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Use of Aromatherapy Throughout the History
At its simplest, people have been using aromatherapy for thousands of years. Some well known examples include:
- The Egyptians, who used all sorts of aromatic and fragrant compounds in the process of “embalming,” which although it cannot quite be classed as aromatherapy because the patients were already dead, certainly shows the importance they placed on herbs and aromatic plants.
- Hippocrates, for whom the infamous Hippocratic oath is named, who used scented oils, herbs, and plants in his early experiments into healing.
- Two of the gifts which the wise men brought for the baby Jesus—frankincense and myrrh—which were valued in their time because of the healing and medicinal properties associated with them.
Theory Supporting Aromatherapy
As a natural healing technique, aromatherapy is easy enough to understand. “Aroma,” meaning relating to the sense of smell; and “therapy,” meaning relating to healing or prevention of disease. The trouble is nailing down exactly what is meant by natural healing. In general, one can say that “natural healing” is the practice of healing or prevention of disease by diet, alternative forms of exercise, and herbal or otherwise non-prescription medications.
How then does aromatherapy fit into natural healing? One theory is that the effect of certain smells on the brain actually causes the brain to release chemicals to speed up or facilitate healing in the body. A second theory is that through direct application to the skin, the oils used in the aromatherapy can actually have pharmacological effects, meaning that certain chemicals in the oils interact with the body to have healing effects. Tea tree oil, for example, is used in several popular shampoo brands as a cleansing and soothing agent.
Evidence In Support of Aromatherapy
Most people would accept the idea that different odors can cause a person to feel different things; the smell of fresh baked chocolate chip cookies, for example, would make most people feel hungry. The debate in aromatherapy is on whether the scientific effects of the oils used can be proven in a controlled, reproducible study. However, in vitro (meaning: test tube) testing has shown antibacterial effects to be provable in such oils as rosemary, cinnamon, cloves, and lime. The best policy as a newcomer to aromatherapy is to remember that while no aroma is likely to cure every disease, few physicians would deny that there is a connection between what we see, smell, and touch, and the healing or disease-preventing ability of our bodies.
Uses for Aromatherapy
In modern usage, aromatherapy has come to mean a whole host of healing techniques, from the effects of rose petal oil on a person to massage with any of a number of different oils and extracts and sometimes even orally ingesting a very small amount of a specified oil. The most common technique is simply using one of the oils classified as a “Volatile Organic Compound,” meaning simply that the oil will pass into the air around it at room temperature. By leaving one of these oils in an open container, the fragrance will freely spread throughout the room, infusing it with the essence of the desired herb or plant.
A second method in aromatherapy is to choose particular oils or extracts for use in massage with aim to a desired effect, e.g. using lavender oil as a soothing and relaxing agent. A word of caution here: when applying oil directly to the skin, most oils should not be used “neat,” or without being diluted to a great extent, by a second neutral oil. Many of the stronger oils can cause irritation and undesirable reactions on the skin when applied full strength.
A third less common method is to actually swallow a very small amount of the oil as part of a treatment course; because of the toxicity of many of these oils, however, the oral intake of any oils should always be regulated and overseen by a licensed aromatherapy professional.
Which Oil to Choose
Knowing which oil to choose for which ailment can be a daunting task. On top of that, some oils which claim to be “natural” can in fact contain substances which have been chemically refined and added to the “natural” oil. Since the regulation on these oils can vary greatly from country to country, the best way to make sure that you are getting the aromatherapy you really want is to consult a professional aromatherapist you trust—good advice for anyone considering medical treatment of any sort.