Last Updated October 11th, 2019
What is aromatherapy?
Aromatherapy involves the use of essential oils derived from plants for the treatment of common ailments and for the general improvement of health. The essential oils are put on the skin or you breathe them in. Sometimes this is done during the course of a massage or bath. Because essential oils are used in aromatherapy, it is sometimes referred to as essential oil therapy also.
Aromatherapy is a holistic means of treatment. It aims to treat the person as a whole. Not just the body, but the mind as well. Thus people looking for a wholesome wellness of both body and mind generally go in for this therapy.
What are essential oils?
Essential oils are derived from plants and are used to treat certain conditions. Sometimes essential oils even serve as repellents. Essential oils are derived from plants such as lavender, calendula, chamomile etc. To obtain the oil, the petals of the flowers, leaves, and bark of the plant may be used.
Essential oils are also never directly used. They are always highly diluted in a carrier oil before applying to the skin or breathing in. This is because in their concentrated form they can cause a reaction with the skin. Carrier oils help not only dilute the essential oil but also to spread it safely over a large surface area of the skin. An example of a carrier oil is coconut oil, which has its own set of benefits.
Not all plant essences can be used as essential oils. A true essential oil would not have any additional chemicals or fragrances that are added to it. In other words, if you are looking for essential oil of lavender, then that is all you will get.
Because of this requirement, it takes a lot of quantity of the plant to make the essential oil. In order to make 1 pound of essential oil of lavender, you would need to utilize 200 pounds of lavender flowers. This makes essential oils quite expensive.
In addition, only a few of all the essential oils are used in aromatherapy. When used in aromatherapy, the essential oil is usually diluted largely, sometimes up to only 2%. The oil of lemon, chamomile, lavender, bergamot, and cedarwood are frequently used in aromatherapy.
Safety of essential oils used in aromatherapy
Certain essential oils such as lavender oil have been proven not to cause any side effects when used on the skin undiluted. However, it is recommended not to use even lavender oil undiluted on the skin, especially in the case of cuts and wounds.
In addition, before applying any essential oil to the skin, it must be tested. Dilute essential oil to about 1 in 20 parts or even lesser concentration and then apply on a small patch of skin. Apply some gauze over the area. Observe for a period of 24 hours to see if there is any kind of reaction. If there is none, this means that the essential oil can be safely applied to the skin. Sometimes your skin can turn red, become itchy, form blisters etc. In such cases, you must discontinue use of the particular essential oil immediately.
An essential oil may or may not be safe for you. There are a number of factors that affect its safety. Some of them are:
- Age and general health
- Underlying medical conditions and treatment history
- Medication history
Based on the essential oil and method:
- Purity of the essential oil
- Methods by which it is administered, whether it is ingested, applied on the skin, or inhaled as vapor.
- How long it is used
How does aromatherapy work?
Your nose has certain receptors called smell receptors. These receptors send messages to the brain using your nervous system. Aromatherapy helps activate these receptors.
Sometimes these receptors send messages that activate the “mood and memory center” of the brain, called the limbic system. This gives you a feel-good sensation. The limbic system is also responsible for one’s mood and memory.
Scientists also believe that aromatherapy may have an impact in your hypothalamus as well, thereby increasing serotonin production. Serotonin, a neurotransmitter, is the feel-good chemical in the body that gives you a feeling of satisfaction and contentment.
Certain endorphins are also released. Endorphins are hormones that act as an analgesic on the mind and the body. In other words, they help soothe the body and the mind.
These messages reach the brain because essential oils are able to cross the blood-brain barrier, the barrier between the circulatory system and the brain. The blood-brain barrier is a set of closely wedged capillaries that do not allow most particles to get through.
It allows only selective permeability for certain small molecules, mostly gases to pass through. The essential oils used in aromatherapy are very volatile. When they change into the gaseous form, their molecules are so small that they make it through the blood-brain barrier and into the brain tissue.
The blood-brain barrier could be disrupted or damaged in certain cases. This can happen because of stress, inflammation, or other chemical changes in the body. These chemical changes generally result from smoking, drugs, disease, pollution etc. Many drugs that help fight disease prevent the blood-brain barrier from breaking down.
When applied on the skin, the essential oils penetrate to the subcutaneous layer of the skin. They are able to do this because of the pores in the skin and their small molecular size. When they reach the subcutaneous layer, they can be absorbed into the muscles and from there into the bloodstream. From the bloodstream, these essential oils reach the organs and tissues.
They are finally excreted through the excretory system. The main thing about this process is that essential oils enter and leave the body without releasing any kind of harmful toxins in the body. This makes them particularly beneficial. You may have an allergic reaction to them though. Never take an essential oil by mouth unless actually recommended by a doctor.
How do you inhale essential oils in aromatherapy?
By using a diffuser
You can place the essential oil with carrier oil in a diffuser. Sometimes water is added to the mixture. There may be some heat applied as well, so that when the essential oil mixture leaves the diffuser, it will evaporate. Never burn the essential oil directly as it can change the chemical structure of the essential oil in an undesirable way and it may cause more harm than good.
By using a spray
An automated sprayer or a hand spray could directly spray the essential oil-carrier oil mixture into the air in a room. This will deodorize the room and allow inhalation in a slow manner. Make sure that the bottle is well shaken before spraying to ensure that the essential oil mixes well in the liquid. This will in turn make sure that quite a bit of it will make it into the spray.
