Aromatherapy: What Is It and How Does It Work?

Virtually everyone has heard of aromatherapy. It’s used to promote scented products such as candles, lotions and bath gels. Due to the loose usage of the term “aromatherapy,” few people realize that it is actually a legitimate form of alternative medicine.

Aromatherapy has been used for healing since the 1920s. French chemist Rene-Maurice Gattefosse was the founder of aromatherapy, but it happened quite by accident. He was working in his perfume laboratory when he accidentally set his arm on fire. In a panic, he immersed his arm in a nearby liquid, which happened to be lavender oil. He noticed that the pain subsided quickly, and the burn healed quickly as well. This prompted him to study further uses of aromatic essential oils.

Today, aromatherapy has grown to include a variety of plant-based materials in a variety of applications. Aromatherapy may be administered via diffusion, inhalation or topical application. Some may also be taken internally. In addition to essential oils, materials used include phytoncides, distillates and infusions.

Aromatherapists believe that inhaling essential oils or steam produced when those oils are diffused has an effect on the limbic system. The limbic system includes parts of the brain that deal with emotion, behavior and long-term memory, as well as the sense of smell. That’s why aromatherapy is so often used as a means of achieving emotional balance.

Applied topically, essential oils can provide the same benefits as they do when inhaled, and may serve other purposes as well. Some have antiseptic properties that aid in fighting off infection. Others are effective at treating inflammation or skin conditions such as acne and eczema. When used topically, most essential oils must be diluted in a carrier oil in order to prevent irritation.

When taken internally, essential oils are often prepared as a tea or tincture. Some may also be found in capsule form. These preparations are considered by some to be a part of aromatherapy, but others argue that they fit more closely under the term “herbal medicine.”

Aromatherapy has become an accepted type of medical treatment in France, as well as in many other countries. In the United States, however, it has never really been taken seriously. Those physicians who do recognize its benefits use it primarily as a complementary therapy rather than an initial treatment. Like most other forms of alternative medicine, aromatherapy is often viewed as inferior to conventional medicine.

There is a great deal of disagreement regarding what applications aromatherapy is effective in. But true essential oils clearly have a number of benefits. Fortunately, most essential oils are available over the counter, so anyone with an open mind can try aromatherapy out for herself.

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