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Aromatherapy: Herbs, Oils and More

In this article, we discuss the origin of aromatherapy and give you information about aromatherapy benefits and how to perform aromatherapy in your own home. Did you know that aromatherapy was discovered in the late 1920s? In 1928, French chemist Rene-Maurice Gattefoss was working in a laboratory at his family's perfumery. A sudden explosion severely burned his hand, which he quickly plunged into a container of lavender oil. Afterward, he was surprised by how quickly his hand healed.

Gattefoss began exploring the therapeutic properties of plants and later coined the term "aromatherapy." For many people, aromatherapy conjures up images of scented oil and candles, maybe a bubble bath at the end of a stressful day. But nowadays aromatherapy is far more than just fragrant lotions and sweet-smelling incense.

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Aromatherapy — the application or inhalation of what are called essential plant oils — is a growing industry. Many essential oils have medicinal properties that heal infections or calm frazzled nerves. You can purchase essential oils in stores that sell natural products and through catalog and Internet companies. Most are mixed with a lotion made from vegetable oil, such as almond or grape seed, and then applied to the skin.

One of the most popular ways of enjoying the effects of aromatherapy is with a diffuser and a few drops of an essential oil — perhaps lavender to calm down after a hectic day or lemon for a little pick-me-up. The simplest diffuser is a pot of boiling water on the stove with a few drops of an essential oil added to it. Carefully lean over and you have a facial steam.

The Cadillac of diffusers is the nebulizer, a small machine that diffuses essential oils on a current of air. The nebulizer ionizes and suspends very fine oil molecules in the air for maximum effect. An increasing number of health professionals are using aromatherapy to alleviate stress, pain and infection. One key factor in the success of aromatherapy is the nose and its powerful sense of smell.

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Scientists at several major research centers have concluded that certain odors can affect mood and behavior. Lavender and vanilla, for example, can relax a person, says Dr. Alan R. Hirsch of the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago.

Hirsch and his colleagues have found that the quickest way to change a mood is with the sense of smell. Researchers at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia have shown that odors provide the best memory cues because a person's oldest and most emotionally laden memories are connected with smells.

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Michele Erwin, who runs a small aromatherapy business on the Internet from her home in Colorado, has found that vanilla triggers a tremendous feeling of happiness because it reminds her of making ice cream as a child with her great grandmother in Ohio.

"For me, vanilla is tied to one of the best things in life," says Erwin, who now lives in the small town of Telluride in the San Juan Mountains.

"There are a lot of wonderful memories connected with that — spending time with my great grandmother, turning the crank, eating homemade ice cream." Erwin, who is 30, learned about aromatherapy while trying to figure how to get rid of acne that cropped up about five years ago. Nothing seemed to work. She tried natural skin products and then started experimenting with aromatherapy.

She learned to make facial masks of green clay, floral water, eggs, lavender and juniper berry. Her acne cleared up and has never returned. She also works as a bookkeeper, but her real love is aromatherapy.

"Aromatherapy has enhanced my life in many, many ways," Erwin says. "I have become confident and happy. My emotions can always be changed with a single whiff. I am more emotionally balanced, and stress over everyday life is less of an impact."

According to Hirsch, the future of medicine lies in aromatherapy. "We're already seeing aromatherapy more and more in the treatment of patients. Ten years from now aromatherapy will be a regular part of the physician's palette." Hirsch says that in the future, instead of simply prescribing valium as a sedative, a physician will prescribe a small dose of valium supplemented with lavender. For male impotence? A small dose of the revolutionary new drug Viagra along with a mixture of lavender and pumpkin, known to heighten male sexual arousal.

Erwin is likewise convinced. "With the right oils, my muscle aches heal faster, my burns and bruises disappear, and fatigue is no longer in my vocabulary ... All of these things have made my life safer, simpler and more enjoyable."

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