Bath and beauty companies have led most people to believe that aromatherapy is beneficial for relaxation, skin care and bathing. While it definitely helps in these regards, medical aromatherapy—a scientific approach to aromatherapy that uses the potent natural chemical constituents found in key essential oils—can also dramatically affect pain, inflammation, boost energy, improve sleep and improve healing.
Aromatherapy is the therapeutic use of natural oils from flowers, plants, trees, resins and other elements in nature that have healing properties. Aromatherapy is as old as nature itself, but humans have been using the art and science of aromatherapy therapeutically for at least 6000 years. There is plenty of archaeological evidence to suggest that aromatherapy oils were regularly used in the ancient temples of Egypt, Greece and Rome. Our ancient ancestors must have observed that the scents of flowers, trees and other plants had an impact on their stress levels, anxiety, sleep, mood, pain and more.
Not only is aromatherapy one of the most powerful and fast-acting natural therapies available, it can be a supremely enjoyable experience. Fragrant scented oils absorb through the skin into the bloodstream during massage. Alternatively, they can be diffused into the air where they are inhaled through our nose, giving many of the molecules direct access to the brain. Thanks to our drug, surgery and radiation-based system of medicine, most of us have been led to believe that medicine must be harsh to be effective; aromatherapy seems too pleasurable to be effective medicine, but because it quickly gains access to the blood and brain, impressive results are common and often fast-acting.
When you smell essential oils—the oil-based potent plant extracts—you’re actually breathing in the molecules of essential oils wafting in the air, which send signals directly from the cells in the nose to the brain. The brain then sends messages back to the body depending on the original message sent to the brain, which varies depending on the scent (or scents) and the chemical constituents they contain. These signals then act accordingly, either to reduce inflammation, relax the nervous system, boost mood enhancers, increase energy or reduce pain—or some other action depending on the initial chemical constituents detected in the essential oil.
Over the last several decades, research at some of the world’s leading universities on the effects of essential oils on pain, inflammation, infection, depression, dementia, and many other symptoms, and have found them effective for many of the ills we experience.
Essential oils have unique therapeutic traits and can contain over 100 chemical constituents, each of which produces unique effects in the body. Even the same plant grown in different conditions can result in different chemical constituents and therefore different therapeutic effects. Additionally, each plant can produce more than one type of oil, for example—there are two types of essential oils derived from the orange tree: neroli oil from the blossoms and orange oil from the peel of the oranges. But it isn’t necessary to understand the complex chemistry of the plants and their oils to reap the rewards they offer.
Oils can be divided into 3 main classifications depending on their properties, including:
Uplifting oils tend to boost mood and energy levels. Most of the citrus oils are considered uplifting. They include: bergamot, grapefruit, lemon, neroli and wild orange. Peppermint is also one of the main uplifting oils.
Balancing oils tend to regulate imbalanced hormones and brain messengers known as neurotransmitters, which have a balancing effect on the body. Some balancing oils include: frankincense and clary sage.
Calming oils tend to relax the nervous system and some even have sedative properties to improve sleep quality. Some of the calming oils include: lavender and vetiver.
Many oils span multiple categories and can have any combination of uplifting, balancing and calming properties. For example, while frankincense is balancing, many people also find it calming.
It is important to choose high quality oils since the therapeutic effects are greatly diminished in lesser oils. While there are many types of oils in the marketplace, few are produced to maintain the integrity of the plant. Avoid oils from some of the large bath and body product shops since these oils tend to be extremely low grade, are frequently diluted with other cheaper oils and often contain synthetic or toxic ingredients. Some even contain cancer-causing and hormone-disrupting ingredients like phthalates.
Also, avoid oils that are labeled “fragrance” oils, “perfume oils” or “natural-like” oils since they’re usually synthetic chemicals that offer no therapeutic value whatsoever.
Instead choose undiluted, pure essential oils. Keep in mind that some contains claim their products are “pure” or “natural” but that these terms mean nothing as there are no quality control standards that are required to be met to make these claims. Choose a company that insists on independent, third-party testing to ensure the integrity of the oils.
Because essential oils are highly concentrated, a little goes a long way. It is best to use them as directed. Avoid taking the essential oils internally unless you are skilled in this art. Also avoid contact with the delicate mucous membranes of the eyes and mouth. It’s always best to dilute an essential oil and conduct a test patch on the inner wrist and wait 48 hours.
Some oils can cause photosensitivity—that means that they can make your skin more sensitive to the sun. These oils typically include citrus and bergamot oils. Avoid using these oils within a few hours of direct sun exposure.
Enjoy your journey into the world of aromatherapy!