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What is Aromatherapy?

There are multiple definitions of aromatherapy flying about the place! Some more esoteric than practical, I like the definition that the professional association NAHA (National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy) offer:


‘Aromatherapy, also referred to as Essential Oil therapy, can be defined as the art and science of utilizing naturally extracted aromatic essences from plants to balance, harmonize and promote the health of body, mind and spirit. It seeks to unify physiological, psychological and spiritual processes to enhance an individual’s innate healing process’


What are Essential oils?

Essential oils are a volatile (easily evaporated) substance that occurs naturally in an aromatic plant. They occur in different parts of the plant, such as the flowers, leaves, fruit, roots, stems and the resin. Essential oils are highly aromatic and extracted from a single botanical source through steam distillation or cold expression. There are other methods of extraction, which produce compounds called absolutes, these are not essential oils and widely used the perfume and cosmetics industry. Absolutes are produced using solvents such as hexane. In the strictest sense they are not suitable for therapeutic purposes due to a small amount of toxic residue. Solvent extraction is often used with low yielding plants like neroli, rose and jasmine.

In understanding what an essential is, I find it is helpful to understand their function in nature:

  • Help to attract pollinators, for example odour is particularly important for nocturnal insects and animals where visibility is low. Bat and moth pollinated flowers have a strong scent.
  • Defense mechanism – the chemical compounds can be toxic or repel animals insects. Citronella and camphor are well known insect repellents and terminates hate sandalwood. Sage, wormwood, tansy and thuja contain a powerful constituent, which is anti parasitic
  • Antimicrobial compounds – protect the plants against fungus and microbes

Its pretty helpful list, straightaway we can see how these extracts have potential use to a human being as well. There are a couple of other functions allelopathy and reducing water loss, but these are not so relevant.  



The History of Aromatherapy


Aromatherapy history cannot really be separated from herbal medicine and man’s first forays into the healing discoveries of plants. Probably when man first discovered fire, he would burn aromatic plants, rub the oils onto his body. Our ancestors would have had much more sophisticated sense of smell no doubt; civilization has probably decreased our ability to smell.

The use of aromatic plants was across the globe. There are references to its use, Egypt, Greece, Rome, China, India and the Arab nations. Each culture brought different discoveries. A Neanderthal skeleton found in what is now Iraq some 60,000 years ago was buried with extracts of yarrow, knapweed, grape hyacinth, mallow and other plants.

The Egyptians were very advanced in aromatics making the first known perfumes. When Tutankhamen’s tomb was opened thirty five jars of perfumes were found and still faintly aromatic. They continued refining their use of fragrances, women would wear cones that melted on their heads to emit odours, and they would anoint their body with oils after bathing. During the third Dynasty (2650-2575 BC), the process of embalming and mummification was developed in their search for immortality. Frankincense, myrrh, galbanum, cinnamon, cedarwood, juniperberry and spikenard were all used.

The earliest known Greek physician was Asclepius who used herbs and surgery. Hippocrates (circa 460-377 BC) is said to have studied some two hundred herbs, which he used in baths, infusions and internally. He used herbs such as fennel, parsley, Hypericum or valerian. Theophrastus of Athens who was a philosopher and student of Aristotle did a lot of investigation into plants also, even how they affected emotions. He wrote several volumes called the History of Plants (often quoted as the founder of botany). Greek military physician Dioscorides marched with the Roman armies recording many Mediterranean herbs, how they should be prepared, stored and described accounts of their healing properties. His results were published in a five volume work called 'De Materia Medica’. He is often referred to as the father of pharmacology.

Asia possesses a wealth of aromatics from China to India and all the way down through Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, Malaysia and Indonesia.  The Chinese 'Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine', was written in 2697 BC and is the oldest surviving medical book in China. This landmark text contains information about the properties of over 300 different plants and their medical uses. Almost all known citrus species originated in china, arriving in the Mediterranean in the 10th century by way of the Arabs. The camphor tree was also used a lot in Chinese perfumery and medical applications.

In India there were Sanskrit Ayurvedic texts dating back 2000 BC, which describe the use of some 700 plants including aromatics such as ginger, coriander, myrrh, cinnamon, and sandalwood amongst others. It includes descriptions for the process of distillation and condensation of volatile oils from plants. It seems that Ayurvedic medicine was pushed underground by the Muslim invasion of India and later the British occupation, so we did not hear about these discoveries in the west until much later.

