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From the "New Herb Bible" by Earl Mindell,
c circa 2000 by Earl Mindell reprinted by permission of Fireside/Simon & Schuster, Inc.

"The way to health is to have an aromatic bath and a scented massage every day."

-Hippocrates

Whenever I get a whiff of eucalyptus oil, it takes me back to my childhood in Canada. My family would go to a hotel that had a steam bath in the basement, where my father and I would trek periodically to cleanse our pores and inhale the fumes emitted from buckets full of fresh eucalyptus leaves floating in hot water. I'll never forget the effect of those leaves. My sinuses would clear, my thoughts would become sharper, and I would leave the steam bath feeling exhilarated.

Many years later, when I learned about aromatherapy, I understood the lure of those steam baths. The power of scent is the guiding principle behind aromatherapy: the use of scented oils to soothe, relax, and heal. In some cases, aromatherapy is also used to treat specific medical problems. Massaged into the skin, certain oils can relieve muscle aches and pains.

Some oils are also strongly antiseptic. When an epidemic of plague broke out in ancient Athens, Hippocrates urged the people to burn aromatic plants on the street corners to prevent the plague from spreading. Even in those primitive times, the father of modern medicine somehow knew that the oils emitted by these plants were strong medicines. Centuries later, researchers in the Soviet Union discovered that eucalyptus oil, a powerful, natural antiviral agent, was useful for treating certain strains of influenza.

Today, essential oils are usually used externally: They may be inhaled, rubbed into the skin, or used in the bath. They may also be taken internally (in a diluted form) as medicine, but only under the supervision of a qualified practitioner. A full-strength essential oil should never be taken orally--it can be very irritating.

One of the fastest-growing modes of alternative medicine, aromatherapy has been practiced since ancient times. The Egyptians rubbed cumin on their bodies prior to intercourse to promote conception. They also used strong oils in the embalming and mummification process, probably as disinfectants. Ancient Romans wore garlands of roses on their heads to cure headaches. Native Americans used the oil of the morning glory to prevent nightmares, and prickly ash perfume to promote feelings of love.

Several scientific studies reinforce the therapeutic value of essential oils. For example, researchers at Milan University have successfully treated depression and anxiety using aerosol (sprayed) oils. Scientists in England have recently reported that lavender aromatherapy was as effective a sleep aid as sleeping pills (there is no drug-induced morning-after hangover with lavender!).

How does aromatherapy work? Once inhaled through the nose, the essential oils stimulate the olfactory organs, which are linked to the areas of the brain that control emotions. According to aromatherapists, when these essential oils are rubbed on the skin, they stimulate a reaction on the nerve endings on the skin's surface. This reaction passes through the nerves until it reaches the pituitary gland, which controls whether we feel stressed or relaxed.

Different oils elicit different physical and emotional responses. Some calm us; some excite us. Some make us happy; some make us reflective. Some enhance our spiritual side; some increase our desire for carnal pleasures.

Essential oils can be purchased at herb shops and health food stores. They are very strong: A little goes a long way. Here are some tips on how to use essential oils.

  • Never inhale from the bottle directly. Rather, mix one or two drops into a bowl of steaming hot water. Place a towel over your head and around the bowl to catch the steam.
  • If you want to use an essential oil in the bath, place five or six drops in the warm water.
  • For massage, use three or four drops of appropriate scented oil. Use only diluted essential oils designed specifically for use on the skin.
  • Another safe way to get the benefit of essential oils is to put a few drops of oil in a special lamp, called an aroma defuser, which is sold in herb shops.

The following is a list of commonly used essential oils and the response they are believed to evoke:

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