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An Introduction to Aromatherapy
History of Aromatherapy
Anya McCoy, owner of The Real McCoy Company is an ethnobotanist
with over 20 years experience in herbal and aromatherapy studies.
Aromatherapy (AT), as we 21st Century aficionados define it, did not begin in Ancient Egypt, as you may have read. The Egyptians, Greeks, and others in the ancient world used fragrant plants to heal, yes, but they used them in an herbal manner: they infused or otherwise extracted the plant materials. The chemical constituents extracted via infusion (placing the plant material in a fat or oil or water and heating it) are very different from those extracted in distillation, and it is the use of distilled essential oils (EOs) that defines aromatherapy as we know it.
Materia Medicas for doctors and nurses from the 19th Century attest to the use of EOs at that time, but they do not use the term aromatherapy. Then, as now, the oils were used for their decongestant, antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral properties. Most Americans are familiar with Vicks-Vap-O-Rub, with its camphorous oils that clear sinus and chest congestion. Vicks was probably the first mass-produced aromatherapy product in the US, but it wasn't termed that, then. People just knew the EOs helped them get better. Olbas oil is a similar product from Europe. They contain slightly different oils, but basically rely on wintergreen, menthol, peppermint, thyme, and eucalyptus.
In the 1920's, a chemist was working in his family's factory in France when he accidentally burned his hand. There was no water nearby, so he plunged his hand into the only available liquid, a large container of lavender EO. Immediately the pain disappeared, and subsequently, he did not develop a scar. That chemist, Rene Maurice Gattefosse, termed the healing properties of the essential oil "aromatherapy". Synchronistic ally, another Frenchman, Albert Couvreur, published a book on the use of EOs in medicine around this time.
Gattefosse book popularized the term Aromatherapy, and spawned a generation of French aromatherapists that researched and documented the use of the EOs. Dr. Jean Valnet pioneered the modern use of EOs as antiseptics, during World War II. The French mainly used the diffusion of the essential oils into the air as a method of introducing the oils into the bloodstream, where it could be circulated in the body. After experimentation, French medical doctors administered EOs orally, but only after extensive tests (e.g., a bacterial culture would be done, and the specific EO that was known to kill that bacteria would be administered.) Oral ingestion is not recommended, unless under the care of a medical practitioner.
His use of aromatic oils, and the recognition of his discovery of the pain relief and healing properties was preceded, however, a century earlier, by others, who used essential oils mostly for respiratory congestion relief and for antibacterial preparations.
The English soon picked up on the use of the oils for health purposes. They used them mainly in massage, and for beauty treatments. In 1979, Tisserand wrote the first book on AT that was widely available in the United States, and the industry has grown by leaps and bounds since. Some aspects of AT have evolved over time, and some controversy has developed, especially when AT is used by major corporations to sell synthetic air fresheners as "aromatherapy", or when con artists or amateurs harm themselves or others through the misuse of these powerful chemicals.
American AT seems to accept both schools of AT: we like to inhale the diffused oils, and to receive AT massages and luxuriate in AT baths (balneotherapy).
Some countries legislate AT practitioners, some don't. If you are interested in becoming an AT practitioner, please check your state and local laws, and proceed accordingly. The future of AT depends upon rational, careful and deliberate efforts to elevate the study and licensure or regulation of this new art and science.
How Aromatherapy Works
There are two main schools of thought on how the EOs affect us: first, the pleasant scents, when introduced through breathing, affect the mid-brain limbic system psychologically, where emotions and memories are stored. The EOs can evoke pleasant memories, relieve anxiety, even energize us (depending upon the oil chosen.) Physically, some, when inhaled, can decongest, or even kill the bacteria that are causing the discomfort. The EOs can affect body chemistry through the endocrine system.
The second method is via massage, when the EO is diluted in a carrier oil (see Safety section) and massaged to provide pain relief, relaxation, or dermatological therapy for skin disorders. Some believe that the oils are absorbed through the skin and thus enter the bloodstream, but research proving that is sketchy. The main belief is that the skin will take in some of the EO on the surface, perhaps allowing for some pain or soreness relief, but the major effect is simply that the recipient of the massage is breathing in the fumes, and that the active ingredients enter the bloodstream that way.
The Oils - how to find them, use them and store them
Please don't be taken in by companies that sell overpriced, hyped oils. This industry requires that the consumer do a lot of research before purchasing. Avoid companies that declare they have the only true, "therapeutic" oils. There is no "therapeutic" grade of EOs. EOs are simply leaves, flowers, roots, barks, or resins that have been steam distilled. The perfumery industry requires that some oils be "rectified" or tweaked to meet their scent standards. Try to avoid those, since AT theory is that the "whole" oil, as it comes from the distillation still, is the only one to use.
There are a lot of good EO suppliers out there, many on the Internet, with virtual stores. There are a few brick and mortar AT stores, but they are far outnumbered by the 'net ones, and the 'net ones have lower overhead, so you may pay less for the oils. Compare prices, check the method of extraction, country of origin, plant part used, botanical name and, if possible, lot and batch number. Reputable suppliers should have them.
Then, ask for samples. Be prepared to pay for them. This will give you the ability to let your nose compare the scents. Like wine, EOs are affected by rain, wind, sun, soil, and the distiller's skill (and after-still storage.)
