By Stephanie Stephens
Originally published in Body Sense magazine, Spring 2001.
Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals. All rights reserved.
Aromatherapy in its simplest form — enjoying the fresh smell of a just-peeled orange, picking rosemary from the garden, steeping mint leaves for tea.
What’s old can become new again. Take aromatherapy. Aromatics have been used for more than 10,000 years, while the use of aromatherapy and essential oils dates back at least five centuries. Today, a renaissance is occurring in homes, spas and treatment rooms, as health advocates breathe new life into this tried and true practice.
Quite simply, aromatherapy is the use of a plant’s essential oil to achieve therapeutic effects and treat mental and physical imbalances. Proponents praise it as a healing agent for not only the body, but also the mind and spirit. Essential oils are highly concentrated extracts, comprised of hundreds of chemical compounds which exist in trees, shrubs, herbs, grasses and most obviously, flowers. Whether inhaled aromatically or applied topically to the skin via massage or baths, oils can be uplifting and relaxing, as well as antiviral, antiseptic and antibacterial.
Practitioners frown on the casual use the word “aromatherapy” is getting these days. “People throw the term around a lot. For instance, ‘if it smells good, it must be aromatherapy,’” says Erin Murphy, instructor at Ashmead College School of Massage in Tacoma, Washington. Not true. “Actually, not every plant has essential oil aromatic sacks and glands, and therefore, can’t be used to make essential oils,” she says.
Yet, many products are sold under the premise they hold therapeutic value. “You can’t get the essential oil from lilac, yet you can buy lilac oil,” says Murphy. “It’s the difference between fragrant oil, which is non-therapeutic, and essential oil, which is.” That’s why the soaps and candles containing fragrant oils will appeal to the nose but not offer much in terms of health.
Properly-derived essential oils, affirms Murphy, can adjust one’s emotional state. They can calm, relax, clear the mind and encourage focus. Others can provide physical results. “Since some oils are humectants, they can rehydrate the skin; others act as astringents and can tone and tighten cells and make you glow,” she says.
“Aromatherapy is to those who practice it what duct tape is to a man: it does everything,” touts Murphy. “Life can be crazy — aromatherapy helps achieve a necessary level of balance, giving you what you need when you need it.”
Just how does aromatherapy wear so many useful hats? Consider the source. “Oils in the plant protect it from disease or predators, so it’s a given that they create an antibiotic, antifungal, antiviral effect in humans.” In European cultures, notes Murphy, aromatherapy is sometimes used in the true pharmacological sense, being piped through air systems in hospitals, resulting in less depression and fewer staph infections among patients.
Murphy practices what she preaches. “We’re a pill-crazy society. Instead of taking an ‘over-the-counter’ when my nose is stopped up, I’ll steam a bowl of water and add a few drops of eucalyptus to clear my head.” Eucalyptus is a major component of Vicks Vapor Rub.
Mary Bryan, another Ashmead educator, notes that essential oils work effectively and quickly because they “travel” via the powerful and sensitive olfactory nerve, immediately impacting the endocrine and nervous systems. She recommends purchasing a full-strength, undiluted oil of high quality or therapeutic grade. The quality of the oil is directly related to the quality of the plant from which it is extracted, hence logic would fathom that organically-grown plants, or those growing wild, usually result in the best oils. It’s important to remember that while most essential oils are safe, some need to be used with extreme caution and most need to be diluted before applying to the skin.
With 35 years of aromatherapy practice to her credit, Jeanne Rose doesn’t blink when asked why we should care about aromatherapy. “It’s important to our planet, just the way pure water and air are. And humans cannot develop a resistance to natural herbal or aromatic therapy the way they can to other medicines.”
Don’t expect each essential oil to possess the same characteristics as another, says Rose, even when made by the same manufacturer. The author of 18 books on aromatherapy and related subjects, Rose stresses that “each essential oil is made of hundreds of chemical compounds; each time you inhale or apply one, you use a different set of compounds. It’s agriculture, and after all, you don’t eat the same tomato twice. As long as you continue to buy the oils at different times, their chemistry changes, just as it would within the matrix of the plant.”
Rose purports to use oils for literally everything, and recalls an injury to her dog’s nearly severed leg in which oils “kept the wound clean as a palliative – not a healer, but a soother – encouraging the dog to heal. True, the aromatic therapy didn’t rebuild the broken tendons and bones, but it played a major part in allowing the dog to be pain-free, cool and calm, until the wound could resolve itself and heal.”
The uses of essential oil are endless. For example, Roman chamomile can counter inflammation, while thyme and bergamot fight infection. A combination of basil, sage, black pepper, cypress and blue sage can be used to decrease the pain of a twist or sprain. And for more practical needs, Virginia cedarwood hydrosol, a type of juniper, can be used in hospitals to clean floors, and can stop ants dead in their tracks.
While not complex in nature, the use of essential oils requires an understanding of each oil’s capabilities and impact on the body. A trained aromatherapist can provide valuable direction on the use of oils and there are a number of great books to help you get started.
It’s important to remember each of us experiences and responds to smells in different ways, depending on the variety of experiences tied to that aroma. “One person can love rose, the other hate it,” explains Michele Erwin, of Ancient Healing Arts in Telluride, Colorado. “It depends upon which memory you identify it with, and that’s very unique to you.”