It is the Persians who are credited with introduction of distillation. Abd Allah ibn Sina who was better known in the west as Avicenna, was a child prodigy and at age twenty appointed as a court physician. He wrote many medical texts including the Canon of Medicine. It lists some 760 medicinal plants and drugs that can be derived from them. He set out the basic rules of clinical drug trials that are still followed today. He is thought to have invented the apparatus for distilling essential oils called an alembic.  Arab traders established trade routes for exotic, beautifully scented spices and incense from Asia. And of course the rose is synonymous with Persian and Middle Eastern culture. Rosa damascene and other species are thought to have originated in the Middle East and central Asia.

During the Middle Ages in Europe the use of fragrances declined due to it being seen as frivolous and not in alignment with the Christian thought of the day. But aromatics were still used, people used strong aromatic herbs, oils in masks and burnt bonfires as European cities were filthy and foul smelling places. Most of these herbs used, we now know today are strong antimicrobials. It is believed the reason so many glove makers and perfumers survived the great plague in London was due to their use of essential oils.

By the 19th century it seems that essential oils were being used both internally and externally, with established dosing and methods for application. But a division started occurring between doctors who used herbs and plant based medicine and those that used chemical drugs. People started to find a way of isolating a specific single chemical constituent from the plant and synthetically producing it. Such as, willow (salix alba) which is used in herbal medicine for relief of fevers and, aches and pains. In 1852 salicylic acid the active constituent in willow was synthetically reproduced, replacing the herb and commonly used in as they active ingredients in aspirin.

France really spearheaded the modern era of aromatherapy, namely three people, Rene-Maurice Gattefosse, a chemist, Doctor Jean Valnet and Marguerite Maury, a nurse. In 1910 Gattefosse discovered the healing properties of lavender oil after badly burning his hands in his laboratory.  His burn wounds developed an infection and using a rinse of lavender oil he stopped the infection. He is believed to be the first person to coin the term aromatherapy. Throughout the second world war France and other countries continued to use essential oils to treat infected wounds and as a treatment for gangrene.  However, with the discovery and manufacture of penicillin, essential oils fell out of favour.

Jean Valnet was a high-ranking army doctor, who spent much of his life researching and essential oils, especially during his time in Indochina where he was head of an advanced surgical unit.  He published a book in 1969, it was the first aromatherapy book written by a physician. When he returned to France though, he was met with a great deal of resistance for his use of aromatherapy and the medical community even tried to get him banned from medical practice.

Finally Marguerite Maury trained as a nurse and married a doctor; together they investigated and research essential oils. She began to classify them according to physiological systems and clinical uses and she developed the method of applying them to the skin with massage, establishing some of the first aromatherapy clinics in France, UK and Switzerland.

Aromatherapy has a long history and can’t be separated from plant medicine, there are many names I don’t mention, it would be beyond the scope of this introduction to its history. For example indigenous tribes across the world also used aromatics and today we wee the likes of Tisserand, Mojay and Lewis pioneering the way, amongst many others.

Contemporary aromatherapy can be loosely categorized into aesthetic (using essential oils for pure pleasure, scenting spaces and so), clinical (targeting specific clinical symptoms, such as skin infections and pain management), and holistic (treating mind, body and spirit). That’s not to say that practitioners only use one system, many combine all three.

‘And when the harpsichord of man is out of tune the vast expanse of nature may be searched for the remedy; there is a cure for every ailment of the flesh.’

How is Aromatherapy administered?

Aromatherapy uses pure unadulterated essential oils externally, internally and in some cases orally. Most Aromatherapists unless they have had extensive pharmacological training do not dose orally, including myself.

  • Externally the oils are diluted in a carrier substance such as a vegetable oil or wax and applied to the skin, either via massage or to an area of the skin to target a specific condition.
  • Inhalation – essential oils can be inhaled via a diffuser, placed in hot water for a facial steam, inhaler sticks or simply from the bottle.
  • Internally - they can be used via mouthwashes, vaginal and rectal douches and pessaries.


How can Aromatherapy help you?

Aromatherapy when used properly is safe, natural way of helping all ages to support their health.

Respiratory infections
Essential oils are very effective at supporting your respiratory system, especially upper respiratory tract infections. Many of the oils have some antimicrobial properties, mucolytic, decongestants and cepahics, meaning they can potentially kill the bacteria. They will also decongest and break down mucus, clearing passageways to allow for easier breathing and release pressure in your head. Inhalation is a particularly effective way of targeting respiratory infections.

