what is aromatherapy?Aromatherapy
is the use of essential oils–potent aromatic substances extracted from fragrant plants–for physical and emotional healing. Today, herbalists, body workers, cosmetologists, chiropractors, and other holistic healers are discovering how this multifaceted and versatile healing art can enrich their practices. You can use the same principles of aromatherapy as a natural remedy in your home.
Interest in the therapeutic effects of essential oils continues to grow. Essential oils are being pumped into offices, stores, and even some hospitals to make the atmosphere more relaxing. Large corporations are turning to fragrance to keep their workers alert, and more content, on the job. Inhaling certain essential oils has even been shown to lower blood pressure.
There are many approaches to using essential oils. Applied externally, they penetrate through the skin into underlying tissues. They also reach the bloodstream quickly: compounds from lavender oil have been detected in the blood only twenty minutes after the oil was rubbed on the skin. As a result, one can treat a wide range of physical problems with aromatherapy. For example, massaging the appropriate aromatherapy body oil–such as one containing peppermint–on the abdomen will soothe indigestion. Rubbing an aromatic vapor balm on the chest will relieve lung congestion and fight infection, both by being inhaled and drawn deep into the lungs’ air passages and by penetrating the skin and reaching the underlying tissue. Aromatherapy cosmetics and skin preparations are also used to counter skin inflammations such as eczema. Note:
Because essential oils are so concentrated, they must be used carefully. Always dilute them before applying them to your body, and be sure to see a qualified health practitioner in the case of a reaction.
The beauty of aromatherapy is that you can take advantage of both its physical and emotional applications in the same treatment. For example, you can blend a combination of essential oils that will not only stop indigestion but also calm you down and reduce the nervous condition that led to the indigestion, and you can design an aromatherapy body lotion that will not only improve your complexion but also relieve depression.
In the pages that follow, I will describe all of these methods and more, providing plenty of recipes along the way to get you started. I will also touch on the cosmetic applications of aromatherapy in skin- and hair-care products. If I succeed in sparking your interest in aromatherapy, be sure to have a look at the book I wrote with Mindy Green, Aromatherapy: The Complete Guide to the Healing Art
(also from Crossing Press), which goes into greater detail about using essential oils and making your own aromatherapy products.
questions most frequently asked about aromatherapy
With today’s growing emphasis on natural solutions to mind and body issues, people’s curiosity about aromatherapy is burgeoning. The following are answers to some of the questions people often ask me.Is aromatherapy a new science?
Aromatherapy goes back to at least 4000 B.C.E., when Neolithic people made ointments by combining vegetable oils with aromatic plants. Throughout the world, cultures began using aromatic steams, smoke, and water for healing. Around 3000 B.C.E., the uses of odoriferous herbs were recorded on papyrus by the Egyptians and on clay tablets in Mesopotamia and Babylonia. By 1700 B.C.E., trade routes had been established throughout the Middle East, in part to permit traffic in solid aromatic unguents; myrrh and frankincense for incense, perfume, and medicine; and aromatic spices for food. Eventually these routes extended into India, China, and Europe.
Essential oils were probably being distilled in Europe, China, and Japan by about 500 C.E., which led to the development of colognes, perfume, and facial waters. These were not only used to disguise body odor and improve the complexion but also ingested as medicinal tonics.
Appropriately, the birth of modern aromatherapy took place in France, the modern capital of perfume. It was RenŽ-Maurice GattefossŽ, a French chemist descended from a long line of perfumers, who reunited the arts of perfumery and medicine. He coined the term aromatherapy
around 1928 following an accident in his family’s perfume factory. When a laboratory explosion severely burned his hand, he plunged it into a container of lavender essential oil and was amazed at how quickly the burn healed. Young GattefossŽ began to look for an answer. Eventually his writings inspired others to explore aromatherapy. Interest in the new science spread to Europe and finally to the United States. Of course, herbalists were already using aromatic plants in their healing work.How is aromatherapy connected to herbalism?
Aromatherapy always has been a part of herbalism. In their writings, the ancient Egyptians, Arabs, Greeks, Romans, and European herbalists all referred to the use of fragrance for healing purposes.
