Aromatherapy is the art and science of using essential oils, extracted from aromatic plants, to improve and maintain the health and well being of the body, mind and spirit. An essential oil is an oily substance extracted from an aromatic plant, and in the plant these chemicals act as the plant hormone and give the plant its characteristics. These chemicals are the essence of the plant, but it is only called an essential oil after extraction. It is the aroma part of the plant that is therapeutic.
A carrier oil is a vegetable oil extracted from certain nuts or vegetables that are non aromatic. These oils act as a base or carrier for the essential oils. They must be odourless, colourless, light and fresh.
The History of Aromatherapy
Aromatherapy has been prevalent throughout the ages:
3000 BC: Aromatherapy dates back to the ancient Chinese and Tibetans. Ayurvedics used plant extracts as far back as 3000BC, and Egyptians used oils in the embalming process, for their beneficial antibacterial properties.
The Bible mentions the use of aromatic oils with Queen Esther as well as in the New Testament with frankincense and myrrh.
1000 AD: The Materia Medica, printed in 78AD, is an ancient book referring to the plants used medicinally, and Avicenna wrote about distillation and the plants’ effects on the body in about 1000 AD.
Middle Ages: During the Middle Ages books were printed and more information was made available. Pomanders, lavender bags and tussie mussies were used for health and freshness, whilst Apothecaries (pharmacies of that era) sold chemical oil and perfumiers survived the plagues.
18th Century: During the 18th century there was a move away from the natural to the chemical, however in 1928, a french perfumier Gattefosse, used the word Aromatherapy in a paper he published about some of the medicinal properties of the fragrant oils. (He discovered that pure lavender oil is soothing after burning his hand badly and plunging it into the nearest liquid he could find, a beaker of lavender oil)
Simultaneously Madame Maury, an Austrian biochemist, wrote a book called ‘The Secrets of Life and Youth’ based on the cosmetic properties of aromatic oils.
20th Century: In the late 1920’s in Australia, A. Penfold was investigating tea tree oil and its properties, however most of this research was halted by the onset of World War 2. During the 1950’s Dr Jean Valnet published ‘The Practice of Aromatherapy’, after researching the internal use of essential oils. 1970 saw the movement of aromatherapy into the western world with a large proportion of the work done by R. Tisserand. He also investigated toxicity and contributed to the development of a respectable profession.
In 1991 the AOASA (Association of Aromatherapists of Southern Africa) was inaugurated.
21st Century: With the stresses on modern day life and the increase in use of complementary medicine, people are turning more and more to the world of Aromatherapy in various forms and applications to reduce stress and improve health and well-being.
There are many ways of using Aromatherapy in everyday life, but these are the most common methods of use:
- Bath – diluted or premixed essential oils in a carrier oil (or neat)
- Massage – therapist and self-massage
- Vapour – aromatherapy burner, vapouriser, tissue
- Through the skin
- In the lungs
- Via the feet
- Olfaction – via the nose to the limbic system (interaction with the forebrain & cerebellum to modulate feelings of joy, misery, love and hate and memory stimulation.)
- Euphorics stimulate the thalamus to produce enkephalins which act as painkillers and make us feel uplifted.
- Aphrodisiac oils stimulate the pituitary gland to secrete endorphins, which create euphoria and positive sexual feelings.
- Sedative oils stimulate the raphe nucleus to produce serotonin, which affects moods, and causes sedation.
- Stimulating oils affect the locus ceruleus to release noradrenalin which is a stimulant.