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Definition of aromatherapy

Updated on January 6, 2018

Introduction To Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy is the therapeutic application of essential oils to achieve certain effects such as relaxation and a sense of improved wellbeing. Essential oils are highly concentrated, complex chemicals found in certain plants and extracted by simple processes. They are thought to have effects on both mind and body. For example, some are believed to stimulate or relax the senses, others to affect digestion, breathing or circulation. These effects have been noted and used for thousands of years in religious rituals, perfuming and healing.

In the western world, the medicinal use of essential oils has long been superseded, in modern medical practice, by scientifically developed drugs. Although some medical practitioners do refer patients for aromatherapy, it should not be seen as a substitute for orthodox medical treatment, but rather as just one of many complementary therapies.

Aromatherapy is rapidly increasing in popularity and is gradually finding favour alonside 'mainstream' medical treatment in hospitals, maternity units and general practice. Increasing numbers of medical practitioners are adding aromatherapy to their treatment repertoire. Aromatherapy is capable of being used as a form of treatment on people of all ages and states of health. It seems most useful for:

  • stress-related conditions
  • muscular and rheumatic conditions
  • skin conditions
  • digestive disorders
  • insomnia and depression

Methods of Application of Essential Oil

  • Massage: Essential oils should not be applied undiluted to the skin, because they are too concentrated. They need to be diluted by mixing with a 'carrier oil' such as Sweet Almond or Grapeseed or Fractionated Coconut oil. The usual amount of carrier oil needed for massage of the whole body is around 15ml. If too much carrier oil is used, there is not enough friction for the massage to be effective and if not enough oil is used there is too much friction and the massage is not pleasant to give or receive. The usual dilution factor is 4 drops of essential oils to 10 ml of carrier oil. Less essential oils should be used for the very young or very old.
  • Vapourisers and burners: Put an eggcupful of water into the burner and add up to 5 drops of essential oil or oils. Don't use for more than about 20 minutes at a time. The sense of smell is such that after a few minutes in a room, the brain loses awareness of the aroma and there is a tendency to feel that the burner needs to be 'topped up'. This can lead to headaches and other ill-effects. Watch that the water does not evaporate completely or else the aroma of the essential oils may be replaced by the smell of burning, especially if impure oils or 'burner oils' have been used.
  • Baths: Around 6 drops of essential oils can be added to bathwater. Best is to add the oils after the bath has been running rather than before, as the oils can corrode plastic if undiluted. The oils do not mix with water but float on the surface and evaporate quickly due to the heat of the water. Again use less for very young and very old people.

Does Aromatherapy really work?

Aromatherapy is, above all, a practical activity. The aim is to alleviate sypmtoms. That involves choosing effective treatments, ie effective blends of essential oils and effective methods of application. That, in turn, involves the prediction of effectiveness.

Here are some predictions. Essential oils spread on the skin during massage are absorbed through the skin and enter the bloodstream. Certain essential oils, such as Rosemary and Marjoram, have an effect on blood pressure. Rosemary raises BP and Marjoram lowers it. And every respected text on Aromatherapy includes comprehensive lists of the predicted actions of dozens of essential oils.

As far as I know, there is no firm scientific evidence to support any of those predictions. Many of the treatments used in Aromatherapy have been developed from past or present practitioners' claimed results on one or more individual case-studies rather than from scientific tests on large numbers of people. Where is the scientific body of results which supports such comprehensive predictions?

In my view, we have to clearly distinguish between arguments about 'truth' and arguments about 'prediction'. If we do that we can see that nearly every one of the above objections to science is an objection to the idea that only science can say what is 'true'. They are not objection to claims of its predictive power and accuracy. There are important truths in art, religion, politics, history, philosophy and other fields of human endeavour, including Aromatherapy, in which predictive power is irrelevant or unimportant and about which science should and must remain silent. There is more to Aromatherapy than 'mere' prediction, and there are many aspects of Aromatherapy in which truth can and must be validated and justified by non-scientific standards.

However, since choosing effective treatments is an important aim of Aromatherapy, then its practitioners must seek the most accurate tools for prediction of treatment outcomes. And, in the thousands of years of mankind's existence, no method of prediction has worked better than science. So science is necessary - a necessary evil for some perhaps. Certainly there are reservations:

  • about the complexity of the variables.
  • about the limitations in science's ability to identify them and measure them.
  • about the limitations of scientific understanding of the important relationships between them.

Aromatherapy Massages

Aromatherapy massage is a popular method of application of essential oils. A good massage, while spreading the oils over the skin, is in itself a relaxing and stimulating experience which enhances the effects of the chosen blend of oils. Massage relaxes the mind and nervous system yet stimulates the circulatory and lymphatic systems, improving the supply of nutrients to the body tissues and aiding the removal of toxins and waste products from them.

During massage, the person's body remains fully covered apart from the head and face and the specific area which is being worked on. This keeps body temperature warm because it is easy to cool down, even in a warm room. Also it preserves dignity and privacy. Usually body cover is by means of towels, and these can be adjusted to uncover different areas during treatment and to re-cover the areas just completed.


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