Breaking Down Aromatherapy

bath-aromatherapy-oils-relaxationWe’re talking about what it is, what the benefits are, who does it and why you should think about taking it up too. Read on the find out all the nitty gritty about this mind and body influencing trend.

What is it?

Aromatherapy is the practice of using plant oils to enhance one’s physical and mental well-being. The basis of aromatherapy lies within essential oils, which are the pure essence of plants like seeds, leaves, bark and roots. Essential oils can include natural, aromatic and volatile oils, as well as CO2s and absolutes. In fact, there are over 90 different types of essential oils recognized.

What does it do?

Essential oils can be blended together to create complex aromas designed to incite a reaction in the brain or body. Oils can be used to reduce pain and anxiety, or increase energy, memory and relaxation. Scents like rose and geranium are designed to lift the spirits, whereas peppermint and grapefruit oil scents help perk up the fatigued.

Physical responses are can also be derived from aromatherapy. For example, when Eucalyptus oil is inhaled into the lungs, it’s not only a pleasing scent that results, but relief from chest congestion as well. Essential oils can also be used on ailments, to help bring down swelling or treat fungal infections.

Though not all essential oils must be smelled or inhaled to trigger a reaction. Oils can also be applied directly to the skin and absorbed into the bloodstream. When this occurs it is usually through applied through a carrier or vegetable oil that is derived from fatty plants such as kernels, seeds and nuts. Pure essential oils are powerful plant extracts, too potent to be applied to the skin in their concentrated forms. Carrier oils literally carry diluted forms of oil onto the skin. The best examples of this are found in cosmetics and skin care products such as body lotions, massage oils and lip balms. The effects of these products are visible physical improvements like improved skin elasticity, improved moisture retention and even skin tone.

Aromatherapy massages are especially popular because it works both processes at once. The skin absorbs the essential oils being massaged into the skin while simultaneously breathing in their scents.

How does this work?

Well, researchers aren’t entirely sure. Some believe smell may play a role. The smell receptors in the nose are thought to communicate with the portion of the brain (the amygdale and the hippocampus) that control emotion and memory. Researchers suppose that when essential oil molecules are inhaled they stimulate the brain and influence our feelings. Others suggest that essential oil molecules mingle with hormones and enzymes in our blood, thus influencing our moods.
Is this a new idea?

While some dismiss aromatherapy as merely new age mumbo-jumbo, cultural civilizations dating back to the 1100s have used methods of aromatherapy. Their use of essential oils ranged from religious rituals and health cures to cosmetics. The Romans are thought to have applied honey extracts on their war wounds, while the Egyptians used the oils of cedarwood, clove and nutmeg to embalm the dead. Yet despite its far dating use, the term aromatherapy was not coined until the 1900s when French chemist Rene-Maurice Gattefosse labeled it such after using lavender oil to treat a burn he acquired while working with oils in his cosmetics laboratory.

essential-oil-aromatherapyWhat else are they used for?

Essential oils can also be used for non-therapeutic purposes such as household and laundry cleaners, or as insect repellent and pesticide. Household scents can be improved by placing a few drops of oil into a trashcan, garbage disposal or vacuum bag filter. Citronella candles that are lit in the summertime are a form of oil designed to repel mosquitoes. The inspect repellent that is applied while camping outdoors is another form of diluted essential oils.

What kind should I get?

It is wise to be wary of oils touted as suitable for aromatherapy, as there is no U.S. regulation for the term aromatherapy on product packaging, labeling or advertising. As a general rule of thumb, oils should only be used in aromatherapy if the package specifies that it is either an all natural or pure essential oil. Perfume and synthetic oils, often used in conjunction with essential oils are not considered true aromatic oils as they contain chemicals that can hamper the benefits of aromatherapy.

Is it for real?

Despite its growing number of followers, aromatherapy is not a proven science. In fact, some researchers go as far as the say the effects are merely placebo ones — imagined positive effects based on one’s perception. Practioners of aromatherapy also state that essential oils cannot cure an ailment or completely change one’s mood, but they do fervently believe that aromatherapy can help relieve symptoms and influence emotions if one is in the correct state of mind.

© Copyright 2011  Allison Stuart Kaplan LLC

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