What is Aromatherapy?

Aromatherapy is both a science and an art. Essential oils and compounds that derive from plants are used to help improve the health or mood of the patient. Often used to treat or prevent disease, other common uses include helping with short-term memory loss, relaxation, hair loss and the reduction of itching caused by eczema. There are said to be two ways in which aromatherapy works; the direct pharmacological effects of the oils, and the influence on the brain via the olfactory system, which affects the complex network of nerves known as the limbic system.

Usually, the oils are applied in one of three ways:

Direct inhalation – when the evaporating oils are breathed in from the source

Topical application – the oil is applied to the skin, either by message or by bathing

Arial diffusion – where the oil is evaporated into the air

Scientific evidence of the effectiveness of aromatherapy is growing. In Western Europe, France in particular, aromatherapy is prescribed alongside mainstream medicine.

The modern incarnation of aromatherapy began in 1937, when René-Maurice Gattefossé published his seminal book, Aromathérapie: Les Huiles Essentielles Hormones Vegetales. The French chemist, whose family owned a perfumery business, had studied essential oils and their medicinal properties for many years. An explosion in his lab lead him to perform a practical test of his innovative theories, albeit unwittingly. His hand was burnt quite badly in the explosion and seeing a container of lavender oil – the only liquid available – he plunged his hand in, with the hope of alleviating the pain. He saw that not only did the swelling subside and the healing process accelerate but, most interestingly, the injury did not leave a scar.

One could be forgiven for thinking that Mr. Gattefossé invented aromatherapy; the truth however is that aromatherapy has been used in different forms for thousands of years. In fact, the roots are said to go all the way back to the ancient Egyptians and 3,500 BC. In this page, blog, article? we aim to educate the reader with a brief history of aromatherapy and show how it has culminated into today’s modern and scientific discipline.

History of Aromatherapy

The origins of aromatherapy are shrouded in the mists of time. It is thought that the Chinese were the first to use infused oils as a mood enhancer, however it is the Egyptians that are credited with extracting essential oils from plants using a distillation process. When embalming the dead they are known to have used extract of clove, cinnamon and cedar wood during the mummification process. In Greek mythology, the Gods are said to have been gifted with the knowledge of fragrance and perfume; what is more likely is that Alexander the Great, having conquered Egypt, brought knowledge of the health benefits of essential oils back to Greece. Before concluding this brief look at the ancient history of aromatherapy, we should look at the Roman physician Pedanius Dioscorides and his book De Materia Medica. The work was written between 50 and 70 AD by Pedanius Dioscorides, a Roman physician of Greek origin. It was widely read for more than 1,500 years until supplanted by revised herbals in the Renaissance, making it one of the longest-lasting of all natural history books (extract from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/De_Materia_Medica).

If we fast forward through time we see that the Persians were the next people to add to the wealth of knowledge regarding the use of plants and plant extracts in medicine. Abu Bakr Mohammad Ibn Zakariya al-Razi, known in the West as Rhazes, was the leading scholar of the early Islamic world. http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/broughttolife/people/alrazi His many written works included analysis of the health benefits of plants. Later came Ibn Sina, thought of as being the most influential of all the Islamic physicians, he wrote twenty books and over a hundred thesis on medicine. At this time Persia was the world’s center for the study of medicine and the earlier works of Galen, Dioscorides and most famously Hippocrates were translated and transcribed; along with texts from India, China and Byzantium.

At that time the English also had knowledge of the health benefits of plants. Indeed, the Leechbook of Bald, a medical text written in the ninth century, still resonates today. http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/science/2015/04/a-medieval-medical-marvel.html Returning from the Holy Wars, the Crusaders brought with them many remedies, aromatics and perfumes that were previously unknown and their availability increased over the next few hundred years. By the 1600s the first essential oils had begun to arrive, these included rosemary, sage, lavender and juniper. An industry was born to manufacture these remedies and it is said that when the second great plague, or Black Death arrived in 1603, the workers in the perfumeries and those involved in the manufacture of essential oils were the only ones that, as a whole, didn’t succumb to the plague. One can surmise that the antiseptic properties of the oils saved them.

As mentioned above, in modern times we look to René-Maurice Gattefossé and the fact that lavender oil prevented his burnt hand from scarring. It was his compatriot though, a French doctor called Jean Valnet that really brought the use of essential oils to the fore. He used the essential oils of clove, lemon, thyme and chamomile to treat both the wounds of battle and gangrene in the Second World War.

Extracting essential oils

The use of the distillation method of extracting essential oils is still practiced today. There are three types of distillation:

  • Water Distillation
    The plant material comes into direct contact with the water. This method is most often employed with flowers (rose and orange blossoms), as direct steam causes these flowers to clump together making it difficult for steam to pass through.
  • Water and Steam
    This method can be employed with herb and leaf material. During this process, the water remains below the plant material, which has been placed on a grate while the steam is introduced from outside the main still (indirect steam).
  • Steam Distillation
    This method is the most commonly used. During this process, steam is injected into the still, usually at slightly higher pressures and temperatures than the above two methods.

During distillation the plant material is placed upon a grid inside the still. Once inside, the still is sealed, and, depending upon the above methods, steam or water/steam slowly breaks through the plant material to remove its volatile constituents. These volatile constituents rise upward through a connecting pipe that leads them into a condenser. The condenser cools the rising vapor back into liquid form. The liquid is then collected in a vehicle below the condenser. Since water and essential oil do not mix, the essential oil will be found on the surface of the water where it is siphoned off. Occasionally an essential oil is heavier than water and is found on the bottom rather than the top, such as with clove essential oil. The above information regarding the process of extracting essential oils is an extract from https://www.naha.org/explore-aromatherapy/about-aromatherapy/how-are-essential-oils-extracted/.

Choosing the right essential oil

Choosing the correct oil depends on what purpose it will be used for. From treating skin that is itchy due to eczema, to treating a burn, to elevating your mood; there are many oils to choose from to treat various health conditions. There are many good books available regarding therapeutic aromatherapy. Whatever you decide to use it is important to pay attention to the individual characteristics of the oil and also the correct application.

Choosing the correct application method

Essential oils enter the body primarily in three ways – applied to the skin, inhaled, or ingested. Within each of these, there are many different kinds of application methods. For example, you can apply essential oils topically using compresses, sprays, baths, or massaging them into the skin.

The application method chosen depends on the desired effect and the essential oil selected. For example, some essential oils are irritating to the skin because of their chemistry. These would need more dilution or might better be used by inhalation.

Once you have purchased an essential oil, the application method depends on the condition to be treated and the desired effect. For example:

  • Wound care most often involves topical applications.
  • Mood effects might be addressed by either inhalation or topical application. For fast action, inhalation might be preferred.
  • Baths involve both inhalation and topical absorption.

Note: If you are unsure about which application method to use, consult an experienced aromatherapist.

More information, including recommended books, can be found on the website of the University of Minnesota. http://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/explore-healing-practices/aromatherapy/how-do-i-choose-and-use-essential-oils

Consulting an expert

The University of Minnesota make an important point at the end of the extract that we see above. If you are not confident in choosing either the correct oil or application method, then it is important to consult an experienced aromatherapist. At Natural Options Aromatherapy, we are not only experienced practitioners of aromatherapy but are also accredited teachers. If this article has inspired you in any way to delve deeper into the science and art of aromatherapy then please don’t hesitate to contact us.