Essential oils contain the concentrated healing properties of a plant, and are the key to aromatherapy.

Aromatherapy Information Overview

Remember the heady fragrance of an herb or flower garden on a hot summer's day, or the crisp smell of an orange as you peel it? These odors are the fragrance of the plant's essential oils, the potent, volatile, and aromatic substance contained in various parts of the plant, including its flowers, leaves, roots, wood, seeds, fruit, and bark. The essential oils carry concentrations of the plant's healing properties -- those same properties that traditional Western medicine utilizes in many drugs.

What is Aromatherapy?

Aromatherapy simply means the application of those healing powers -- it is a fragrant cure. Professional aromatherapists focus very specifically on the controlled use of essential oils to treat ailments and disease and to promote physical and emotional well-being.

Aromatherapy doesn't just work through the sense of smell alone, however. Inhalation is only one application method. Essential oils can also be applied to the skin. When used topically, the oils penetrate the skin, taking direct action on body tissues and organs in the vicinity of application. They also enter the bloodstream and are carried throughout the body. Of course, when applied topically the fragrance of the essential oil is also inhaled.

There are three different modes of action in the body: pharmacological, which affects the chemistry of the body; physiological, which affects the ability of the body to function and process; and psychological, which affects emotions and attitudes. These three modes interact continuously. Aromatherapy is so powerful partly because it affects all three modes. You choose the application method based on where you most want the effects concentrated and on what is most convenient and pleasing to you.

Aromatherapy is actually an aspect of a larger category of healing treatment known as herbal medicine. Herbal medicine also utilizes the healing powers of plants to treat physical and emotional problems, but it uses the whole plant or parts of the plant, such as leaves, flowers, roots, and seeds, rather than the essential oil. Aromatherapy and herbal medicine can be used individually, or they can be used jointly to augment potential healing benefits.

Therapeutic Uses of Essential Oils

You can treat a wide range of physical problems with aromatherapy. Almost all essential oils have antiseptic properties and are able to fight infection and destroy bacteria, fungi, yeast, parasites, and/or viruses. Many essential oils also reduce aches and pain, soothe or rout inflammations and spasms, stimulate the immune system and insulin and hormone production, affect blood circulation, dissolve mucus and open nasal passages, or aid digestion -- just to mention a few of their amazing properties.

Aromatherapy can also have a considerable influence on our emotions. Sniffing clary sage, for example, can quell panic, while the fragrance released by peeling an orange can make you feel more optimistic. Since your mind strongly influences your health and is itself a powerful healing tool, it makes aromatherapy's potential even more exciting.

Many essential oils perform more than one function, so having just a half-dozen or so on hand will help you treat a wide range of common physical ailments and emotional problems. The beauty of aromatherapy is that you can create a blend of oils that will benefit both in one treatment. For example, you can blend a combination of essential oils that not only stops indigestion, but also reduces the nervous condition that encouraged it. Or, you could design an aromatherapy body lotion that both improves your complexion and relieves depression.

On the next page, we will look at an integral part of aromatherapy -- essential oils.

To learn more about Aromatherapy and other alternative medicines, see:
  • Aromatherapy: Here you will learn about aromatherapy, how it works, what part essential oils play, and how to use aromatherapy.
  • How Essential Oils Work: In this article, you will learn how essential oils are produced, the difference between essential oils, and how to buy and store essential oils.
  • How to Treat Common Conditions With Aromatherapy: Aromatherapy can be used to treat a number of conditions, from asthma to depression to skin problems. Here you will learn how to treat some common medical problems with aromatherapy.
  • Home Remedies: We have gathered over a hundred safe, time-tested home remedies for treating a wide variety of medical complaints yourself.
  • Herbal Remedies: Herbal remedies and aromatherapy can be very similar, and they stem from similar historic roots. On this page, you will find all of our herb profiles and instructions for treating medical problems with herbal remedies.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

Citral is the molecule that gives  lemons, citronella, lemongrass, and many others their familiar scent.

What Are Essential Oils?

Plants take the light of the sun, the minerals of the earth, and the carbon dioxide exhaled by humans and animals and, through photosynthesis, transform them into the building blocks of medicine. Among the most important therapeutic compounds manufactured by plants are essential oils. These volatile oils contain a variety of active constituents and are also responsible for each plant's unique fragrance.

Fragrance Molecules

The basic elements of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen combine to form the different organic molecular compounds that produce aromas. So far, more than 30,000 of these molecular compounds have been identified and named. Most individual essential oils consist of many different aromatic molecular compounds. In fact, the essential oil from just one plant may contain as many as one hundred different fragrance molecules. In nature there are thousands of plants, all with unique fragrances that are comprised of different combinations of these molecules.

