What is Aromatherapy?

What, really, is Aromatherapy? In the United States, common use of the term 'Aromatherapy' is a bit misleading. The practice has been given a 'touchy-feely', 'soft-science' status in the mainstream media. In much of the rest of the world, however, the therapeutic use of aromatic essential oils has a more elevated, scientifically-backed status. In France, for example, one can only purchase essential oils through a licensed Aromatherapist; this is due to the well-known, powerful interaction of essential oils and the human physiology.

At its heart, Aromatherapy encompasses the entire branch of botanical medicine using volatile aromatic plant compounds for treatment of various medical conditions. The term was coined by a French scientist after his discovery of Lavender oil's healing effects on burns he had sustained in the laboratory. The practice of 'aroma' therapy – or the inhalation of essential oils to make one “feel good” – is more a delightful side-note than the primary healing benefit that essential oils can provide. Many important actions of essential oils don't even have to do with one's sense of smell. Beyond acting on the psyche through the limbic system (the “emotional” center of the brain, immediately affected by the smell sense), many essential oils have proven antibiotic, antiviral, antispasmodic, anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory, tissue-regenerative and other therapeutic actions.

Essential Oils’ Interaction with the Mind and Body

Effects of essential oils on the psyche, along with some biologic effects through the olfactory system, are an important aspect of their use. This should certainly not be discounted relative to the direct effects on the physiology. Many peer-reviewed scientific studies have confirmed the effects of aromatic oils on the mind and emotions. Your smell sense is the only one of the five senses directly connected to the brain – all other senses are routed first through the thalamus, then directed to the cerebral cortex and other brain regions. Each 'scent-sensing' cell is a sort of chemical receiver – every receptor in the nose reacts to some scents and not others. Each of these scent-cells is directly linked to the brain by one nerve fiber. It is difficult to sense an aroma and “think” about it before having a response – the signal does not travel first to the thought centers. Because each sensing cell is in direct contact with the chemical being sensed, and the cell is in directly wired to the brain, the nervous system's response to smell is quick and powerful.

The olfactory sense is closely tied to the limbic system, which is the center of emotions, plays a significant part in the formation of memories, and affects our sexual responses. The olfactory region also connects to the hypothalamus, which in-turn controls the entire hormonal system through its influence of the pituitary gland. One can easily imagine an olfactory sense receptor being stimulated by the mist of an essential oil, resulting in downstream stimulation of the brain in a certain way – stimulating, sedating, relaxing, or otherwise – depending on the molecular form of the oil.

The beneficial effects of essential oils reach far beyond that of the olfactory sense and limbic system, bringing into view the true potential of Aromatherapy. The most promising use of oils is in the treatment of infectious illness, notes Dr. Kurt Schnaubelt, America's leading medical aromatherapist. Modern medicine is falling short in this area, though; overuse of antibiotics has lead to chemically-resistant “super bugs,” and a series of antibiotics tends to throw the delicate symbiotic natural balance of microorganisms in the human digestive system out-of-whack for some time. Oregano and Cinnamon oils are some of the most broad-spectrum antibacterials known. While their use demands practical knowledge due to their powerful nature, they do not seem to create resistant bacterial strains or upset our own system's balance. Other oils (which are generally less sensitizing) work very well on some strains of bacteria, but not as well on others. Here, the practitioner's ability to match the proper oil with the patient's symptoms plays a critical role in the therapy's efficacy, as with any medical treatment.

As the acceptance of healing with natural means continues to grow in the U.S., the concept of aromatherapy for many individuals will expand to include these important and exciting facets. More certified practitioners will be available to utilize essential oils to their true potential, and more end-users will acquire the knowledge to heal themselves with these incredible gifts from nature.

Essential Oils Efficacy in Various Applications

When essential oils are applied to the surface of the body – either via massage, baths, compresses, creams or lotions – they will have an effect locally (i.e. the site at which they are applied), and systemically (i.e. throughout the body). The systemic effect occurs when essential oils are absorbed through the skin into the lymphatic circulation, and are then dumped from the lymphatic circulation into the blood stream. Once the oils are circulating in the blood, they are carried to their target organ(s), where they exert a therapeutic effect on the specific tissues. Every essential oil has its own target organ (e.g. Juniper oil targets the urinary tract and kidneys in particular, chamomile targets the nervous system, etc.).

Even when essential oils are inhaled – say in the form of a steam inhalation for a cold or as a fumigator for a background psychological effect – the oils will be absorbed across the mucous membranes of the respiratory tract and lungs into the blood stream where, once again, they can travel around the body very rapidly.

If essential oils are taken orally, their absorption through the mucosa of the stomach and into the blood is very rapid. Very few essential oils are able to be digested, which is fortunate, as their therapeutic principles may well be altered if this were the case.

Examples of Therapeutic Use

Below are some of the more common therapeutic properties which can be obtained by using essential oils:

  • Antiseptic: All essential oils are, to a greater or lesser extent, antiseptic; this is one of their most important and valuable properties. This broad description of antiseptics include: antiviral, anti-fungal, antibacterial and general antimicrobial activity. This can be found in such oils as: Lemon, Thyme, Tea Tree, Garlic, Eucalyptus, Cinnamon, Pine, Lavender and Sandalwood.
  • Anti-Inflammatory: Oils with this property can help to ease inflammation. The symptoms of inflammation are typified by pain, redness, swelling, and partial (or total) loss of function of the tissue involved. Examples of oils with this property are: Chamomile, Rose, Lavender, Sandalwood, Myrrh and Benzoin.
  • Cytophylactic: Restoration of tissue function and regeneration of cells is another outstanding property of essential oils. Oils such as Pine, Basil, Black Spruce and Rosemary are found to restore function to the adrenal glands; Jasmine, Cypress, and Ylang Ylang restore function of reproductive endocrine glands; Lavender and Chamomile stimulate cell regeneration in the skin.
  • Sedative: Essential oils may also have a pronounced effect on the nervous system by producing relaxation, pain relief and relieving muscle spasm. Oils with these properties include: Lavender, Neroli, Rose, Geranium and Ylang Ylang.

These are just a few of the therapeutic effects that essential oils may have. To learn more about these and other conditions, visit our Essential Oil Research page.

*Some content on this page is courtesy of Danny Siegenthaler, a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine, medical herbalist and aromatherapist. Together with his wife Susan, they have created Wildcrafted Herbal Products, a natural skin care product company, sharing their 40 years of combined expertise.