What is Aromatherapy?
When I first qualified in Aromatherapy in 1992 most people had never heard of the term. Those that had were primarily deemed to be leading a 'New Age' or 'Alternative' lifestyle. The mass media hadn't yet caught on to what was fast becoming one of the most popular forms of Complementary Health. The little glass bottles of Pure Essential oils were cute and somehow intriguing, fragrant and natural, with reputed therapeutic benefits too tempting to ignore. They offered relaxation for those experiencing tension and stress (pretty much everyone) and were energising for those who needed a pick-me-up, along with a myriad of other uses too numerous to list.
Cut to the present day, and the term 'Aromatherapy' is banded about so often that it can be difficult for people to know what exactly they are buying and what - if any - therapeutic benefit the product may offer. Bubble baths, laundry detergents, candles, cosmetics and toiletries, household cleaning products; the list goes on. It seems Aromatherapy has been incorporated into many areas of our everyday lives. But what is Aromatherapy? What can it offer to us as individuals leading increasingly busy and stressful lives?
Aromatherapy can be broadly defined as 'a holistic approach to wellbeing based on the specialised use of aromatic essential oils derived from plants for the purpose of improving ones health'. The most common method of use for essential oils is in massage. But there are other excellent methods, such as inhalations (great for colds/congestion/coughs etc). Hip baths/sitz baths (perfect for cellulite/oedema/lower back and hip pain etc), compresses (ideal for swellings/ injuries/aches and pains etc) and numerous other methods of use.
Aromatherapy has long been acknowledged as having the potential to help us with so many of the health difficulties and ailments which have come to be associated with the fast-paced, often stressful lifestyles of the modern day. Aromatherapy is often referred to as a holistic therapy, meaning it works on the 'whole' i.e. physical, mental, emotional and spiritual levels, but I am inclined to think that this is largely influenced by the particular therapist and their beliefs and practices, rather than the oil itself being holistic.
More than just an aroma
One of the most basic yet frequently asked questions I encounter is "how can an oil that smells help peoples' health?" Often, and understandably, people who don't know of aromatherapy compare it to other things such as smelling a perfume. But aromatherapy is far more than 'just a smell' and over the past three decades in particular, the efficacy of essential oils in promoting good health has been researched - albeit often without as much scientific rigour as many aromatherapists would like - and much is now understood about how essential oils take their effect physically, emotionally and mentally.
It's important to understand that the effects of pure essential oils on emotions and the psyche are more than just imagined or 'all in the mind'. We begin to understand this when we take a closer look at the brain's complicated limbic system; an area so associated with memories and feeling that it is often referred to as our 'emotional brain'. Here, within the limbic system, lies the olfactory bulb (olfaction: relating to the sense of smell), which has intimate access to the hippocampus, which is responsible for associative learning, and the amygdala which processes emotion. Through the psychological process of odour association, essential oils can trigger memories and influence moods.
These odour associations operate very much on a subconscious level initially. For example, someone may smell Lavender essential oil and take an instant dislike to it as the aroma reminds them of a strict teacher from their childhood. Another person may smell the same Lavender fragrance and instantly love the aroma and feel uplifted, as they are reminded of their favourite aunt, or of sunny days in the garden where they played as a child. This explains why, in aromatherapy, we must never adopt a 'one size fits all' approach to the use of essential oils and should always be guided by a person's likes and dislikes, limited only by the contraindications for that particular essential oil.
On a physical level, essential oils can be helpful in combatting and alleviating so many diverse conditions that it is impossible to list them here. For massage, essential oils are diluted and 'carried' to the bloodstream by vegetable oils (sweet almond, grapeseed etc), hence the use of the term 'carrier oils' in aromatherapy. Unlike many mineral oils (baby oil etc), vegetable oils' molecular structure allows them to quickly penetrate the skin and travel (via the bloodstream) throughout the body, taking effect on every system of the body in some way or another. Essential oils trigger a process of physiological reactions which account for their demonstrated therapeutic effects.
It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the physical, mental and emotional uses of essential oils in further detail, but I have recommended some further reading below, and all these books are really excellent introductions to aromatherapy.