Plants that smell similar to one another usually contain some of the same molecular compounds. Lemon verbena, lemon balm (melissa), lemon thyme, lemon eucalyptus, citronella, lemongrass, and lemon itself, for instance, all smell like lemon because they contain a lemon-scented molecule called citral. But it is the other aromatic molecules they contain that give each plant its unique fragrance.

Aromatic compounds are grouped under larger classes of compounds such as terpenes, phenols, aldehydes, alcohols, ketones, acids, esters, coumarins, and occasionally, oxides. Citral is an aldehyde; eugenol is a phenol. Each molecular compound has characteristic scents and actions on the body. Some may be cooling and relaxing, while others are warming and stimulating. Some are better for treating indigestion, while others are antiseptic.

Every effect of an essential oil has a chemical explanation. These effects include their biological activity in the body (beneficial, irritating, or toxic), their solubility (in oil or alcohol, for instance), how rapidly they evaporate in air or are absorbed through the skin, and how well different oils combine as scents. Aldehydes such as those found in cinnamon and lemongrass, for example, have a slightly fruity odor and may often cause skin irritation and allergic reaction. Ketones found in fennel, caraway, and rosemary are not metabolized easily and may pass unchanged into the urine. The phenols found in clove and thyme are very likely to be irritating.

The proportion of aromatic compounds in a particular type of plant is not necessarily constant. This proportion can change from year to year depending on the plants' growing conditions, including geographic location, elevation, climate, soil quality, and the methods used to harvest it and extract the essential oil. Consistent variations found in the same species are called chemotypes, or chemical types (CT). Aromatherapists often take advantage of these natural alterations, selecting a certain chemotype over the standard for its special attributes.

The Physiology of Scent

Essential oil molecules enter the body through the nose and the skin. Since these molecules are extremely small and float easily through the air, you can simply inhale them into your lungs, which then disperse them into your bloodstream. The blood quickly carries them throughout your body. Essential oil molecules are also small enough to be absorbed through the pores of the skin.

Once absorbed, some molecules enter the bloodstream, while others remain in the area of application or evaporate into the air. How much goes where depends on the size of the essential oil molecules, the method of application (massage increases absorption), and the carrier containing the essential oil, be it alcohol, vegetable oil, vinegar, or water. This makes essential oils perfect for healing a specific skin problem as well as the entire body.

The sense of smell has its own important mechanisms. High in the nose is the olfactory epithelium, two smell receptors about the size of dimes. The receptors pick up volatile and lipid-soluble molecules using tiny filaments called cilia, which may actually be able to identify odor molecules by their "shape." It is believed that these odor receptors are coded by a huge family of genes to sense particular components of smell that produce a characteristic "fingerprint" pattern of activity in the brain.

From the olfactory mucus membrane, signals travel to olfactory bulbs that extend forward like tiny spoons from the brain. An electrical impulse then goes directly to the limbic system, which is part of what is called the primitive or "old" brain. Smell, it seems, was our first sense, and our old brain actually evolved from the olfactory stalks. Because recognition of smell moves directly into the old brain, it completely bypasses areas that control reasoning and the central nervous system.

Thus, it directly influences survival mechanisms such as "fight or flight" reactions and the autonomic functions of the body, including heartbeat, body temperature, appetite, digestion, sexual arousal, and memory -- the functions we can't control by will or reason. It also affects instincts such as emotions, attraction/repulsion, lust, and creativity. The senses of hearing and vision, by contrast, first stimulate the thalamus, which registers only warmth and pain. Furthermore, the old brain is directly connected to the hypothalamus and pituitary glands, and therefore to our immune system and hormones, which is why smell affects them so powerfully.

Damage to the limbic system of the old brain has been found to adversely affect memory and cause eating disorders and sexual dysfunction. Thus, medical researchers hope to someday treat such memory disorders as Alzheimer disease with fragrance. Other treatments being researched include those for fatigue, migraine headaches, food cravings, depression, schizophrenia, and anxiety.

On our final page, you will learn about how essential oils and aromatherapy work together.

