Understanding aromatherapy

What is aromatherapy?

Aromatherapy is a type of complementary or alternative therapy that practitioners claim can help with a wide range of both physical and psychological ailments. It is sometimes used alongside conventional medical treatments to complement them. However, some people will also use it as an alternative to conventional Western medicine, sometimes as a potential cure but, more often, as a way of coping with symptoms, such as chronic back pain or stomach cramps. The therapy relies on the body's reaction to odours. Consequently, a variety of aromatic substances are used by aromatherapists. Some are called aroma compounds, where different chemicals are mixed to produce certain results. Others are derived from essential oils, types of hydrophobic liquids that are derived from plants such as lavender. Aromatherapists will blend these odours for desired effects and apply them topically on the skin, massage them into the body or use a diffuser so that they can be breathed in.

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 Where did aromatherapy originate?

Several ancient cultures are known to have used aromas for therapeutic effects in the past. Certainly, the ancient Egyptians used an array of perfumes to cover up bad odours as well as to provide what they perceived to be health benefits. The same goes for ancient Greek civilizations as well as the later Roman Empire. One Greek physician of the first century, Dioscorides, extolled the virtues of oils in early medicine, particularly pointing out the benefits that could be derived from the stronger smelling ones. However, aromatherapy also owes its history to both ancient Indian and Chinese cultures,s where similar practices have been going on for just as long, if not longer. The Persians were the first people to work out how to use steam distillation, and it is a Persian polymath of the eleventh century, Avicenna, who is regarded as the first person who was able to produce essential oils using this technique.

Why use aromatherapy?

People use aromatherapy for a variety of different therapeutic reasons. For some people, it is nothing more than them liking that it has the ability to put them in a good mood or, at least, a more relaxed state. However, it is also a common treatment method for dealing with nausea. For this reason, people who are undergoing certain medical treatments – such as chemotherapy, for example – will often use it as a complementary therapy. Many people also find that it is useful for dealing with feelings of anxiety and other psychological ailments such as excessive stress. Some people also use it to control pain, particularly chronic pain that they do not wish to manage solely with drug treatments. There again, aromatherapists will often recommend it for pain and discomfort caused by circulatory problems or menstrual cycles. Some practitioners also make the claim that it is good for dealing with hair loss from conditions like alopecia.

Can aromatherapy help with pain?

As mentioned, aromatherapists will often recommend certain oils and odours to help manage pain. Few practitioners would say that it can cure the pain, but it can certainly assist with the impact that pain can have on leading a normal lifestyle. One of the key essential oils in pain management is lavender. This flower is known to be an effective analgesic, or pain-relieving substance, while it also has anti-inflammatory effects. This would mean that any inflamed tissues in the body that were caused by wounds or sickness would be less painful than they otherwise would be. Consequently, the two properties to be found in lavender can work together and be especially effective for certain types of pain. A 2013 scientific study into this essential oil found that it provided postoperative pain relief. Another, a year earlier, found that it was effective at treating migraine headaches. Rose oil is often used to help with menstrual pain, too.

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Can aromatherapy help with depression?

The research on depression and aromatherapy is by no means conclusive. That said, many essential oils that aromatherapists use are often found to be effective among sufferers of mental health disorders, including chronic depression. Most will offer a sense of relief from the worst symptoms rather than preventing depressive states from occurring at all, however. For example, ginger is an aroma that is known to lower stress and to help people from feeling so anxious. Ginger is also known to help people with certain types of brain damage. Equally, bergamot oil is often administered to help anxious people from falling into a deepening spiral of depression by lifting their overall mood. Some anecdotal evidence also points to jasmine, frankincense and sandalwood as being effective too. Lavender has been shown to help with post-partum depression in some studies, as well, although different people seem to react differently when exposed to it.

Should you do aromatherapy when you are sick?

Physical ailments can be treated by aromatherapists. In some cases, the underlying condition will be masked by the therapy because it only deals with the symptoms, not the root cause. For example, the common cold and other viral infections, such as strains of influenza, can be treated with essential oils. This will usually mean that pressure headaches are relieved, and air passages open up due to the exposure to strong smells. However, the virus will still be present even if there is a temporary relief on offer from the therapy. Remember that aromatherapists are trying to stimulate the olfactory system. This is the section of the brain that is most closely related to smell. Consequently, any sickness relief you may feel from aromatherapy may be in the brain and have no physiological effect at all. That may account for why it offers pain relief rather than treating the cause of the pain since it is the brain that is primarily affected, not the body.

Can you do aromatherapy when you are pregnant?

The basic answer is yes; aromatherapists can treat pregnant women. However, there are a few things to take on board before proceeding. Since some of the essential oils involved are strong and have unknown or scientifically unstudied effects, it is best not to use them on the skin of mothers-to-be. Although the chances of the baby being affected are not great, not enough is known to say that it would be safe to proceed in this way. Consequently, most aromatherapists will err on the side of caution and only use their essential oils in diffusers so that they are breathed in to stimulate the olfactory system. Many aromatherapists will recommend treatments for helping pregnant women feel less nauseous during their pregnancy, to help reduce skin irritation, to improve the elasticity of the skin and to deal with upset stomachs. Overall, it can also help with getting better sleep, lowering anxiety and feeling more relaxed prior to labour.