By using cotton balls
In this method of dry evaporation, cotton balls are sprayed with this essential oil-carrier oil mixture and kept in a bowl nearby. If an immediate effect is desired, you may smell the cotton balls periodically. If you are ready to wait and the long-term health benefits are what you desire, you can just keep them there and let the aroma do the job. The essential oil will slowly evaporate from the cotton balls and the smell will start to spread throughout the room.
By using steam
You can add one or two drops of essential oil to a bowl containing water and bring the water to a boil, in order to inhale the steam. Cover yourself with a blanket as you inhale the steamy aroma. You must make sure that you do not add more than one or two drops of essential oil as the steam may have a strong reaction on your face.
Also, remember to cover your eyes when using this method. You could use swimming goggles for this. This method of aromatherapy is not recommended for children below 7 years of age.
Instead of the above method, one or two drops of essential oil could also be added to a steam bath. This could then be inhaled over time. There could be absorption of essential oils through the skin also in this process.
Topical application of essential oils for aromatherapy
The application of essential oils on the skin must be done with great care. Make sure you do the skin patch test mentioned earlier. In this test, you allow sufficient time for a reaction, i.e. about 24 hours.
Remember that essential oils must be diluted in a carrier oil at a concentration not higher than 5% when used on the skin. For massage over large parts of the body, an even lower concentration of essential oil (about 1%) is recommended. You must not use essential oil in a concentration greater than 0.25% on infants and toddlers.
Should you use aromatherapy candles?
Essential oils are also available as candles. The burning of the candle releases the essential oil into the air. However, as mentioned earlier, the burning of essential oil is not healthy, as this alters their chemical structure. This alteration of the chemical structure could make them harmful for inhalation. So, while there are a number of aromatherapy candles with various essential oils that you could buy out there, this is a method that is not recommended.
Benefits of Aromatherapy
As cited before, aromatherapy has two routes of action. The first is through the nose and the second through the skin. Aromatherapy provides much-needed relief for a number of medical conditions. These medical conditions are:
- Stress, depression, and anxiety
- Circulatory system problems
- Menstrual problems
- Hair loss
- Menopausal issues
- Fatigue and insomnia
- Body pain and aches
What to expect when you visit an aromatherapist
You must try to consult a well-qualified aromatherapist. The aromatherapist would take note of your medical history, the medications you take, and your age. He/she would also be asking you questions related to your mental health as well. He/she would then recommend a suitable essential oil. Sometimes a blend of essential oils would be recommended.
Risks of Aromatherapy
While most of the risks of using essential oils in aromatherapy is attributed to users having ingested them, it is still advised to use them only in consultation with a doctor. In addition, because they are not recommended by the FDA, chances are your doctor may not recommend the use of essential oils. You must not use them particularly if you have too many allergies or have had previous allergies to them. Essential oils can be unsafe if taken in a concentrated form also or even if they are absorbed through the skin in certain people.
Certain oils such as eucalyptus oil can cause seizures in people who drink them. Certain oils are also proven to cause dermatitis on application without dilution. Another example is that of rosemary, a stimulant that people with high blood pressure must avoid. Dermatitis is a skin condition that makes the skin itchy, red, and swollen. It can also cause blisters to form and make the skin surface flaky. Dandruff is a form of dermatitis.
Essential oils of lime, lemon, and orange can cause phototoxicity. This is a chemically induced skin reaction not involving the immune system of the individual. Because the light causes irritation in this case, the symptoms resemble those of a sunburn.
Make sure that you undergo aromatherapy with a licensed practitioner. You must also ensure that the essential oils have been procured from a trusted source.
Aromatherapy for pets
Aromatherapy has been suggested for pets as well. This is because animals, like humans, get stressed at times. The signs of stress they display are only too clear. Dogs tend to cower and retreat exposing the whites of their eyes. They may also avert their gaze. Cats lean back against walls and lower their ears, their pupils become dilated and they keep staring. Sometimes this can be misinterpreted as subordination and the doctor or nurse may move forward to pat the cat or dog. This can even cause them to go into a defensive aggressive mode.
Graham, Hepper, and Wells suggested in 2005 that putting a few drops of lavender or chamomile oil on bedding would relieve dogs of stress and help them relax. Rosemary and peppermint oil are known to cause unwanted stimulation and may cause the pet to move or act unnecessarily. They are therefore not recommended.
Also, both cats and dogs are vulnerable to the toxins found in many essential oils. As a cat owner would know, cats spend a lot of time grooming themselves. This means that it is easier for them to ingest many harmful essential oils. The same goes for dogs as well. While symptoms like agitation and hypersalivation are common in cats, symptoms in dogs are lethargy and vomiting.
But not all essential oils are bad for your cat. Cats have been proven to respond to olfactory stimuli. In a recent study, catnip was known to cause reduced activity and increased sleep in cats. It also increased their playfulness. And who does not like a playful and happy cat?
Should you go in for aromatherapy?
Why shouldn’t you go in for aromatherapy? That is the question to be asked. It has just been explained. However, when you consider all the potential benefits of essential oils and the fact that it can be safe most of the time, makes aromatherapy a very tempting proposition indeed.
Many people have found positive results with aromatherapy for several medical conditions. You must not use them undiluted, you must not ingest them, you must not burn them, and you must consult your doctor before you use them. How hard can following these simple pointers be?
There is even strong evidence for all of its benefits, too. You must go in for aromatherapy if your doctor suggests it. If he does not, there is also no harm in suggesting this alternative means of treatment as well. Should your pet go in for it? I think you must consult a veterinarian in such a case and what he says must be the last word.
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