Aromatherapy is the therapeutic use of essential oils. Its origins can be traced back to Ancient times, when the Egyptians used aromatic substances such as frankincense and myrrh for religious and spiritual ceremonies. Aromatic herbs and oils continued to be used as healthcare throughout the ages, but it was not until the 1920s that the term aromatherapy was coined. French chemist Rene-Maurice Gattefosse burned his hands in a laboratory explosion and rinsed them with lavender essential oil. He noted that his hands burned incredibly quickly, with little scarring, and subsequently worked with several doctors to treat soldiers' wounds with essential oils. Holistic aromatherapy, as it is practised today, was largely developed by Marguerite Maury, who emphasised the importance of essential oils in massage, and as therapeutic substances capable of bringing about emotional changes.
So how does aromatherapy work? Essential oils consist of tiny aromatic molecules that are absorbed via the skin and the lungs, and are then transported around the body by the circulatory system. Our sense of smell plays an important factor in the effect of essential oils; researchers have shown that aromas influence mood, conjure emotions, and reduce stress and high blood pressure. The aroma of essential oils can recreate memories and associations: someone who is feeling depressed, for example, may instantly be brought back to the happy summer they spent in the garden surrounded by wonderful flowers such as roses, through the inhalation of rose essential oil.
There is also a science behind the way in which essential oils work. They are composed of naturally occuring chemical constituents such as alcohols, esters, phenols and aldehydes. Lavender's main constituent is linalyl acetate; Roman Chamomile's is isobutyl angelate, both of which are esters. Esters have anti-inflammatory and sedative properties, and both lavender and chamomile are renowned for their calming, relaxing effects. Other oils, such as tea tree and eucalyptus, have natural anti-viral properties, and have been shown to be effective against the herpes simplex (coldsore) virus.
One of the most common methods of using essential oils is to incorporate them into a massage treatment. A professional aromatherapist will conduct a thorough consultation to establish medical history and current state of health, then select essential oils according to the needs of the client to create a tailor-made blend. The blend is then combined with relaxing massage to enhance the wellbeing of the mind, body and spirit. When massage is not able to take place due to cancer, cardiovascular conditions, severe osteoporosis or infections, essential oils may be administered via other methods such as baths, creams, compresses, oil burners or steam inhalation. These methods are also ideal for the client to use at home to maintain the effects of aromatherapy between professional treatments.
Essential oils do have safety considerations though, and, should be used with care. Some essential oils may irritate sensitive skin, some should not be used by individuals who are pregnant, have epilepsy or high/low blood pressure, and others (such as sassafras, pennyroyal and wintergreen) should never be used in aromatherapy due to their toxicity, so always consult a qualified aromatherapist for advice before using oils at home.
However it is used, aromatherapy is a fantastic treatment that everyone can benefit from, and, when used regularly, it can help to optimise health and wellbeing, and relax stressful lifestyles.