Skin conditions  
Essential oils can ease symptoms associations with eczema, psoriasis, bacterial & viral infections, pruritus, inflammation, herpes, bites, sting, dermatitis, burns, acne, athletes foot, scars, warts, ringworm. The results are often very effective as it can be applied directly to the skin and site of concern safely.

Muscular aches, pains, neurological  
This can include anything from post exercise discomfort, to osteoarthritis, bruising after an accident or helping to increase blood and lymphatic flow especially when used in conjunction with massage. The oils can also ease pain associated with nerve pain such as sciatica and headaches too.

Dental & oral health
Natural mouthwashes for dental and gum health, mouth ulcers and compresses for tooth pain.

Women’s health  
Help to relieve menstrual pains (Dysmenorrhea), support any challenging emotional feelings during your cycle.

Douches can also be formulated to relieve symptoms of vaginal infections, targeting the bacteria.

It can be used throughout pregnancy too for a wide range of symptoms, it is best to work with a practitioner during pregnancy as there are some oils that should be avoided or used in lower dilutions and of course it depends on your overall health.

Essential oils have been used to help ease insomnia, depression, anxiety and panic attacks.

Aches, pains, spasms, osteoarthritis, even pain relating to neurological issues like sciatica and headaches

First aid box
Essential oils are a great addition to a family first aid box. They can be used for minor cuts, burns, bruises and insect bites.

This list is not exhaustive; it just gives you an idea of some common health areas aromatherapy can be used. I am a big advocate empowering ourselves to look after our health, but part of that is knowing when its time to consult a medical doctor or work with other health professionals, naturopaths, osteopaths, homeopaths and other specialists. Please do not try and treat serious illnesses with essential oils without proper guidance and seeking medical help.

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How do Essential Oils Work?

The Skin
Our skin is one of the most popular routes of administration for oils. They can be applied with a massage, or locally on isolated skin problems. The oils are effective at penetrating superficial skin problems. However, topical absorption can also be used to treat your body’s systems and organs too.

It is a little trickier for the oils to be absorbed through all the upper layers of the skin, but still possible. The small surface area of eccrine and apocrine glands, hair follicles and their sebaceous glands, are one of the major routes of absorption for the oils through the skin.

One of the most ancient methods of absorbing sacred incenses and burning herbs was through inhalation. The molecules are absorbed by the lungs and transported around the body via the blood circulation.

The body tissue with most blood flow and lipid rich tissues will be the most exposed to the action of the oil, whilst the tissue with the least blood flow, will have less chance to benefit from the action of the oils. So for example, easier to reach are endocrine glans, heart, lungs and brain, but harder to reach, are things like bones, teeth and ligaments.

Olfactory system
Olfaction is the act of smelling. The Olfactory system and its effects have been poorly understood for a long time. Your olfactory system can differentiate literally millions of different smells; even similar chemical components can have quite different odours.

The act of smelling begins in the nasal cavity, where the mucosa dissolves the odorous molecules, this activates olfactory receptors and the olfactory bulb is where messages are processed. Next they move on to different pathways in the brain, the thalamus and hypothalamic region. The pathways of the olfactory system converge in an important area of the brain, the limbic system.

The thalamus is the sensory processing part, which enables us to differentiate and identify the correct odour. The hypothalamic region, which is part of our limbic system, regulates the autonomic nervous system and links our nervous system with the endocrine system (hormones). The autonomic nervous system controls things like respiration, digestion and blood pressure.

The odorous molecules of essential oils are able to go to the brain via the olfactory system. The essential oil molecules like the lipid rich tissue of the brain, which enables them to pass the blood brain barrier, this barrier normally protects us from toxicity.

The very act of smelling the oils means that their chemical constituents are processed in the brain and can then affect our autonomic nervous system, similarly to that of a pharmaceutical drug like a tranquilizer for example.

Natural therapists do not practice their therapy purely on the basis of research and scientific proof. This is one of the basic differences between conventional and non-conventional medicine. We do recognize the value of science – but we have other values, empiricism – what works works and if we have no scientific explanation that is no reason to reject it ..”
— Tisserand, The Art of Aromatherapy

Do they really work?

Do essential oils and aromatherapy really work? This is the big question with many complementary therapies. There are two main approaches to this, you may be a hard liner, wanting only scientifically controlled clinical trials to demonstrate the efficacy, or you may be willing to accept evidence based medicine, or even anecdotal evidence which would be considered weak in scientific circles.

