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aromatherapy basics

What is Aromatherapy?

Aromatherapy is the holistic use of essential oils derived from plants to treat mind, body and spirit. It is sometimes called Essence Therapy. Techniques including massage are employed to introduce the oils to the bloodstream. Aromatherapy is a non-invasive procedure which aims to treat the individual on a number of levels. The essential oils are used to promote balance and self healing of the body and to impart a sense of well-being.

What is an Essential Oil?

Essential oils are derived from the flowers, leaves, bark, roots, peel or other parts of a plant. Nowadays they are usually extracted by steam distillation, expression (for fruit peels) or solvent extraction (for some floral oils). Despite thier name, essential oils do not really feel oily - most are clear liquids but some oils such as patchouli and sweet orange are amber and german chamomile is a vivid blue colour. An essential oil contains some of the active principles of the plant it was derived from. Essential Oils are highly concentrated, flammable and very volatile. So care should be taken with thier use and storage. Ideally keep in a cool, dark place in tightly stoppered dark glass bottles.

Brief History

All around the world aromatic plants have been used to benefit health over many thousands of years. In Egyptian times plant oils were used for cosmetic, medicinal and religious purposes. There is evidence that plant extracts were used for medicinal purposes in ancient China and in India - particularly within the ayurvedic tradition. Later similar uses were adopted by the Greeks and then the Romans. As the Roman Empire declined in Europe the use of aromas was lost through the dark ages.

It was not until the late 19th century that research was undertaken on the effects of aromatic oils on humans. In France in the 1930s a chemist named Ren´┐Ż-Maurice Gattefosse discovered the healing powers of pure lavender oil when he sustained a bad burn to his hand. He plunged his hand into a container of lavender oil and was amazed to see how well it healed. He is credited with coining the term "Aromatherapy" and published a book on the anti-microbial effects of the oils in 1937. Other notable researchers in the aromatherapy field include Jean Valnet, Madam Marguerite Maury, and Robert B. Tisserand. Jean Valnet used essential oils to treat injured soldiers during the war. Marguerite Maury was a biochemist who studied and practiced the use of aromatherapy for cosmetic effects. Robert B. Tisserand was an English aromatherapist who brought aromatherpy to the English speaking nations through publication of a range of articles and books.

Safety of Essential Oils

Essential oils are very concentrated and so can be harmful if not used properly:

They should always be used in a diluted form - except in rare cases by a qualified aromatherapist. Usually they are diluted in a carrier or base oil.

It is important that the correct number of drops is used in any blend or recipe. Always use half-strength dilutions for children, the elderly and those suffering from chronic illness.

Some oils can cause skin sensitization or allergic reactions - please note the safety information for an oil before using it. Certain oils are not safe to use in pregnancy, for epileptics or those with high blood pressure.

Never take an essential oil internally.

Some oils are hazardous and should not be used in aromatherapy.

Do not use essential oils if undergoing another treatment - particularly homeopathy as the two treatments can interact.

Never drink alcohol after an aromatherapy treatment - some oils, particularly Clary Sage, react badly with alcohol.

You should also be careful about sun exposure after use of photo-sensitive oils - such as the citrus oils.

Blending Oils

A blend is made up of one or more carrier oils with a combination of drops of essential oil added and thoroughly mixed. Blends are best made up in glass measuring beakers as these permit accurate measurement and glass is not tainted by the smell of the blend. The aim of a blend is to produce a synergy - a harmonious combination of oils which has properties to suit the physical and psychological symptoms identified and which has a pleasant aroma. Usually a maximum of 3 essential oils are used in a blend. It is important to make up a blend of the correct concentration. A 2% blend has 2 drops of essential oil (in total) per 5 mls of carrier oil. This concentration is usually used for body massage (of adults). So if 15 mls of carrier is used a total of 6 drops of essential oil can be added. A 1% blend - half this strength - is used for facial massage, i.e. 1 drop of essential oil per 5 mls of carrier.

When making up a blend consider the 'notes'of the oils chosen - it is best to use a combination of notes and never have 3 top notes (e.g. peppermint, lemon, eucalyptus) or 3 bottom notes (e.g.sandalwood, jasmine, patchouli).

Using Aromatherapy

There are many ways in which aromatherpy and essential oils can be used. The most common is in body massage. The blend of oils is used as a massage medium and then specialized massage movements are used to provide a relaxing treatment.

The blend of essential oils can also be used in a warm bath. The oils can be added straight to the water or diluted in a carrier oil, whole milk, vodka or plain bubble bath. Relax in the water for at least 10 minutes and inhale the aroma produced by the oils.

Oils can also be inhaled. Add a few drops to a bowl of hot, steamy water. Place a towel over your head and the bowl and inhale the vapours released. This method is particuarly useful for nasal congestion. Alternatively put a couple of drops on a tissues and inhale the vapours.

Essential oils can be diffused using a diffuser or vapourizer - add a few drops to the water in the top of the vapourizer and light the candle beneath. The warmth of the candle evaporates the liquid and the aroma is released into the air.

Compresses are useful for muscular aches and pains, stomach cramps and headaches. A few drops of an appropriate oil is added to a bowl of hot or cold water and then a cloth is places in the water then wrung out and held on the affected area. Hot compresses are best for muscular aches and stomach cramps while cold compresses are good for headaches and swelling.