Aromatherapy is the use of essential oils from plants for healing. Although the word “aroma” suggests that the fragrance of the oils are the most important aspect, they can also be massaged into the skin or, rarely, ingested by mouth. You should never take essential oils orally without specific instructions from a qualified provider. Essential oils are gaining attention as a viable treatment for infections, stress, skin conditions, and other health problems. However, in most cases scientific exploration of the anecdotal evidence is still lacking.
Essential oils are extracts taken from the flowers, roots, leaves, or seeds of plants. Comprised of a complex mix of phytochemicals, that have powerful properties that promote physical healing. Essential oils have been used for therapeutic purposes for at least 6,000 years. The ancient Chinese, Indians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans used them in perfumes, drugs, beauty and hygiene preparations. Essential oils have also been for spiritual and shamanic purposes by cultures all over the world.
In the early twentieth century a French chemist, René-Maurice Gattefossé, discovered the healing properties of lavender oil when he applied it to a burn on his hand caused by an explosion in his laboratory. He analyzed the chemical properties of essential oils and how their common uses at the time to treat the wounds of soldiers during World War I. In 1928, Gattefossé founded the science of aromatherapy. By the 1950s in Europe, these powerful oils were in common use by massage therapists, aestheticians, nurses, physiotherapists, doctors, and other healthcare providers.
Aromatherapy did not become popular in the United States until the 1980s. Today, many lotions, candles, and beauty products are sold as “aromatherapy.” However, many of these products contain synthetic fragrances that do not have the same properties as essential oils. This is a key distinction understanding the difference between mere fragrance and the vital essence of a plant that also has a distinctive scent.
The scientific study of essential oils is meager. Some researchers surmise that our sense of smell may play a role. The olfactory receptors in your nose relay information to the amygdala and hippocampus, that network your emotions and memories. It is theorized that when essential oil scent molecules stimulate your olfactory nerve receptors these areas of your brain are activated influencing the balance of your health. Some scientists believe lavender stimulates the activity of brain cells in the amygdala similarly to some sedative medications work. Other researchers postulate that molecules from essential oils may interact in the blood with hormones or enzymes.
Aromatherapy massage has the benefit of working through both skin absorption and breathing the essential oils in. Of course the important benefits of lymph, circulation and muscle tension relief of the massage should not be overlooked.
As part of your overall treatment plan, Dr. Hackett may prepare a combination of oils for you to breathe in essential oils directly from a piece of cloth, apply them to your skin diluted in an organic carrier oil or indirectly through a vaporizer. She may also instruct you to continue using your oil combination at home.
There are temporary effects, as were found in one study, that neroli oil helped reduce blood pressure and preprocedure anxiety among people undergoing a colonoscopy. The long term effects of continuous use of essential oils are mostly anecdotal. Dr. Hackett attributes her youthful skin to a combination of her specially blended skin serum oil with its proprietary blend of essential oils and Clear+Brilliant laser facials.
In test tubes, chemical compounds from some essential oils have shown antibacterial and anti fungal properties that may contribute to fewer acne outbreaks and better resistance to colds (Thieves oil). Some evidence also suggests that citrus oils may strengthen the immune system and that peppermint oil may help with digestion. Fennel, aniseed, sage, and clary sage contain phytoestrogens, which may help relieve symptoms of premenstrual syndrome and menopause.
Some conditions aromatherapy may be helpful for include:
- Alopecia areata (hair loss)
- Agitation, possibly including agitation related to dementia
- Constipation (with abdominal massage using aromatherapy)
- Pain: Studies have found that people with rheumatoid arthritis, cancer (using topical chamomile), and headaches (using topical peppermint) require fewer pain medications when they use aromatherapy
- Itching skin and insect bites
Pregnant women, people with severe asthma or a history of allergies should only use essential oils under the guidance of a trained professional and with full knowledge of your physician. Pregnant women and people with a history of seizures should avoid hyssop oil. Those with high blood pressure should avoid stimulating essential oils, such as rosemary and spike lavender. People with estrogen dependent tumors (such as breast or ovarian cancer) should not use oils with phytoestrogens such as rose geranium, fennel, aniseed, sage, and clary-sage. Chemotherapy patients should talk to their doctor before adding aromatherapy to their healthcare.
A note of caution:
Most topical and inhaled essential oils are generally considered safe. You should never take essential oils by mouth unless you are under the supervision of a trained professional. Some oils are toxic, and taking them by mouth could be fatal. Rarely, aromatherapy can induce side effects, such as rash, asthma, headache, liver and nerve damage, as well as harm to a fetus. Oils that are high in phenols, such as cinnamon, can irritate the skin. Adding them to a carrier oil such as almond or sesame oil will safely dillute an essential oil before applying to your skin. Always avoid using any essential oils near your eyes.
Essential oils are highly volatile and flammable so they should never be used near an open flame.
Animal studies suggest that active ingredients in certain essential oils may interact with some medications. Researchers don’t know if they have the same effect in humans. Eucalyptus, for example, may cause certain medications, including pentobarbital (used for seizures) and amphetamine (used for narcolepsy and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) to be less effective.
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