What is aromatherapy?

Aromatherapy is a modem name for the ancient knowledge of healing and improving health using fragrant natural ingredients. These ingredients, called essential oils, are found in herbs, plants, flowers, fruits and the bark, roots or resin of some trees.

Essential oils give aroma to the plant, but they contain dozens of complex chemicals that seem to do everything from beautifying skin or speeding healing to putting you to sleep or numbing a headache.

Even if you think you have never come across these oils before, they affect all of us each day. Every time you peel an orange, the essential oil squirts out of the tiny pockets in the peel and, because it is so volatile, instantly evaporates into the air releasing its bittersweet, tangy, citrus smell. And whether you notice it or not, the orange has are freshing but relaxing effect.

When you take flowers to someone who is ill in hospital you are using aromatherapy to help them feel better. The essential oils that give the smell to a bouquet of jasmine, roses, geranium, and lavender, for instance, all contain chemicals that relax the nervous system and instantly improve spirits.

When you use pure essential oil though, the beneficial properties are more concentrated, and have a greater effect on both mind and body than you get from just sniffing a bunch of flowers, or even taking a herbal remedy or tea.

What is an essential oil?

The oils are very complex and no one really knows what they are. Romantics and enthusiasts say they are the life force of a plant, similar to the human spirit. Researchers say they are a mixture of organic compounds, such as ketones, terpenes, esters, alcohols, aldehydes and hundreds of other molecules, many too small or complex to classify under a microscope.

What they do, rather than what they are, is much easier to understand. Because the molecules of essential oils are so minute and so quick to evaporate, they penetrate human skin and enter the bloodstream and organs, before eventually being excreted. Scientists have found that the same oils gather in the same parts of the body time and time again, within hours of being massaged into the skin.

This is what makes them unique and so therapeutic, since very few things can actually penetrate human skin. The fact that essential oils have healing roperties is beyond doubt. Today scientists studying botanicals find more and more vital ingredients in nature rather than in the test tube. For instance the painkiller aspirin comes from the willow tree, the Australian teatree contains a germ killer dozens times more effective than carbolic. Good old carrots are full of beta-carotene, now shown to be an important weapon against cancer.

Modern Aromatherapy

The term "Aromatherapie' was first used only 65 years ago by a French chemist named Gattefosse. His family owned a perfumery business. One day, while working in the laboratory, Gattefosse badly burnt his hand and plunged it into a vat of lavender essential oil. When the burn healed quickly without blistering, Gattefosse began his lifelong born. Since then many enthusiasts, such as Dr Jean Valnet, have taken research further. Valnet used oils extensively to treat wounded soldiers during World War II. But it was a French woman biochemist, Marguerite Maury, who developed the method of diluting and applying essential oils by massage that we know as aromatherapy today.

It is only since the 1980s that modern aromatherapy has come of age. Biochemists have recently isolated dozens of ingredients in essential oils that account for the amazing properties they have. And now that the folk remedies have been substantiated by scientific fact, aromatherapy has become widely accepted and more popular than ever before.

Interaction with the Human Body

The human body in a variety of ways can absorb essential oils. The vapor, once inhaled, can trigger neurochemical release in the brain via receptors in the nose and mouth. Many people are familiar with the phenomenon of a sudden wareness of past memories after detecting a particular smell or taste. Although these memories can be buried deep in the subconscious, they suddenly flood into view. Of all of the five senses, smell has the strongest link into the subconscious. The blood can absorb vapor once it gets into the lungs. Once in the bloodstream, it can circulate quickly to all organs of the body, not just the brain. As a liquid, essential oils can be taken orally (not recommended) with direct action on the stomach and the smallliarge intestine. More usually, oils form part of an aromatherapy massage, in which case there is an immediate local action on the skin (epidermis and dermis) and from there into muscle tissue, joints and the bloodstream.

Ways to use essential oils

Massage is the most common way of using essential oils. Some would say it is the most pleasurable, combining as it does, the senses of touch and smell. It is also the most therapeutic method as essential oils are diluted in a carrier oil, and rubbed directly on the skin. Massage has two other bonuses: it stimulates the circulation enabling the oils to disperse rapidly around the body and the warmth of the skin-on-skin friction makes oils smell stronger, so you get quicker therapeutic benefits to both mind and body.

