The Basics of Aromatherapy
Why and How It Works
"Aromatherapy is using the essential oils of plants, flowers, seeds, leaves, and roots to promote health and well-being," explains Barbara Close, a certified aromatherapist and founder and owner of Naturopathica, a holistic spa in East Hampton, New York. Close says many people make the mistake of thinking aromatherapy is nothing more than scented candles. On the contrary, aromatherapy covers many issues of health and well-being. Holistic aromatherapy uses essential oils to heal the body (for example, a drop of thyme oil under the tongue for someone feeling the first symptoms of a cold or flu) while psycho-aromatherapy addresses the way smells affect our moods and well-being.
The scientific reasons behind why and how aromatherapy works involve the human body and our response to scent. Experts suggest the olfactory nerve takes the smells of essential oils and carries them to the parts of the brain involving our emotions and hormones. When essential oils are used in bath or body products, the oils are absorbed through the skin and into the nervous and muscular systems for a restorative effect. This explains why you feel more relaxed when you light a lavender candle, use a rose room spray, or rub on massage oil with ylang-ylang.
Essential oils are chemical compounds that can be antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and even antiviral. Essential oils are made from plants, but not all plants have essential oils. "Most are steamed distilled -- that's the most common form of extraction -- but some citrus oils like orange and lime are cold pressed," explains Tina Rocca-Lundstrom, a certified aromatherapist and president and founder of Aroma Naturals, a California-based retailer of aromatherapy products.
Because essential oils are very concentrated, a drop goes a long way. Applying essential oils directly to the skin can cause irritation, so many people use a carrier oil (such as safflower, grape-seed, or sweet almond oil) that helps dilute the product and make it more user-friendly.
Essential-oil blends also allow you to customize the desired fragrance and/or therapeutic effect. "Different people get different things out of the oils, so you have to find what works best for your system," says Rocca-Lundstrom.
"People are very interested in finding simple ritual ways to take care of their well-being, and as they look at their stress levels they are turning to aromatherapy to take care of that," adds Close. "Aromatherapy is a lot like people working with and learning about wine. There's a lot of information out there, but once you get started you will be excited and love it."