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Which aromatherapy oils do what?

The opinion is somewhat divided about the different effects of essential oils when used for aromatherapy. That said, there are certain traits of each essential oil that are generally ascribed among most aromatherapists, even though they will often nuance these effects by blending them with other odours. For example, peppermint is often thought to aid digestive processes when it is used as a therapeutic aroma. It can also boost energy levels or, at least, help to overcome feelings of lethargy. As mentioned, lavender oils are said to help with stress, anxiety and even depressive thoughts. Sandalwood has a similar effect, but it is mostly deployed to help produce greater levels of concentration and fewer nervous feelings. Bergamot is similarly stress-reducing, and most aromatherapists think it helps with skin conditions, such as eczema, as well. Jasmine is thought to boost libido, while both lemon and ylang-ylang can help with headaches. Finally, tea tree oils are often associated with boosting the immune system.

How does aromatherapy affect the brain?

As you have already read, it is the olfactory system that is most stimulated when an aromatherapist uses essential oils and other odours. Olfaction is the scientific name for the sense of smell. What goes on when we taste or smell something is that we gain sensory input. With both of these senses, chemicals in our food or in the air – in the case of smell – are detected through a process known as transduction. By reacting to the chemicals that are present in essential oils, the nose produces electrical signals through olfactory nerves as a result of transduction. In other words, something you sniff into your nose will be detected and then transduced into electrical nerve signals. What we 'sense' is not the chemicals that make the smell themselves, therefore, but the brain's interpretation of them. Consequently, people with certain olfactory conditions won't be able to use aromatherapy as a treatment method since it causes no neural effect.

Which aromatherapy oils are bad for dogs?

Some essential oils are not good for dogs. You have to bear in mind that dogs have much more acutely developed olfactory systems than people. Their wet noses, for one, can detect much smaller quantities of chemicals and transduce them into their brains, for example. Even without considering the individual harmful effects of certain essential oils, exposure to any of them – especially for prolonged periods of time – can be overwhelming for pet dogs. The same will go for other pets, such as cats and rabbits, but you also need to take care of reptile pets, particularly ones that 'taste' the air with their tongue to gain olfactory information. In particular, aromatherapists should avoid using eucalyptus oil, tea tree oil and cinnamon essential oils if there is a pet dog in the vicinity. Equally, concentrated oils of citrus, pennyroyal and pine should be avoided. Wash off any wintergreen or ylang-ylang you have been exposed to after a treatment since these are also known to be toxic to pets.

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Is aromatherapy improved with massage?

Yes and no. Many aromatherapists will use diffusers so that the essential oils that are used in the treatment are spread around and have an effect that takes place over an entire room. However, some massage therapists will also use them along with their other massage oils. Oils are principally used in massage therapy to avoid too much friction from occurring on the skin. When mixed with essential oils by a skilled aromatherapist, they can also boost the therapeutic effect of the massage. In short, you are really getting two treatments in one this way. Massage can help with numerous physiological and psychological ailments, and combining it with aromatherapy makes sense, but the effect of the aromas used is not heightened in any way through massage.

How effective is aromatherapy?

Scientific studies have shown that certain essential oils do have positive outcomes for people. This might be with helping to alleviate stress or stress-related headaches, but it could also be that skin conditions and things like stomach cramps are possible to treat with it. Certainly, period pains and some types of tissue inflammation are found to be affected positively by certain essential oils. However, the work of many aromatherapists is considered to be pseudoscience by many in the scientific community, with very little academic evidence to support all of the claims made about it. Of course, science has thus far only studied certain aspects of the practice, not aromatherapy as a whole. This may change in future. For now, the effectiveness or otherwise of the complementary therapy is mostly anecdotal.

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Aromatherapy in summary

To sum up, aromatherapy is a type of alternative therapy that is mostly used to complement – not replace – existing therapies. Some people use it to keep themselves in good condition and to prevent diseases by boosting their immune system, while others find that it helps to keep their general mood positive. Whether it is used for a physical or a psychological benefit, many people find that aromatherapists help them and don't mind whether or not this is down to a placebo effect. After all, the use of strong-smelling agents to perform certain tasks is something that people have been doing for thousands of years. Since it became possible to distil certain naturally occurring chemical compounds into essential oils, their use has only become more popular.

However, it should be said that few aromatherapists would argue that it can replace conventional forms of therapy, such as Western medicine or psychotherapy, for example. In this sense, aromatherapy is very much part of the tradition of complementary therapy in the West, something that is useful even if a full, scientific understanding of how it works has yet to be established. Like some other complementary therapies - such as reflexology, for example – some people will only ever consider it to be quackery, but that does not account for the large numbers of people who set great store by aromatherapy. Nor does it account for why people are attracted to certain smells but consider others to be foul. As such, aromatherapy is set to be around for a long time to come as more and more is understood about the brain and its interactions with a smell.

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