To learn more about Aromatherapy and other alternative medicines, see:
  • Aromatherapy: Here you will learn about aromatherapy, how it works, what part essential oils play, and how to use aromatherapy.
  • How Essential Oils Work: In this article, you will learn how essential oils are produced, the difference between essential oils, and how to buy and store essential oils. How to Treat Common Conditions With Aromatherapy: Aromatherapy can be used to treat a number of conditions, from asthma to depression to skin problems. Here you will learn how to treat some common medical problems with aromatherapy.
  • Home Remedies: We have gathered over a hundred safe, time-tested home remedies for treating a wide variety of medical complaints yourself.
  • Herbal Remedies: Herbal remedies and aromatherapy can be very similar, and they stem from similar historic roots. On this page, you will find all of our herb profiles and instructions for treating medical problems with herbal remedies.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

Essential Oils and Aromatherapy

Have you ever smelled a certain flower or cologne and suddenly experienced deja vu? Or perhaps you've caught a whiff of fir and immediately envisioned a Christmas tree even in the middle of July. Scent can transport us back to previous experiences, triggering long forgotten feelings associated with those memories. That's because a particular aroma triggers areas of the brain that influence your emotions, memory, cardiovascular functioning, and hormonal balance. Your body thinks you are there!

In fact, memories associated with scent influence us more than most of us realize. Realtors know that the smell of baking cookies, heightened by the aroma of vanilla, can sell a house because it reminds potential buyers of being nurtured. In fact, realtors can forgo the cookies and simply scent the air with a vanilla fragrance.

The Sweet Smell of Success

International Flavors and Fragrances, Inc. (IFF), a New Jersey research company, has tested more than 2,000 people to better understand how certain scents summon deep-seated memories and affect personality, behavior, and sleep patterns. They found that pleasant smells put people into better moods and make them more willing to negotiate, cooperate, and compromise.

As a result of these and other studies, several large Tokyo corporations circulate the essential oils of lemon, peppermint, and cypress in their air-conditioning systems to keep workers alert and attentive on the job. As a happy side-effect, this practice is said to reduce the employees' urge to smoke. Pleasing fragrances are being pumped into offices, stores, and hotels in cities around the world to make the atmosphere more relaxing and invigorating, a task that multidimensional essential oils handle with ease. Of course, what these companies really want is for you to feel so comfortable that you will stay longer and return often.

Natural Uppers and Downers

Memory and association are only one way scents affect us psychologically. According to researchers studying aromacology, the science of medicinal aromas, fragrance actually alters our brain waves.

For instance, stimulating scents such as peppermint and eucalyptus intensify brain waves, making the mind sharper and clearer. The effects are similar to those of coffee, but are achieved without caffeine's detrimental impact on the adrenal glands. As a result, aroma is currently helping workers such as truck drivers and air traffic controllers, whose jobs -- and the safety of others -- depend on their being attentive.

Certain fragrances can also produce the opposite effect. If you inhale a flowery draft of chamomile tea, your brain waves will lengthen, causing you to feel relaxed. This is similar to the effect of taking a sedative drug but without the concomitant liver damage.

Some essential oils have effects similar to antidepressant drugs, according to the Olfaction Research Group at Warwick University in England. Italian psychiatrist Paolo Rovesti, M.D., helped is patients overcome depression using the scents of various citruses, such as orange, bergamot, lemon, and lemon verbena.

Psychologists help people overcome anxiety, tension, and mood swings by having them associate a scent with feelings of rest and contentment. The psychologist uses biofeedback or visualization techniques to help the client relax, and then sniff a relaxing scent. Later, the client can simply smell the relaxation scent when he or she becomes nervous or anxious.

To learn more about Aromatherapy and other alternative medicines, see:
  • Aromatherapy: Here you will learn about aromatherapy, how it works, what part essential oils play, and how to use aromatherapy.
  • How Essential Oils Work: In this article, you will learn how essential oils are produced, the difference between essential oils, and how to buy and store essential oils.
  • How to Treat Common Conditions With Aromatherapy: Aromatherapy can be used to treat a number of conditions, from asthma to depression to skin problems. Here you will learn how to treat some common medical problems with aromatherapy.
  • Home Remedies: We have gathered over a hundred safe, time-tested home remedies for treating a wide variety of medical complaints yourself.
  • Herbal Remedies: Herbal remedies and aromatherapy can be very similar, and they stem from similar historic roots. On this page, you will find all of our herb profiles and instructions for treating medical problems with herbal remedies.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Kathi Keville is director of the American Herb Association and editor of the American Herb Association Quarterly newsletter. A writer, photographer, consultant, and teacher specializing in aromatherapy and herbs for over 25 years, she has written several books, including Aromatherapy: The Complete Guide to the Healing Art and Pocket Guide to Aromatherapy, and has written over 150 articles for such magazines as New Age Journal, The Herb Companion, and New Herbal Remedies.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.