Aromatherapy uses volatile plant essential oils to modulate mood, alertness and multiple physiologic functions. The name implies that the therapy only relies on olfaction. However, while the sense of smell plays a big role in how essential oils work, they also exert other effects.
Essential oils are usually pure, concentrated extracts of aromatic plants. These small, lipid-soluble molecules pass through skin and across the lung's alveoli, moving quickly into the bloodstream. Because they're volatile, they rise into the air to stimulate olfactory centers in the brain.
Smell is the most direct of all the senses. Nerve transmission from other senses is first relayed to the thalamus and then to the cerebrum. Olfactory (smell) receptors are located at the top of the nasal cavities and are the endings of the olfactory nerve, which go straight to the brain's olfactory bulb. From there, nerve connections act to modulate mood and alertness. The effects are subtle, but often satisfying. Scientific studies have begun to validate many of the effects.
Plant essential oils can also be applied to the skin (usually after first diluting them in carrier oil) to reduce local infection or inflammation. Mixed into massage oil, essential oils can be used to relieve sore muscles and nervous tension. They can be added to hot water to be used in steam inhalation and added to footbaths and full-body baths.
Dilution is critical as these volatile chemicals are highly concentrated. They should neither be taken by mouth nor applied near the nose, eyes or sensitive mucous membranes. They should be kept out of the reach of children.
Books such as Aromatherapy: A Complete Guide to the Healing Art by Kathi Keville and Mindy Green can help you learn about safe use of plant essential oils. So can a class offered at MSU Denver (see Training below).
Primitive humans probably burned gums and resins as incense. Plant oils, such as olive and sesame oil, were infused with fragrant plants to anoint the body. People in ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, China, India and the Middle East used fragrant herbs for healing, pleasure, beauty and ceremony. One of the goals of new trade routes out of Europe was to obtain fragrant, culinary and medicinal plants.
Rene-Maurice Gattefossé, a French chemist who lived at the turn of the last century coined the term "aromatherapy." After burning his hands in the lab, he applied lavender essential oil and was impressed by its healing power. He continued to work with plant essential oils, even preparing an antiseptic blend during the 1918 influenza pandemic.
France maintained leadership in the therapeutic use of plant essential oils. Inspired by Gattefossé's work, Jean Valnet, M.D. used antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory essential oils to heal physical wounds during World War II. He also found plant fragrances helpful in healing psychological wounds. He wrote Aromatherpie. Subsequently, Robert Tisserand published the landmark book The Art of Aromatherapy. In Europe, aromatherapy is often incorporated into conventional medical practice.
Training & Careers
You can begin your education in aromatherapy by taking a class at MSU Denver called Aromatherapy HES 3000. (Beginning Fall 2012, this course number will become ITP 4200). This course offers a comprehensive and practical study of aromatherapy. It provides information needed to develop skills and knowledge in integrated aromatherapy. This course covers clinical and research trials, pharmacokinetics and chemistry of essential oils, physiological effects of essential oils, practical applications and therapeutic blending. Individual oils will be profiled.
At this time, no certificates or licenses legally allow a person to practice aromatherapy in the U.S. Technically, it can be practiced as part of a licensed discipline such as massage therapist, aesthetician/cosmetologist, nurse or physician.
For more information, check out the following organizations:
- International Federation of Professional Aromatherapists develops and maintains standards for education, research and practice in aromatherapy.
- National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy is an educational, nonprofit organization that provides links to many articles on aromatherapy.
- Australasian College of Health Sciences offers classes in aromatherapy.
- Pacific Institute of Aromatherapy offers online courses in aromatherapy and prepares a student for international certification in aromatherapy.
Linda B. White, M.D. is a freelance writer, the coauthor of The Herbal Drugstore and Kids, Herbs & Health and is a visiting assistant professor in the Integrative Therapeutic Practices Program at MSU Denver.