It is essential to read up on a particular essential oil prior to using it as there are several contraindications which should always be observed. Certain oils should not be used on a person who has epilepsy, or who has high blood pressure or is in early stages of pregnancy. These are some of the most common contraindications but just to be sure get to know the particular oil before use
Blending your own oils
Blending your own massage/bath oils is actually quite easy and simply requires you to follow a few general guidelines. For adults I use a 3% dilution, that is, use half the amount of mls of carrier/vegetable oil in drops of essential oil. So, if using 20mls of carrier oil add 10 drops TOTAL of essential oil. Note the number of drops of essential oils given here are total, so if you are allowed 10 drops of essential oil in your blend, but are using two essential oils, then this is 5 drops each. Never be tempted to add more drops hoping this will increase the therapeutic effect of the blend. Aside from the fact that this can be a major skin irritant, many oils have the opposite effect if used in the wrong doses. The ever-popular Lavender, for example, is known for its deeply relaxing effect, but used in high concentrations it can actually be quite stimulating. So work on the basis that 'less is more'. When blending for children use a dilution of around 1%, so using 20mls of carrier oil add 3 or 4 drops TOTAL of essential oil. Blending for babies requires an even lower dilution of around 0.5% which would equate to just 1 or 2 drops of essential oil in 20mls of carrier oil. I would only suggest Lavender and Chamomile for babies and unless experienced with other oils do not use any others. If in doubt consult a book or - better still - a qualified aromatherapy practitioner.
The other rule of blending is that it's best to start with less than the allowed number of drops, So, if you are using 2 essential oils and are allowed a total of 10 drops in the blend, then start with just 2 drops of each, stir into the carrier oil, smell the blend and add more drops according to your preferences and/or requirements. Its easy to add more drops and impossible to take them away!
Essential oils are highly volatile substances and need the correct storage. Store your blended oils in dark glass bottles, always with lids firmly on, in a cool place out of direct sunlight. Provided you follow these basic rules you can start combining different essential oils to see which combination is the most effective and pleasing to you.
A starters kit
For those interested in aromatherapy who would like to buy a 'starter kit', there are some definite purchases you should make. Below I list six essential oils which are extremely versatile and cover a broad spectrum of therapeutic uses, although this list is just my personal recommendation, and there are certainly many other starter oils you may choose instead. When you purchase essential oils they should always clearly state 'pure essential oil' on the label. Other descriptions such as fragrant oil, perfume oil, natural oil, aromatherapy oil etc should be avoided, as they may not have any therapeutic benefits whatsoever.
In addition to your chosen essential oils you will need a good quality vegetable/carrier oil, such as Sweet Almond or Grapeseed. Because essential oils react to light its important to use empty dark glass bottles (amber and blue are most common and readily available) which filter out light. Also a little glass measuring beaker (100mls would probably be the most useful) and a glass stirring rod. All of these items are available from numerous good aromatherapy companies online. For details of reputable companies you can visit the Aromatherapy Trade Council's website at www.a-t-c.org.uk where they give details of members who adhere to all the association's necessary guidelines.
6 great essential oils for a starter aromatherapy kit
Lavender: This is one of the most versatile - and therefore popular - pure essential oils and a must-have for any first-aid kit. It is a herbaceous aroma and is excellent for alleviating tension, aches and pains and insomnia. It has many applications in skincare such as healing and reducing inflammation and scarring, and is one of the only oils which can be applied neat onto a burn and it will reduce the stinging and encourage healing.
Ti Tree (Tea Tree): This is an excellent oil for dealing with all three types of infection; bacterial, fungicidal and viral. As such it is used in many commercial preparations for tackling spots and acne etc. It is very useful in limiting the spread of airborne illnesses (coughs, colds, etc) and is also a very powerful immunostimulant so a perfect choice when any type of infection threatens the body.
Chamomile: Superbly soothing and calming, this oil is usually my first choice when blending for babies and children (only add 1 or 2 drops maximum of essential oil to carrier) and its effectiveness explains why it is found in many commercial preparations. It is a superb anti-inflammatory and therefore benefits irritated and inflamed skin conditions, sprains (in a compress) and muscular aches and pains. There are several types of Chamomile but I would recommend Roman Chamomile as the best general all-rounder.
Clarysage: A wonderful warm herbaceous scent, which has nutty undertones and is often referred to as 'euphoric' in its effects. I rather think of Clarysage as a tonic for the body and mind; fortifying whilst offering deep relaxation to the mind (thus great for alleviating stress, tension and insomnia) and relaxation to the physical body (aching muscles, cramps, and many types of spasms including those associated with asthma and also menstruation).
Eucalyptus: A stimulating widely recognised aroma which is often chosen for its decongesting properties, so useful for coughs, colds, congestion and all similar ailments. It is very antiseptic and healing and therefore useful when infections (especially respiratory) are present.
Geranium: A popular sweet smelling floral oil which is uplifting, antiseptic and astringent. It is therefore useful for low mood and depression, tiredness and skin infections to name a few. It is referred to as a 'balancing' oil, due to its known action as an adrenal cortex stimulant. It is therefore useful for all skin types, especially dry or oily or congested and combination skins. It stimulates the lymphatic system and is therefore useful for fluid retention and oedema of the ankles.
I hope you enjoy all that Aromatherapy has to offer!
Founder; Inner Senses
© L Basso, 2018