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What is Aromatherapy?
Aromatherapy is considered both an art and science, and is most aptly described as the skilled use of specific plant distillates (essential oils), singularly or in combination, for health and well being. Modern aromatherapy is now incorporated into use by medical personnel, alternative wellness practitioners like naturopaths, acupuncturists, massage therapists and energy practitioners, as well as gaining wide use for self care and home use. The recent interest in natural perfumery is drawing new interest in using pure essential oils and plant-derived extracts for personal fragrance, introducing the concept of aromatherapy to a wider audience.
How Does Aromatherapy Work?
The essential plant distillates (essential oils) interrelate with the human body within four distinct modes of action:
pharmacological (as phytopharmaceuticals)
physiological (physically and chemically)
psychological (affecting mental states and processes) and
Our body uses the aromatic molecules (essential oils) both (1.) through our olfactory system which is connected to the limbic system in the brain where our most primal feelings, urges and emotions reside, (2.) and by inhalation and skin absorption of the low weight molecular structure of essential oils. Aromatherapy works best within a holistic approach to wellness, adding nutrition and exercise.
Is Aromatherapy New?
We know from the study of ancient manuscripts that priests in India some 4,000 years ago practiced aromatic medicine, although steam distillation was not invented until around the 15th century.. Modern Ayurveda includes an aromatic component that has evolved from this ancient practice. Scent was very important to ancient Egyptians who used plant-infused oils, gums and resins, as well as aromatic herbs and flowers in rituals, relaxation and skin care extensively in their culture. Modern aromatherapy, as we know it today, was revived in 1910 by the French chemist, Gattefosse, after having been badly burned in a laboratory explosion and plunging his arm into a nearby vat of lavender essential oil. The amazing speed of recovery and lack of scarring led him into a lifetime study of essential oils and their medicinal uses for skincare. Today, there is exploration and contemporary research into medical integration and aromatherapy use in alternative medical disciplines such as Traditional Chinese Medicine and Homeopathy.
Can I Do This Myself?
Most essential oils have been approved as G.R.A.S. (generally regarded as safe when used by various trades at their normal levels of use). However, these standards were developed by the food industries and were not developed specifically for the use of essential oils for aromatherapy. Aromatherapy, as a medical healing modality, has been in existence in England and parts of Europe for quite some time, and the United States is fast developing a similar model, however there is at present no FDA approval for the use of essential oils medicinally. An individual can use essential oils themselves (self medication) provided they are thoroughly familiar with the uses, safety precautions and contraindications and have available thorough and accurately referenced information on the potential hazards associated with using essential oils.
Essential oils are very potent concentrated plant constituents (chemicals). See Safe & Smart article. (Internal Link) The best manual on the market for the safety data of essential oils is The Aromatherapy Practitioner Manual by Sylla Sheppard-Hanger, available in our bookstore online. This reference of over 350 plant extracts, in two volumes, includes an index of biologically active phytochemicals, clinical index and taxonomical index and is a must for anyone seriously considering using aromatherapy intelligently and effectively. When not used properly, essential oils can be harmful and they should never be used indiscriminately.
Where Can I Learn More?
There are numerous and rapidly emerging educational programs and home study courses being offered throughout the United States and Canada. You will find links to professional aromatherapy education and other useful websites in our Community section.