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What is Aromatherapy and Does it Work?

January 8, 2011

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            Smell is the ability for us to perceive odors within our environment. An odor can revive a memory, give us a feeling, remind us of a person, place or thing, or even enhance our mood. This is why aromatherapy has been introduced as an alternative medicine to be used with or without other modalities to enhance both psychological and physical benefits to the body. Aromatherapy uses naturally extracted aromatic essences or oils from plants such as flowers, bark, stems, and leaves to improve physical and emotional health, and to restore balance to the whole person. Essential oils can benefit the mind, mood, cognitive function and overall health.

            Aromatherapy has been around for thousands of years dating back to antiquity. Then dried plant materials were infused into fatty oil, heated and then filtered. In addition to the potent odor, these oils were thought to have medicinal healing properties. This is not entirely inaccurate especially since some of the essential oils used today have antibacterial, antiviral and anti-fungal properties. During the time of the Crusades essential oils were being distilled and used as medicine. The Crusades are what is thought to have moved essential oils from India, China and Egypt westward. In the 16th and 17th centuries aromatherapy became popular with European herbalists. In 1907 Scientists and doctors began studying the components of essential oils and determining the individual plant chemistry.  By 1937 a French book was written on aromatherapy and by World War II Dr Jean Valnet used essential oils as an antiseptic to treat wounded soldiers. By 1950 Marguerite Maury an Austrian beauty therapist introduced essential oils into her massage therapy practice. She went on to establish the first aromatherapy clinics in Britain, France, and Switzerland.

            Aromatherapy is a natural, non-invasive therapy designed to affect the whole body and person. The art and science of aromatherapy involves not only the aroma of specific plant oils to treat the mind and body, but by applying the essential oils directly to the skin, the oil can be absorbed into the bloodstream to alter the body chemistry, support the body systems, and improve moods and emotion. Therefore aromatherapy does not just treat a symptom or disease, it assists the body in its natural ability to balance, regulate, health and maintain itself.  Overall aromatherapy promotes the health of the body, mind and spirit.

Aromatherapy can be used in three different modes- aerial diffusion, direct inhalation and topical application. When used in conjunction with other modalities the therapeutic potential increases. Aerial diffusion enhances ones environmental fragrance while disinfecting the air as well. Direct inhalation works to disinfect the respiratory system by decreasing congestion, enabling expectoration in addition to psychologically enhancing ones mood, energy and mind. The benefits of direct inhalation include stimulating brain function, uplifting, stimulating the immune system, relaxation and mood enhancement. Topical application can be done through massage, baths, compresses, and therapeutic skin care. Through this method a patient can see a reduction in tension, and pain, while promoting healthy circulation and restoring balance.

Although the efficacy of aromatherapy has not scientifically been proven herbalists, aroma therapists and massage therapists have long used it on their patients. The benefits that patients have demonstrated include pain relief, anxiety reduction, enhanced energy, increased short-term memory, relaxation, hair loss prevention, reduced itching, clarity of mind and mood enhancement. Aromatherapy benefits the person as a whole rather than treating a symptom or illness. The mechanism behind aromatherapy is not fully understood however; the influence of aromas on the brain especially in the limbic system through the olfactory system is thought to produce the desired benefits. Additionally the essential oil constituents (naturally occurring chemicals) have positive effects upon the body. When used correctly aromatherapy is subtle but effective.