eucalyptus -
  • a few drops works as an expectorant and can be added to a bowl of steaming hot water and inhaled to relieve respiratory and sinus problems.
  • Peppermint,chamomile and rosemary -
  • useful in treating digestive upsets such as nausea, gas or heartburn, and can relieve motion sickness.
  • Bergamot -
  • for a bit of calming relaxation after a busy day, bergamot's citrusy, refreshing action can help soothe anger and frustration.
  • Frankincense -
  • a regulating yet stimulating oil. It is said to relieve nervous tension, fear and nightmares.
  • Orange -
  • can relieve boredom and encourage a positive outlook, while grapefruit's uplifting energies can vanquish feelings of resentment and envy.

Using essential oils

Soak or splash in them, smooth them over your body, or simply breathe in their magnificent fragrance. Aromatherapy can be used at home or administered by a specially trained practitioner. The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy says that "while many consider aromatherapy to be a simple home remedy, it is in fact both a specific science and a deeply complex art."

There are many ways to enjoy the benefits of aromatherapy. Because essential oils are extremely concentrated, they must be mixed into a carrier oil such as sweet almond oil, jojoba oil or fractionated coconut oil, (the usual dilution is 10-15 drops of essential oil to one ounce of carrier oil) before being massaged into the skin.

Hot or cold compresses made with lavender or other oils can be applied to relieve muscle aches.

To open up clogged nasal passages, several drops of essential oil can be added to hot water and used as a steam inhalation.

Room fragrance
To scent a room, put a few drops of oil on a ceramic scent ring which sits on top of a light bulb. (Never put the oil directly on the bulb.) An electric diffuser, specially designed vaporizer or micromister can be used as well.

Aromatic baths with a few drops of essential oil added directly to the bathwater create a delicious sense of well-being, and can be stimulating or relaxing depending on what oil is selected. Many commercial after-bath body treatments, bath soaps and hair and skin care products contain combinations of essential oils.

Essential oils, which are never taken internally, should be used cautiously by people with skin problems, allergies, asthma, epilepsy and certain other medical conditions. To avoid irritation, they should be kept away from the eyes and mucus membranes. Children under five and pregnant or breast-feeding women should avoid using essential oils which can be toxic to the developing fetus or young child.

The ancient art of aromatherapy is a modern-day miracle whose healing, relaxing, invigorating, and pleasure-enhancing possibilities can invoke powerful feelings of joy, tranquillity and a sense that "all's right with the world."


Alternative Health News
This alternative medicine site covers many major topics and links you to top sources of information.

Alternative Health
A directory of alternative medicine sites and natural medicine homepages on the Internet. There is an aromatherapy category; some others include ayurveda, chiropractic, crystal healing.

Herb Research Foundation
Up-to-date information about research on herbs and medicinal plants.

A comprehensive web site providing information about herbal products and remedies. Features "the essential oil of the month."

Last reviewed July 1999 by HealthGate Medical Review Board

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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