Baths: The most relaxing way to use essential oils is to add them to your bath. You only need a few drops of oil in a tub of hot water to get the full benefits. The two main ones are that you have steam and warmth to evaporate the oils and intensify aroma, and water to soften skin and speed up oil absorption. All you have to do is lie back and soak for 20 minutes.

Room vaporizers: They provide a way of warming essential oils so that the aromas spread quickly to scent a room.

Beauty treatments: Essential oils are great skin soothers, some heal the skin quickly, others rejuvenate mature complexions or reduce oiliness, and some just smell divine on your face. They make wonderful beauty treatments from cleansers to masks to facials and moisturizers, all of which make you look good and feel good in one go.

Body moisturizers: Essential oils penetrate skin so rapidly and deeply they make excellent, inexpensive and indulgent body moisturizers. You can mix them in any combination, for their aroma, their treatment effect, or both, and add them to a rich carrier oil, such as apricot, jojoba or peach. Or simply add a few drops of essential oil to the cheapest, simplest body moisturizing lotion you can buy.

Footbaths: For the most sensual footbath, add a few drops of essential oil to a basin of water then sit back and soak your feet. You can add oils for their smell alone, or oils that will refresh tired feet, boost the circulation of cold feet, soothe aches, or help reduce perspiration Hands can also be bathed in this way. Wrap the limb in a dry towel after soaking and leave for 15 minutes. Finish the treatment with a massage. Troubles which benefit best with a foot and hand bath treatments are: rheumatism arthritis, dennatitis, dry skin, etc.

Room sprays: Use essential oils as an air freshener using your favorite fragrances, mix a few drops of essential oil with water in a pump action spray bottle. Shake well before each use.

Air purifier: One of the easiest ways to scent your whole house is to add your favorite essential oil to the dust bag of your vacuum cleaner. As the air is blown out, the oil will scent the room you are cleaning.

Pot Pourri: To make your own pot pourri, add a few drops of a broad mix of floral spicy and citrus essential oils to a bowl of dried flowers, herbs grasses or seed pods. Cover the bowl and leave it for a short time before tossing the dried flowers and stirring them so that they absorb the aromas. The scent will remain for up to 6 weeks.

Household cleaners: Some of the most antiseptic essential oils make excellent natural household cleaners. Pour a few drops on a damp cloth to wipe over work surfaces or rubbish bins. Or add to a bucket of warm water to clean floors, bathrooms and kitchens.

Insect repellant: Some essential oils are powerful insecticides. Add a few drops of essential oil to a damp cloth and wipe the inside wardrobes, around window frames or apply a few drops directly onto hems of curtains.

Deodorizers: Essential oils are good at getting rid of bacteria or viruses. To disinfect the air of a sickroom, burn oils in a vaporizer. Leave a few drops on a cotton ball inside your wardrobe and laundry basket, or rub over the insoles of shoes to stop odor. A couple of drops on the inside underann seam of shirts or jumpers have the same effect.

Wood fires: Pour a few drops of your favorite essential oil onto wood about 15 minutes before lighting the fire. The heat will release the fragrance throughout the room.

Bedtime treatments: Apply a few drops of your favorite oil to a tissue before going to bed and leave it beside your pillow so you inhale it while you sleep. You can use oils that relax you, oils for insomnia, colds or headache, oils that boost confidence or lift bad moods. For daytime, apply to a handkerchief.

Inhalation: inhaling essential oils is one of the best ways to treat coughs and colds. Add a few drops of oil to a bowl of boiling water, cover your head with a towel and inhale deeply for several minutes. Steam also opens the pores and lets oils enter the skin so it is.

Hot poultices: A good way to use essential oils to relieve muscular pain and reduce chest congestion. Add a few drops of essential oil to a bowl of very hot water and, wearing rubber gloves, dip a folded cotton cloth or flannel. Then squeeze out excess water and place it over the affected area until it has cooled to blood temperature. Reheat and repeat the process.

Cold compresses: Use to soothe inflammation and reduce fever. Follow the same procedure as for hot poultices, but use ice-cold water rather than hot.

Hair care: Some essential oils work wonders on dull lifeless or thinning hair. You can add a few drops of oil to a mild, fragrance free shampoo. Or mix it with olive oil and rub through the scalp as a weekly, deep conditioning treatment.