Aromatherapy is the use of aromatic substances for therapeutic or healing purposes. The term therapeutic covers both the mind, spirit and body and the term aromatic substances generally refers to essential oils. As a treatment it is usually combined with some form of body contact such as massage, although the treatment can be used in other different ways such as in a vaporiser, bathing or inhalation.
Aromatherapy is one of the holistic treatments, during which treatment the body is treated as a whole - mind, body and spirit. Aromatherapy restores balance as well as treating a specific or wide range of symptoms.
Some animals such as dogs can also benefit through shampoos with essential oils. Strategically placed reed diffusers filled with oils like lavender oil are great to help calm an anxious dog. The reed diffuser should be placed near to the bed but not within reach of the dog. We know how dogs noses work so much better than ours and how they love to sniff all sorts - including pumpkins apparently! Lemon and grapefruit oils will be more uplifting so don't use these if you're dog is restless.
The term aromatherapy can be misleading, suggesting that it is a type of healing done through our sense of smell. The fragrance plays a part, of course, and it is an important one, but smell is only one aspect.
Aromatherapy treatment is, in the majority of cases, performed through massage. During massage and also through aromatic bathing, tiny amounts of essential oil are absorbed into cell tissue through the skin, and then transported throughout the body via the blood system. The oils can then interact with the organs and systems of the body e.g Lavender sedates the nervous system, Rosemary stimulates the circulation and Juniper has a detoxifying effect on the blood.
Essential oils also act on our emotional system through the fragrance of the particular essential oil used. Our sense of smell is closely linked with memories and feelings and a specific smell can instantly recall a place or experience. This is because two olfactory nerve tracts run straight into the limbic system of the brain, a part which is concerned with memory and emotion and so a smell can have an immediate and powerful effect that defies rational analysis.
In this way, essential oils can have an effect on the mind, body and spirit on a variety of different levels and it is this combination of levels that makes aromatherapy successful in treating stress related conditions in particular. Best of all, although sometimes professional help may be needed,they can be used simply, safely and effectively in the home.
Essential oils are pure, concentrated plant extracts obtained specifically for their fragrance or therapeutic qualities. The liquid is held in tiny sacs on the plant - oils can be taken from petals, roots, rind, stalk, seeds, sap, nuts, leaves or bark. The chemical make-up of these extracts is very complex, very often tens or hundreds of constituent parts, each playing an important role within the whole. These oils are extracted from the plant in a variety of ways - via Enfleurage, Solvent Extraction, Expression, or Steam Distillation.
Whilst relatively new to the modern world, aromatherapy is in fact one of the most ancient forms of treatment. It was being used by the Ancient Egyptians, in the Far East, China, and Renaissance Europe. Ayurveda, a traditional Indian medicine also making a 'comeback' and which dates back to 100BC, includes aromatic oils and recipes for rejuvenation and healing and Indian literature dating back to 2000BC mentions the use of Sandalwood, Cinnamon, Ginger, Myrrh and Coriander. Think of how many ancient peoples burnt incense and anointed their bodies with essential oils during worship or burnt large quantities of aromatic material in public places to purify the air and drive away evil spirits.
It was the Ancient Egyptians who first perfected Aromatherapy. They used essential oils for religious and medical purposes and also during the mummification process. Egyptian women wore perfume.
The Hebrews were more discerning in their use and reserved these essences for sacred events such as the consecration of priests, worship, or purification ceremonies. There are several biblical references aromatics and oils - remember the story of the Magi, when they presented Frankincense and Myrrh to the newborn Jesus?
Cleopatra certainly knew the power of fragrance when she doused the sails of her boat with perfume to entice Mark Anthony to follow her back to Egypt.
Roman temples were filled with incense and when empire building, they brought back many riches - Camphor from China, Cinnamon from India and Gums from Arabia, whilst fragrances were added to their spas or massaged into the body after bathing.
In Africa, ancient people discovered that rubbing certain plants on their skin, greater protection from the sun was provided by oils left behind on the skin (think Aloe Vera). And so it continued through History ....
In Europe, wigs were scented with oils, and nosegays were carried to help mask the odour of unsanitary streets and bodies.
In France, hospitals burned Rosemary and Lavender to help fumigate them.
In Greece, 2000 years ago, Theophratus wrote of the healing properties of aromatic plants.
One of the techniques of gaining essential oils, distillation, can be traced back to the Persians, and indeed even the Crusaders quickly learned the value of the healing and medicinal properties of the oils and brought them back when they returned to Europe.
However, many of the knowledge gained by earlier races and civilizations became lost during the Dark Ages and almost had to be re-discovered during the Middle Ages when infectious diseases such as the Plague were fought off with aromatic plants strewn across floors.
During the 16th century, Lavender water was available at the local apothecary, for it was the time of the Alchemists. Some concentrated on turning base metals into gold, whilst others studied the extraction of essences from aromatic plants. But it was not until the 17th century when Alchemy gave way to Chemistry that there was a distinction made between perfumes and aromatics.
In 1928 René-Maurice Gattefossé coined the term Aromatherapy and brought about something of a rebirth of this ancient knowledge. Gattefossé was a French chemist who worked in his family's perfumier business and conducted experiments with essential oils on soldiers wounded during the First World War. He saw at first hand how powerful Lavender was when treating severe burns, and found that others were excellent antiseptics. He also discovered that synthetic oils were not as efficient as pure, natural essential oils.
His work was continued by another French doctor, Jean Valet, who treated specific medical and psychiatric disorders with essential oils, and his results were published in 1964.
So a little history helps us to understand why essential oils are playing an important part of life today and why big brands include references to essential oils in the fragrances of laundry, cleaning products and much more.