Aromatherapy: Not Just for Flower Children

It may sound like nothing more than a fru-fru spa treatment, but aromatherapy is actually serious medicine. At least it was for René-Maurice Gattefossé, the French chemist who coined the term “aromatherapy.” Gattefossé first discovered the healing value of lavender oil when an explosion in his laboratory caused a serious burn on his hand. After experiencing his own positive results with essential oils, he went on to study the treatment of infections, burns and other topical wounds in soldiers during the first World War.

Essential oils are concentrated extracts taken from plants. Aromatherapy uses these natural essential oils to promote physical or emotional healing. The name of this therapy implies it’s all about the nose–aroma.  But essential oils may be ingested and massaged into the skin as well as inhaled. Don’t start chugging that mint oil just yet! Essential oils can be toxic if used in the wrong way or the wrong amounts. Never swallow essential oils without the guidance of a professional aromatherapist. Some essential oils are irritating to the skin and should be diluted in what’s known as a “carrier” oil such as coconut oil or grapeseed and jojoba.

The Science Behind Aromatherapy

aromatherapy flowers

As is often the case with “alternative” healing techniques, few scientific studies have been conducted to prove or disprove the value of aromatherapy. But the evidence that does exist is positive. The University of Maryland Medical Center reports a list of studies that claim:

  • Several essential oils (lavender, orange, lemon, rose and sandalwood) have been shown to relieve pain, promote relaxation and reduce stress and anxiety
  • Combining aromatherapy with massage therapy may help alleviate depression
  • Neroli oil was found to reduce blood pressure
  • Citrus oils may strengthen the immune system
  • Peppermint oil can aid digestion
  • Essential oils with estrogen-like compounds (sage, clary sage, anise and fennel) may relieve premenstrual and menopausal symptoms
  • Pregnant women report less fear and anxiety and less pain during labor when specific essential oils were applied by qualified midwives
  • Some essential oils have proven antifungal and antibacterial properties
  • Aromatherapy has been found helpful in treating alopecia, insomnia, headaches, pain from arthritis and cancer, itching and skin irritations, constipation and anxiety

It’s easy to see how an antibacterial essential oil might help an infection. It’s harder to  understand how something as simple as a plant oil could ease pain or decrease anxiety. One theory is that the smell receptors in the nose communicate with the brain to influence emotional, mental and physical health. In other words, the scent of lavender may stimulate brain cells in a similar way that prescription sedatives do.

Does it all smell fishy to you?  Pregnant women, people with a history of seizures or asthma, people with high blood pressure or estrogen-dependent tumors and those receiving chemotherapy are cautioned to consult a professional aromatherapist before using some essential oils. Science does not doubt that essential oils can have a powerful effect if used incorrectly. Is it so difficult to believe their powers might also be harnessed for good?

If you’d like to experiment with essential oils, consult a guide for safe usage. Most people can enjoy the benefits of aromatherapy without concern as long as they remember to never ingest an essential oil without professional assistance.

For an easy all-purpose aromatherapy blend, mix 12 drops of lavender essential oil with one-ounce organic virgin coconut oil. Use the lavender-coconut oil blend to treat minor cuts and scrapes. Inhale it or rub a small amount into the temples to ease headaches, Massage into the feet of a fussy baby (or adult) to help them relax. The dab behind the ears to help relieve motion sickness or use as a daily body cream for soft, healthy skin.