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Aromatherapy Basics: More than Just a Beautiful Scent

Ancient Egyptian, Chinese and Indian cultures did it. People did it in the Middle Ages, especially when they discovered they could extract a seemingly magical part of the plant. You may have even done it yourself when you hung out on the porch to catch  repeated whiffs of the freshly mowed grass or lingered about the kitchen to inhale the soothing scent of baking bread.

The “it” in this case is aromatherapy, or the practice of using natural scents to balance and support the body, mind and spirit. If you want to get technical about the definition, aromatherapy has come to mean the use of pure essential oils extracted naturally from the plant to enhance your body’s own innate healing abilities.

Aromatherapy History

As already noted, aromatherapy was going on even before the official term “aromatherpie” was coined in 1937. French chemist and perfumer Rene-Maurice Gattefosse came up with the name upon publication of his book, “Gattefosse’s Aromatherapy,” according to the National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA).

As a chemist and perfumer, Gattefosse had played around with essential oils to see what their effects were on a variety of physiological ailments. Unlike the art of perfumery, which has the intent of making people smell good, aromatherapy is geared toward making people feel good. As NAHA points out, the “therapy” part of the phrase makes it clear that these aromatic oils were meant for medicinal use to contribute to overall health and holistic healing.

While the uses may have begun with a focus on the body’s functioning and physical health, it has since expanded to encompass the body as well as the mind and spirit.

Essential Oils Explained

Now that you know how aromatherapy got its name, it’s only right to discover how aromatherapy essential oils got theirs. The term is actually a shortened form of “quintessential oil,” NAHA explains, with quintessence as the fifth element noted by Aristotle. The four elements of earth, air, fire and water make up matter, but the life force, or spirit, of the matter comes from the fifth element, or quintessence.

Thus essential oils were thought to be the spirit of the plant and people quickly learned how to extract this spirit through distillation or expression. Distillation involves using steam, water or a combination of both to extract the essential oil from the plant material.

Expression, used mainly for citrus essential oils, uses a cold-pressing process that releases the essential oils from their cavities in the rind. Certain oils require a distillation process known as maceration/distillation, which involves softening the plant material in warm water so it releases the oil.

Essential oils must be extracted using only physical means, rather than chemical or other processes, in order to be considered true essential oils.

What Essential Oils do for the Plant

Based on their list of vital functions, essential oils are, in fact, essential to the plant. These functions include:

  • Attracting helpful insects for pollination
  • Defending against harmful insects and animals
  • Protecting the plant against bacteria and fungus
  • Releasing chemicals that prevent competing plants from growing nearby, aka allelopathy

What Essential Oils Can do for You 

While essential oils may not prevent competing neighbors from moving nearby, they can have a host of other benefits for your mind, body and soul. Aromatherapy’s essential oils work by perking up the scent receptors in your nose, Mayo Clinic says, causing the receptors to transport messages through your nervous system to your brain’s limbic system. The limbic system is the control center of your emotions.

The specific advantages of aromatherapy largely depend on the specific essential oils you choose to use, as each essential oil has its own slate of benefits. These can include everything from increased libido to decreased anxiety with pain relief and infection protection in between.

Mayo Clinic notes far-reaching benefits of any aromatherapy practice can include:

  • Relief from anxiety and depression
  • Improved quality of life, particularly if you’re suffering from a chronic health condition

Specific benefits of specific oils can include:

  • Increased energy
  • Toning up of the bodily systems
  • Relief from headaches, migraine, joint and muscle pain
  • Fighting off fevers, infections and cold symptoms
  • Treatment of respiratory ailments, digestive disorders, cancer and other diseases

How to Use Them

You have several options for using essential oils in an aromatherapy practice, as long as you don’t try to drink them. Ingesting essential oils can be hazardous due to their highly concentrated and volatile nature. The New Zealand Register of Holistic Aromatherapists (NZRHA) says safer options include:

Inhalation and vaporization: Using an oil burner to heat the essential oil allows the scent to waft through the room and can perk up and heal the whole household. You may also add drops to humidifiers, vaporizers, room diffusers and car diffusers. Aromatherapy candles, particularly aromatherapy soy candles, are another option for dispersing and inhaling the scent. 

Skin uses: Small amounts of certain oils can be diluted and used on the skin, with methods that can include drops applied directly, drops used in compresses or drops used as a component of massage therapy. Essential oils may also be mixed with organic skin lotions, bath or shower wash, organic body sprays or dabbled directly into the bathtub.

Bathtub use is safest if you mix in a bit of olive oil or almond oil to help disperse the oil through the bath water. Six to eight drops of essential oil is all you need. One more safety note is that people with sensitive skin may not do well with all types of oils, nor are all oils compatible for use directly on the skin. Research and review the best essential oils to use on skin before you end up with an allergic reaction or rash.

Other uses: Essential oils often pop up in organic skin care or hair care products, such as organic lotions or other natural products for skin care and beauty purposes. You may additionally find them in insect repellents, household cleaners and deodorizers.

Aromatherapy Common Sense

Common sense already dictates you refrain from drinking essential oils, and NZRHA offers other common sense or perhaps not so common knowledge tips for safely and effectively using essential oils.

  • Store oils in dark glass bottles to preserve quality
  • Opt for high-quality, 100 percent pure organic essential oils to ensure you don’t end up with an adulterated mix of poor quality
  • Know pure essential oils are 70 times more potent than the herb from which they came

As long as you use caution and common sense, opt for only the best essential oils and have a strong desire to feel better, look better and simply be better, aromatherapy may be just the fix you need to naturally optimize your health. 

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