What is aromatherapy?

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People sometimes ask me “What is aromatherapy?” and I answer: aromatherapy is not about making yourself or your home smell nice (though that may be a side effect), but about healing with extracts of aromatic herbs.

A quotation from the writings of Juvenal dating back to the first century AD says “A sound mind in a sound body” (Latin: Mens sana in corpore sano), referring to the harmony and relationship of mind to body and vice versa.

A person’s state of mind isn’t only about thoughts and emotions but affects physical condition and function. This concept forms the whole basis of alternative medicine, (often called “holistic medicine” because it relates to the whole person, not just the physical) including aromatherapy.

Aromatherapy is a form of alternative medicine that makes use of fragrant plant materials called essential oils, along with other aromatic compounds. The purpose of this therapy is to positively affect a person’s mind, mood, cognitive function or physical health leading to an improved level of wellness. This occurs partly due to the influence of aroma on the brain, particularly in the limbic system via the olfactory system, and partly through direct pharmacological effects by absorption. To benefit from this, a simple guide to aromatherapy should be followed.

Please note that essential oils should never be taken internally, even though you may see this recommended elsewhere. Essential oils are highly concentrated and can cause permanent damage if used in this way, even if you think you have diluted them. Be safe and use them as intended, in massage blends and diffusers, and keep them out of the reach of children at all times.

Essential oils are used in aromatherapy for their therapeutic effects in many conditions such as for fungal skin irritations, lowering of cholesterol and blood sugar level, thinning the blood and so much more.

Although some medical authorities doubt the effectiveness of essential oils in alleviating medical conditions, the effects of aromatherapy are well known to be beneficial by many others. This is the reason why more and more people are gaining an interest in aromatherapy.

Learning aromatherapy starts with how it’s done

There are many methods including aerial diffusion, direct inhalation, and topical applications by various means.

Aerial diffusion can be used for environmental fragrancing, aerial disinfection, to aid respiratory disorders and as a mood changer.
Direct inhalation is mainly used to promote respiratory relief via respiratory disinfection, decongestion and expectoration.
Topical application methods include general massage, baths, compresses and poultices, and the preparation of blends, creams and ointments for therapeutic skin care.

Aromatherapy materials

You’ve probably heard of essential oils, but there are other materials which can be employed in aromatherapy. The essential oil is just the most well known, though other substances known as absolutes and concretes as well as some gums and resins are also used. All these are extracted from plants via steam distillation, expression or solvent extraction.

It’s important when buying essential oil to use a reputable supplier and to check that what you are buying is 100% pure essential oil (or whatever type of product you are purchasing).

Carrier oils are used to dilute neat essential oils for topical use, and there are quite a number to choose from, though the most popular, probably, are sweet almond oil, light olive oil (particularly for skin and hair care blends), grapeseed oil (cheap and cheerful, but short-lived) and sunflower seed oil (better for aromatherapy than for frying, as you don’t get trans fats with aromatherapy). There are also carrier additives for various purposes.

Undiluted oils are sometimes used for direct inhalation or added to bath water, while blended ones are for topical purposes.

Things to be aware of

Like all branches of medicine, there are precautions you must take if you are starting to use essential oils for the first time.

Firstly, bear in mind that the term “essential oil” has been misappropriated by certain suppliers (dating back to the old hippy era, when the term was synonymous with “perfume oil” in many people’s minds). So take care to look for a reputable supplier who sells only 100% pure essential oils, unadulterated with chemicals and other things. Of course, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t use a supplier that also sells properly described blends. These are sold for your convenience, and in the case of the most expensive oils make them more affordable.

Secondly, remember that most essential oils should not be used on the skin without diluting them first with a suitable carrier oil. You need a mixing bottle, to which you add the carrier oil first, and then the correct number of drops of essential oil to make a safe and useful blend of the oil/s you are using. There are a few oils that can be used neat, but even in these cases, it’s best to do a patch test first, to check that you don’t get a bad reaction.

Thirdly, don’t buy more than you can use within a year (for some oils, only 6 months), either of essential oils or carrier oils. You may well find that a good sniff of your purchase more than a year later is less pleasant than you expected. The only solution at this point is to throw them away, so it’s best to buy what you need and no more.

Finally, be aware that essential oils may need particular precautions . For example, most citrus oils are phototoxic, so should not be used on skin which will be exposed to the sun in the following 48 hours. Find out the precautions for the oil/s you are considering and take these into account before you use them.

I offer a wide range of essential oils and carrier oils in my online shop.

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