When you have sampled EOs from several different companies, you can then place an order for a larger amount, and you will have educated yourself on the different qualities of say, Eucalyptus smithii, from different suppliers, and purchased the one you like best. Be aware, however, that next year that same supplier may have obtained a different E. smithii, so ask for samples again. Once you have a good relationship with a supplier, they may waive the sample fee, or they'll throw in some samples with an order.
Using the oils at home
After you decide what oils you like (that is the most important thing, don't try to use an EO for healing that you aren't fond of), then be prepared to have various "fixed" oils on hand to dilute them. Fixed oils include almond oil, olive, sesame, avocado, coconut, jojoba and the like. When you start to visit AT websites, you will often see them sold as adjuncts to the EOs.
You will need to become a little math proficient to dilute them. Typically, for a massage, you will want to limit your EOs to no more than 2-3% of the total blend. It is best to mix small batches until you get proficient, and to help curb costs. I recommend you get a little digital scale to help you weigh the oils, rather than try to measure them out with a dropper or milliliter container. Digital scales can be had rather cheaply on Ebay.
Why not blend a simple natural perfume for yourself using the EOs? Experiment with your favorite scents, and blend them in the oil base. It will last a long time, and give you a lot of pleasure.
Now, if you want to use the oils to diffuse in the air, that is much easier. You can use a nebulizer (a pricey, but good investment.) A nebulizer allows you to pour a little EO into a chamber, and a motor drives a fine air blast through the EO, diffusing micro droplets into the air. This is a great way to sanitize the air if someone has a cold, and, depending upon their condition, you can also diffuse a decongestant EO. Caution: only diffuse for 15 minutes or so an hour. The residual EOs in the air will continue to "work" while the nebulizer is off, and you won't overdose on the EO (which is possible.) See Safety section for more information on that.
For purely scent purposes, you can get an inexpensive tea light "burner". You place some water in the receptacle, sprinkle some EO in it, and light the tea candle underneath. As the water/oil mix warms, the scent will fill the room. This is an inexpensive way to enjoy your oils.
You can also use oils, especially older oils that have faded a bit, to clean the house. A bit of orange or lemon or tea tree oil in the water you use to wash down countertops or floors smell great, and may have slight antibacterial properties. A few drops of lavender or peppermint in the vacuum bag will help diffuse the scent as you work.
Essential oils are powerful chemicals. They are solvents that can eat the finish off of furniture, or etch into plastic surfaces. Some of them can cause extreme sensitization, i.e., rashes, respiratory distress, burns and other discomforts to the uninformed user. They all need to be stored properly to prevent their degradation. That said, here are some pointers on how to use your EOs properly and safely, so that you can, hopefully, enjoy their wonderful scents and health benefits without worry.
When you diffuse an EO into the air, don't diffuse for more than 15 minutes per hour.
When you make a massage blend, dilute the EO to no more than 2-4% in a carrier oil. For instance, if you have 100 ml of a carrier oil, use 2-4 ml of the EO in it, and you should have created a safe blend.
Never use an EO undiluted on the skin.
Never use a citrus oil on skin that will be exposed to the sun. You may develop Berloque dermatitis, a blotchy, sometimes permanent due to the phototoxicity of many citrus oils. Instead, use them on areas that will be covered by clothing.
Don't use EOs on children or the elderly without first studying what may be the least offensive oils to use on them, since they are in a vulnerable niche.
If you want to add an EO to a bath, never add more than 5-10 drops, and mix them with a little milk to disperse them, then add to the filled tub. More oil, or undiluted oil, may burn your skin.
There are thousands of AT books out there. There are hundreds of schools that teach AT. Quality varies across the board. I don't like to recommend books, because I find fault with so many of them, but I realize that isn't realistic for the beginner (you) that I am trying to ease into aromatherapy, so I will make a few recommendations, but I would like you to read them with a skeptical eye, and compare notes between books.
A good way to build your library is through Amazon.com, Half.com, and various websites that compare books from various dealers, like Allbookstores.com and Bookhq.com. Amazon has a place to search for used or discounted books, and I have found some wonderful bargains there, often new books, just being discontinued.
I recommend, with the caveat I offer no guarantees:
If you wish to delve deeper into AT, in a formalized educational setting, there are many long-distance (internet or via CD) study courses, and several schools of AT. Do your research, study the syllabus, and ask around (usually on the internet groups) to see what others have to say about the study course.
Yahoo seems to be where many aromatherapy enthusiasts have gathered. They help each other with questions about the oils, suppliers, application, etc.
My favorite group is Aromatherapy for Everyone. If you wish to subscribe, you can visit //health.groups.yahoo.com/group/ATFE/
Notes on the broader definition of Aromatherapy
For thousands of years, people have noticed that when they tossed scented plant material on a fire, or cooked with a fragrant herb, or made a "tea" of fragrant leaves or flowers to add to a bath, they enjoyed the scent and the experience.
Often, doctors would (and still do) recommend that the ill travel to a forest, either staying at a hotel, or spa, so that they may walk in the woods and breathe in the fragrant air. Incense has been used by Eastern monks for meditation and healing purposes. This is all a broader form of AT, and it does not fit the narrow description of using just EOs, which this Introduction has focused on. So understand that when you grow a fragrant plant in your garden, when you pluck some herbs and cook with them, you are in the fragrant world between herbalism and AT.
Many like to definte AT as encompassing all fragrant plants that give us pleasure or healing. I hope you come away from reading this article to understand all the pleasures of fragrant plants, and the world of modern AT.
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