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  » Alternative Medicine  »  Aromatherapy

What is aromatherapy?

Aromatherapy is the use of essential oils from plants for healing purposes. The word aroma in aromatherapy is misleading because essential oils are not solely used as inhalants; they can also be massaged into the skin or, although less common, taken orally. Whether inhaled, absorbed, or ingested, essential oils have been proven to be an effective treatment for infections, stress, and many other conditions.

What are essential oils?

Essential oils are concentrated extracts taken from the roots, leaves, or blossoms of plants. Each essential oil contains its own mix of active ingredients, and this mix determines the healing properties of the oil. Some oils promote physical healing—for example, some are able to relieve swelling or fight fungal infections. Others are used for their emotional value—they may encourage relaxation or make a room smell nice. The essential oil derived from orange blossom, for example, contains a large amount of ester, an active ingredient thought to induce a calming effect. This may explain the tradition of a bride carrying an orange blossom bouquet on her wedding day.

How does it work?

More knowledge is needed to understand the details of how or why essential oils produce their effects. One obvious way that essential oils work is through our sense of smell. This sense is incredibly powerful—according to some estimates, about 10,000 times stronger than any other sense. The "smell" receptors in your nose communicate with two structures that are embedded deep in your brain and serve as storehouses for emotions and memories. These structures are called the amygdala and hippocampus. When essential oil molecules are inhaled, they aafaffect these parts of the brain directly. Researchers believe that stimulation of these structures affects our physical, emotional, and mental health.

It is also known that breathing in essential oils can affect the respiratory system. For example, certain oils from the eucalyptus plant are able to clear sinuses and prevent respiratory infections.

Aromatherapy massage is a popular way of using essential oils, because it works in numerous ways at the same time: it produces benefits from absorbing the oils into the skin, from inhaling the oil's vapors, and from the physical therapy of the massage process itself.

What is aromatherapy good for?

Aromatherapy is used in a wide range of settings—from health spas to hospitals—to treat a variety of physical, mental, and emotional conditions. Burns, severe bacterial infections, irregular heartbeat, insomnia, depression, and high blood pressure are just a few of the conditions that can be treated with aromatherapy. Greater understanding of essential oils through more scientific research is needed to determine how these oils can be best used to promote health. Some studies have shown that people massaged with aromatherapy oils experience pleasurable feelings, lowered levels of anxiety, and heightened states of relaxation.

Are there conditions that should not be treated with essential oils?

People with sensitive skin or lung conditions should not use essential oils as they may cause irritation.

Is there anything I should watch out for?

The essential oils sold in stores are often mislabeled. Therefore you can't be sure that the amount of essential oil contained in the bottle, or even from dose to dose (if the oil is in capsules), is the same as what is stated on the label. A qualified aromatherapist can help you decide which oils will be most effective for you, and direct you to high-quality products.

Little is known about the possible interactions between essential oils and conventional medications. Because the amount absorbed into the body is generally small, essential oils (when administered in the recommended doses) are considered safe. High doses of essential oils (especially when administered orally) may cause nausea, vomiting, drowsiness, agitation, convulsions, and coma. Some strong essential oils, such as eucalyptus and peppermint, can burn the skin if applied full strength. Most oils should be diluted with water or added to a base massage oil (such as almond or sesame). Since there is a possibility of side effects, it is important to discuss the use of essential oils with your physician, especially if you are pregnant.

How much do essential oils cost?

There is a wide range of cost for essential oils. Essential oil from rose petals, for example, retails at $133 per ounce—based on the 110 pounds of rose petals needed for a single ounce of essential oil. Other plants, such as lavender, lemon, and eucalyptus, yield much more essential oil and thus retail at much lower prices. Lavender oil, for example, can generally be purchased for about $30 an ounce.

How can I find an aromatherapist?

While there are currently no boards that certify or license aromatherapists in the United States, many professionals are members of organizations that strive to improve public awareness of aromatherapy and increase the standards of aromatherapy education and practice. To locate a qualified aromatherapist in your area, contact the National Association of Holistic Therapy ( at 1-888-ASK-NAHA. Many aromatherapists are trained in some other form of therapy or healing system, such as massage or chiropractic, and have incorporated the use of essential oils into their practice.

Will my medical insurance cover aromatherapy?

Currently, no insurance companies cover visits to aromatherapists but some may partially reimburse the cost of essential oils. Check with your insurance company to see what your policy offers.

Supporting Research

Buckle J. Aromatherapy. In: Novey DW, ed. Clinician's Complete Reference to Complementary and Alternative Medicine. St. Louis, Mo: Mosby; 2000:651-666.

Buckle J. Use of aromatherapy as a complementary treatment for chronic pain. Altern Ther Health Med. 1999;5(5):42-51.

ęp>Burns EE, Blamey C, Ersser SJ, Barnetson L, Lloyd AJ. An investigation into the use of aromatherapy in intrapartum midwifery practice. J Altern Complement Med. 2000;6(2):141-147.

Hay IC, Jamieson M, Ormerod AD. Randomized trial of aromatherapy: successful treatment for alopecia areata. Arch Dermatol. 1998;134:1349-1352.

Stevensen CJ. Aromatherapy. In: Micozzi MS, ed. Fundamentals of Complementary and Alternative Medicine. New York, NY: Churchill Livingstone Inc.; 1996:137-148.

Walsh D. Using aromatherapy in the management of psoriasis. Nurs Stand. 1996;11(13-15):53-56.

Weiss RR, James WD. Allergic contact dermatitis from aromatherapy. Am J Contact Dermat. 1997;8(4):250-251.