Pharmaceutical companies tend to be the only ones that can afford regular randomized clinical trials of essential oils and their constituents. Tisserand says that clinical trials have been conducted on around 50 oils, whereas there are thousands of papers on their chemical constituents, for example we have a great deal of data on say their antimicrobial properties. Pharmaceutical companies fund testing on essential oil constituents for the cosmetics, fragrance and flavouring industry using in vitro and animal testing.

Essential oils often contain hundreds of chemical constituents, however you don’t necessarily need to study them all. Often by studying five to ten major constituents you can understand the action of an oil. But sometimes we find the action of a whole oil behaves differently to it’s main constituents. This is called synergy and this seems to be one of the big differences between allopathic medicine (a single chemical) and plant based medicine (uses the whole plant).

People like Robert Tisserand, Jane Buckle, Joy Bowles, Rhiannon Lewis, Peter Holmes have advanced clinical aromatherapy tremendously and have a wealth of knowledge on not just essential oils, but the chemistry behind it. These are the people that are pushing forward integrative healthcare, the alliance between complementary and alternative medicine with conventional medicine. This kind of partnership needs both practice-based evidence and evidence-based practice. We are seeing more examples where especially nurses use aromatherapy in a clinical setting. The Christie Hospital in Manchester, UK (The largest cancer hospital in Europe) uses clinical aromatherapy as part of its approach. The Royal Marsden Hospital in London has been integrating aromatherapy for the past twenty years, Rhiannon Lewis a British nurse and Aromatherapist leads clinical aromatherapy trainings at the hospital. There are many examples across the US and in some other countries of this style of integrative health .

All of this leads me to the conclusion that aromatherapy and essential oils do have the potential to support and help our health. There is evidence and clinical data to back this up in some cases, albeit limited and there are thousands of hours of clinical practice, which give us practice-based evidence. As Tisserand says “if something can be shown to be significantly effective (and safe) it will be used’.


Choosing an Aromatherapist

Recently, essential oils have become big business and are gaining in popularity. As always be sensible and wary of anyone claiming to cure diseases and over evangelizing them. It is true, I myself have seen some astonishing results over the years with them, can I guarantee the result again? No. Can I give you scientific based evidence of why the result occurred? No. So I really can’t claim to give that result again. Each blend will react and work differently according to the individual and their healing process.

If you are considering working with a therapist please choose them carefully and no, this is not a trick, you do not have to pick me, there are many great practitioners out there. Many times we work with someone when they feel right or we have that connection and go with our ‘gut’. Have I checked the professional credentials of every alternative therapist I have used? No I haven’t. But it is often good to have a little mental checklist and if unsure, dig a little deeper. Here are some useful tips inspired by the Complete Guide to Aromatherapy.

  • They have a sound knowledge of essential oils, including the chemistry, the botany, the pharmacology and any contraindications
  • They have a sound theoretical and practical knowledge of the therapeutic applications     of essential oils
  • They have some basic knowledge of anatomy, physiology, and pathology
  • They maintain a good balance between intellectual and intuitive approaches to their work
  • They do not advocate ingesting essential oils unless they have additional medical qualifications
  • They have genuine concern for the wellbeing of their clients
  • They should belong to a professional independent aromatherapy organization

How do I keep myself safe
when using essential oils?

  1. Do not take oils internally with out guidance of naturopath, herbalist, clinical Aromatherapist or medical doctor
  2. Always dilute your oils before use, do not apply neat (There are a few exceptions and tea tree and lavender are fine occasionally for cuts, bites, burns)
  3. Oil and water do not mix! Basic chemistry. When using essential oils in the bath or in a water-based spray, you must use a dispersing agent.
  4. For Infants and children under 3 years old generally avoid peppermint (menthol) and eucalyptus globules or high camphor content oils
  5. Do not constantly use oils for ambient diffusion – all day, all night. Your body needs time to eliminate them
  6. If using oils without professional consultation please stick to a maximum skin dilution of 5% - See table to understand what this means & for higher dosage work with an Aromatherapist
  7. For Infants & children dermal dosing should be 1% maximum
  8. Take extra care and use lower dosing if you suffer from migraines, epilepsy, have a history of convulsions or asthma
  9. Store your oils properly – dark bottles, out of sunlight, consistent cool temperature and take note of approximate use by dates.
  10. Familiarize yourself with oils which are irritants and can be more hazardous to use.
‘It is not necessary to be a doctor to use aromatherapy, but one has to know the power of the essential oils in order to avoid accidents and incidents’.
— Doctor Jean Valnet, International Clinical Journal of Aromatherapy 1993