Fall 2011 : What is Aromatherapy?

Lately you see the word “aromatherapy” all over the place. Everything seems to be scented with lavender or lemon or vanilla. But when the word “therapy” is included, aren’t they making some sort of assertion about the benefits of this product? Or does it simply mean it smells good? It’s all a little misleading so let’s look at it a little closer.

Aromatherapy is the use of essential oils extracted from plants (flowers, trees, and herbs) for therapeutic reasons. Aromatic plant oils have been used therapeutically for thousands of years but the term “aromatherapy” was first coined by the French chemist Rene-Maurice Gattefosse in the early 20th century. He had noticed the effectiveness of some oils in the treatment of wounds in WWI soliders and continued his research after the war, eventually classifying them into different properties like antiseptic, stimulating, and calming. Many other people over the years have developed the use of the oils, in different combinations, as a holistic therapy for health. In Europe physicians often recommend a variety of oils for common complaints like digestive issues, insomnia, muscle tension, migraines, and sinus or cold problems.

There is plenty of research that shows that our sense of smell, the most acute of all our senses, has a profound impact on our bodies and state of mind. Think about how strongly even the faintest whiff of a perfume can make you think of your long departed grandmother. In aromatherapy the essential oils activate your olfactory nerve cells in your nasal cavity, which then communicate with your limbic system, the region of your brain associated with emotions and memory. They may also affect your immune and nervous systems along with circulation.

The most important fact to remember is that only 100% pure, natural, unadulterated essential oils truly have therapeutic properties. Sadly, most of the cleaning products, hand soaps, and candles you find in an average grocery store will claim to have some “aromatherapy” in them. This is false in a therapeutic sense. A vast majority of these products have merely added scent, or more exactly a synthetic chemical approximation of a natural scent. Yes, real lavender has a soothing effect on the nervous system but a chemical reproduction of lavender does not have the same effect. The proliferation of all these chemical copies of natural scents is alarming because of this false information. What are actually strong, toxic-if-swallowed, products are being sold as something safe and “therapeutic” when inhaled! We all use some products in our homes that are not safe if ingested and many of them may also tell you to use with plenty of ventilation. Be warned. If you are looking for real aromatherapy most mass produced products aren’t delivering. Health food stores and alternative health care practitioners are generally the best sources for quality oils.

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