If you have ever used herbs, then chances are you have also experienced aromatherapy. Aromatic molecules, called essential oils, occur in any fragrant plant. Whenever you make a tea of, say, peppermint or chamomile, the heat draws essential oils from the plant into the water. You receive the healing benefits of essential oils both as you drink the tea and as you inhale the aroma. It is also possible to extract essential oils directly from herbs into alcohol or warm vegetable oil. (If you have an herb garden or other good supply of fragrant herbs, you may want to experiment.)
Aromatherapy differs from herbalism because it employs only fragrant
herbs. I like to think of it as one branch of herbalism–one that uses fragrant plants exclusively. Although familiar nonfragrant herbs such as comfrey or goldenseal are not used in aromatherapy, many common medicinal herbs, such as elecampane, angelica, and myrrh, are used. There are other fragrant plants that are not typically used by herbalists but do produce therapeutic essential oils, such as ylang-ylang and vanilla. Because herbs often contain several different types of medicinal compounds besides essential oils, herb books describing a fragrant herb’s properties may not always be referring to the properties in the essential oil.What are essential oils?
Essential oils consist of tiny aromatic molecules that are released from a plant when crushed, rubbed, or heated (as on a hot summer day). This is what makes an herb garden smell so fragrant. Each type of essential oil is composed of many different aromatic molecules–more than thirty thousand have been identified and named, and it is common for a single essential oil to contain one hundred different aromatic molecules.
It’s the vast number of possible combinations of these molecules that produces so many unique plant fragrances. As you sniff your way through a selection of essential oils, you’ll notice that some plants smell identical or similar. That’s because the same fragrant molecules can occur in more than one plant, even when the plants in question are unrelated. This is true of plants that produce a lemonlike aroma; they include lemon itself, lemon verbena, melissa (lemon balm), lemon thyme, lemon eucalyptus, citronella, and palmarosa. Even though all of these plants and their corresponding essential oils smell similar, each one possesses a slightly different combination of aromatic molecules and carries its own distinctive olfactory shading.
In a few cases, a plant’s essential oil is composed chiefly of one type of molecule. For example, sandalwood may contain up to 90 percent santalol, and clove bud has between 70 percent and 80 percent eugenol.Why do plants produce essential oils?
At first, botanists were not sure why plants contain essential oils, which they viewed as mere by-products of plant metabolism. They were at a loss to explain why some plants produce essential oils and others do not, or why the fragrances vary so much from one plant to another.
Although there is still much to learn about why plants are fragrant, modern botanical research now understands that even though plants discard essential oils as waste products, the oils do serve important functions. Many essential oils are highly antiseptic, preventing the growth of bacteria, mold, and fungus on a plant. Fragrances can attract insects that help to fertilize their flowers. They also protect plants by repelling certain insects as well as other predators. Many essential oils contain substances called terpenes
, which help to waterproof the plant and protect it from rain. (The presence of terpenes in an essential oil also makes it difficult to mix it with water.)How are essential oils obtained from plants?
The pure essential oils available at the local herb shop are usually extracted from plants through a process called steam distillation
. Freshly picked plants are suspended over boiling water, and the steam draws the oils out of the plant. The next step is to rapidly cool the steam back into water. During this process, the essential oil separates from the water.
There are several other ways to produce essential oils. One method squeezes, or presses, essential oils from the plant. Another old method, rarely used today, is enfleurage
, which extracts the oils into sheets of warm fat. Although various solvents may be used to extract essential oils, aromatherapists worry about the possibility of slight traces of the solvent contaminating the oils.
New methods of obtaining essential oils are currently being developed and introduced. One of the most interesting processes (albeit an expensive one) extracts the oil with carbon dioxide and no heat. The resulting essential oils have an odor much like that of the original plant.Can I make my own essential oils?
You can indeed make essential oils at home–but don’t expect to produce much! It isn’t unusual to obtain only a small vial of essential oil from a wheelbarrow full of plants. The process is simple, although even a small commercial steam distiller costs several hundred dollars. You can also have a steam distiller custom-built by someone who does laboratory-glass blowing. Check the yellow pages for a chemistry supply house.
