Aromatherapy Basics

Aromatherapy is considered one of the country's biggest businesses today! Need proof? Take a trip to every natural food and herb products store and you will see a variety of aromatherapy products on display. Although relatively new in the United States, aromatherapy's popularity has escalated to unprecended heights as part of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) since its "birth" in the 80s.

What is aromatherapy? There is still some controversy surrounding this topic. Some claim that aromatherapy is all about fragrances and is commonly perceived as anything that exudes sweet-smelling odor such as that of depicted candles and potpourri. Some even claim that the oils used should not even be of natural origin. This is not the true element of aromatherapy. In its absolute meaning, aromatherapy is the use of essential oils from natural botanical sources to influence the physiological and psychological well-being of an individual.

Aromatherapy, or the use of essential oils for healing and therapeutic purposes, traces its origin back from the Neanderthal times. The method was so commonly used all through the ancient period that it transverses the boundaries of distance and culture. It was so widely practiced that you can see references from ancient Chinese, Egyptian, Indian, Roman, Tibetan, Australian and New Zealand, North American, South American, and Middle Eastern sources.

What are essential oils and how are they used in aromatherapy? Essential oils are the volatile liquid products extracted from plant sources. These oils are extracted from the plant materials either through steam distillation, expression, or through the more recent method of supercritical CO2 extraction.

In steam distillation, steam is directed towards the plant material, which vaporizes the more volatile components of the plant. This process yields two products – the essential oil (contains oil soluble products) and hydrosol (containing water-soluble products). Rose water is one of the most popular hydrosols produced using this method.

Expression is more popular used in extracting essential oils from citrus fruits. In this process, the peel of a citrus fruit is grown or scraped in order to release the oil. No heat is applied in this method so the oil produced smells essentially the same as that of its source. The oils from lime, lemon and grapefruit are obtained through this method.

In supercritical CO2 extraction, carbon dioxide is used to yield a high-grade extract which has a very similar composition as that of the natural material.

What conditions are usually treated by aromatherapy? Aromatherapy is effective for a wide range of conditions and ailments. Basil oil, for example, can be used to counter depression, sharpen the memory and treat headaches and migraines. Others have stimulating effects on the bodily systems such as the digestive and urinary tracts (bergamot oil) and the circulatory system (black pepper oil). Still others can be used as analgesic (clove oil), as topical antiseptics and disinfectants (tea tree oil, eucalyptus, sandalwood oil, etc.) and insect repellents (bergamot oil, citronella oil). Some even act as aphrodisiacs (Jasmine, Rose, Sandalwood and Ylang ylang oil)!

Applying the essential oil depends on the nature of the condition or ailment to be treated and the desired effects of the therapy. It can be through intervention (proven to positively affect the psychological well-being of a person), topical application, or ingestion.

Although relatively safe, some people may experience allergic reactions to some of the oils. Cross-sensitivity, or the potential to experience allergic reactions to similar substances, may likewise be another possibility. This may be caused by the presence of adulterants in the oil that you are using. To be on the safe side, take extra precautions whenever using any products. Essential oils are very concentrated so for skin applications, remember to use a concentration not greater than 5% to avoid negative reactions. If you are going to employ inhalation methods, please be advised that exposure should not be more than 15 minutes in 1 hour.

When in doubt, always consult with a qualified practitioner.

Some wonderful tidbits of information. We humans are not the only ones who benefit from these wonderful oils. Plants use these naturally occurring essential oils in controlling and healing infections, humidity, hormonal effects and in attracting or repelling insects, birds and animals.