There is an inexpensive way to rig up a steam distiller in your kitchen, although you probably won’t end up with essential oil. Instead, you will obtain aromatic waters, also called hydrosol
–and you may even produce a few drops of oil if you distill plants that yield a lot of oil, such as eucalyptus, rosemary, and peppermint. Whether you purchase a distiller or rig one up at home, you will need to have a large supply of plants. Fresh plants release oil better than dried plants, because plants lose quite a bit of essential oil when they are dried. However, if you don’t have your own herb garden, you can still produce essential oils and hydrosols from dried plants.Why are some essential oils so much more expensive than others?
The broad price range of essential oils–they can vary from $3 to $1,000 per ounce–reflects the range of difficulty involved in cultivating, collecting, producing, and storing different types. It is no wonder that Bulgarian rose oil sells for over $800 an ounce–it took about six hundred pounds of rose petals to produce that ounce! Plus, rose bushes must be carefully cultivated, pruned, and hand-harvested. On the other hand, plants such as eucalyptus and rosemary are easy to grow and yield a comparatively large amount of essential oil, placing them among the least expensive oils. How does fragrance affect emotions?
When your olfactory sensors detect a particular aroma, this information is sent to areas of the brain that influence memory, learning, emotions, hormone balance, and basic survival mechanisms. Exactly how the brain processes this data is not completely understood, but we do know that certain fragrances act on the brain’s primitive limbic system, also known as the smell brain
Researchers studying aromachology–the science of medicinal aromas–have discovered that exposure to aromatic substances results in an alteration of brain waves. They suspect that aromas work on the brain in other ways. The fragrance research company International Fragrance and Flavor has tested over two thousand subjects to better understand how certain scents relieve pain, call up deep-seated memories, and affect personality, behavior, and sleep patterns.
It is no surprise that some psychologists incorporate aromatherapy into their practices. In France in the 1960s, psychologist Jean Valnet used vanilla to help his patients unlock childhood memories. Nowadays, psychologists use aromatherapy to help patients overcome anxiety and other emotional problems through association. They first create a state of relaxation, often through pleasant music, then introduce a scent. After several exposures to relaxation with the same scent, the patient begins to associate it with a tranquil state. The patients then carry that scent with them, and whenever they encounter a situation that makes them tense, nervous, or anxious, they open the bottle, sniff, and relax. Several large Tokyo corporations have followed the advice of staff psychologists and circulate lemon, peppermint, and cypress through their air-conditioning systems to keep workers attentive–and reduce the urge to smoke. Aroma is also used to assist truck drivers, railroad engineers, air traffic controllers, and others whose jobs require that they remain alert.Why are so many cosmetologists working with aromatherapy?
Many large cosmetics firms–including Aveda, Revlon, Redken, Avon, Charles of the Ritz, and Japan’s Shiseido–have discovered that aromatherapy offers a complete health and beauty package for both skin and hair care. Actually, this is nothing new. Fragrant herbs have long been used to clear complexions and make hair silky. Certain essential oils stimulate oil production in dry skin and hair. Others slow down overactive oil glands. Many of the oils also soothe and heal irritated skin. There are a few companies that add essential oils and botanical derivatives only to cash in on the current popularity of anything natural; these companies don’t always choose the most appropriate ingredients. Be sure to read the labels carefully when choosing skin-care products. Or you can make your own aromatherapy products for a fraction of what you would pay at the store.Can I learn to like scents that bother me at first?
Not everyone likes the same fragrances. I know people who have felt uncomfortable around someone else who wears the same cologne or perfume as another person with whom they have had problems. One man in my class hated the smell of lavender because the funeral parlor in his hometown used it. Many people in his family died when he was young; as a result, he came to associate lavender with grief. No matter how many books say that lavender is relaxing and promotes smiling, if you associate that fragrance with a bad memory, you may never learn to enjoy it. It takes time to change a negative reaction to a fragrance, and it’s not always possible. If this is the case, don’t despair–aromatherapy offers so many different and appealing fragrances, you can afford to let one go.
Excerpted from The Little Book of Aromatherapy by Kathi Keville. Copyright © 2009 by Kathi Keville. Excerpted by permission of Crossing Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.