Introduction to Using Essential Oils in Aromatherapy
Aromatherapy is a form of natural medicine that uses aromatic plant materials and oil to improve physical and mental well-being. It can be used on its own or alongside other conventional or alternative therapies and medicine. Aromatherapists use essential oils individually as well as by combining these into blends. These can then be used in a variety of ways for massage, inhalation and application to the skin.
However, as with many forms of natural medicine, aromatherapy is not safe for use by everyone and there are many plants and oils that should be avoided in certain circumstances such as during pregnancy or by people with some pre-existing medical conditions. One example of this is that rosemary, fennel, sage, eucalyptus, hyssop, camphor and spike lavender essential oils should be avoided by people who have epilepsy. This is because they can trigger a seizure in some people.
The therapeutic use of essential oils can be traced back to many ancient civilizations including those of Greece, Egypt and China. Oils were used in healing, spiritual and ritual practices and the Greeks and Romans also used them in cosmetics and perfumes. In past times, essentials oil were regarded as a luxury item and were sometimes used as payment for other items. The use of essential oils in healing was written about by the Greek physician, pharmacologist and botanist Pedanius Dioscorides in De Materia Medica. This five volume medical encyclopaedia details the use of 600 plants and their medical uses and is regarded as the prime historical source of information on the medicines used by the ancient cultures of Greece and Rome.
Aromatherapy is believed to work in three ways: smell, inhalation and by absorption through the skin.
Smell: Our sense of small is linked to some of the most primitive areas of the brain and breathing in aromas has the ability to trigger emotional and physical responses and remind us of people, places and events in the past. When we breathe in, the aromatic molecules of the essential oils travel to specialised nerves cells, known as olfactory cells. The tiny hairs of the olfactory cells each recognise specific aromas and then send nerve impulses into the limbic system. It is believed that this nerve activity alters brain chemistry and can in term causes changes in mood.
Inhalation: Inhalation allows the essential oils to travel into the body where their beneficial properties can then be absorbed. This is especially effective for treating issues within the respiratory system, for example in the sinuses, throat and chest. There are many methods of using aromatherapy via inhalation such as using essential oils in oil burners and diffusers. When the oils are heated in either of these their molecules travel into the air where they can be freely inhaled by anyone nearby.
Absorption: The molecules of essential oils are small enough to be able to travel through our skin and down into the blood vessels. From here they can then travel throughout the body taking their beneficial properties with them. Essential oils can be diluted and used in massage or can be added to bath and body products for use on the body. Simple balms and salves can be made at home or if you prefer you can use unscented bought products.
Essential Oils in Aromatherapy
Essential oils can be used individually or combined to create blends for specific uses. The oils that you choose will depend on your desired outcome as each type has different beneficial properties. Essentials oil can aid us in health and well-being in many ways that include:
- As a relaxant and for stress relief
- As a decongestant
- Aiding sleep
- Relieving anxiety
- For their antiseptic, antiviral and antibacterial properties
- Pain relief
- Aiding digestion
- Inhibiting free radical activity
- Reducing inflammation
Essential oils also differ in whether they are stimulating or sedating and so this will also influence which are used in each situation. This is also taken into consideration when creating blends of essential oils as the oils used need to be balanced and suitable for the intended purpose. For example, if you are looking to create a soothing and calming blend for diffusing at home, you would not want to include any oils that are known to be stimulating such as lemon, peppermint and ylang ylang.
In addition to this, essential oils are classified by scent characteristics known as notes and these are divided into three groups: base notes, middle notes and top notes. When blending essential oils, these are generally used in combination with each other in order to produce a well-balanced fragrance. However, this balance can also be altered to suit the stimulating or sedating effects of an oil blend.
A typical stimulating blend of essential oils may contain two or even three top notes, one middle and one base note whereas a blend intended to create a calming atmosphere would contain only one top and middle note and two or three base notes. More oils can be used but using more types of essential oil in a blend does not always result in a better fragrance or more beneficial effect. One or two carefully selected oils will bring better results than mixing many scents that are less suitable for your need.
This group of essential oils often have anti-viral properties and a light, refreshing scent. They tend to be uplifting and are the scent that you will smell first when heating an oil blend. Top notes tend to get into the air faster than other oils but last the shortest amount of time. These essential oils are commonly made from flowers, leaves and flowering herbs and can be very helpful in acute conditions due to the fact that they are fast acting. Top notes are the first scents to reach and stimulate the limbic system, starting the process of healing. They are useful in lifting emotion, lifting a heavy atmosphere and increasing awareness, focus and alertness. Some examples of top note oil include basil, eucalyptus, tea tree and verbena.
These oils give body and balance to blends of essential oils and are the most commonly available. Middle notes are generally warm and comforting fragrances though they may not be immediately noticeable. They are very beneficial when used to assist and balance body’s major systems and are mainly created from spices and herbs. Middle notes are also effective when used to heal issues that stem from connections between the mental, emotional and physical states of being, for example when stress leads to physical symptoms within the body such as insomnia, irritability and anxiety. Essential oils that are classed as middle notes include geranium, cypress, fennel, melissa, rose, chamomile and black pepper.
Base notes are oils that have a tendency towards being heavy and intense. Their aroma lasts for a long time and can help to slow down the evaporation of other oils in a blend. These are rich and relaxing oils but are often more expensive than other types of essential oil. Base note oils are derived from resins and gums and possess properties of groundedness, support, solidity and stability. They are a good choice for any condition linked to anxiety, nervousness, chronic conditions and mental and emotional difficulties resulting from traumatic events. Benzoin, frankincense, neroli, pine, sandalwood, myrrh and vanilla are all considered base note oils.
Five Methods of Using Essential Oils in Aromatherapy
There are many ways that we can use essential oils to benefit from their healing and beneficial properties. Oils can be used at home every day or as needed using diffusers and when used in this way will also add a pleasant fragrance to our homes. There is a wide range of products available that can be used in this way including electrically powered diffusers as well as essential oil burners that heat the oils using a tea light candle.
When using these items, water is placed in a small dish or reservoir and then drops of essential oil are added to the water. This is then heated using a candle or electric warmer and the scents of the oils are released into the surrounding air. This method is a good way for several people to benefit from using the oils for example when you want to create a calming atmosphere at home or for relaxation before going to bed.
Even if you do not want to or cannot use a burner or diffuser, there are still many ways to use essential oils to benefit your well-being. Examples of common methods of use include:
- Simple Inhalation Method: Place a few drops of essential oil on to a hanky or tissue and place this nearby or hold close to your nose for short periods. Oils can also be dropped on to a piece of clothing or bedding but care should be taken with this as they may stain or damage some fabrics. If you have trouble sleeping a few drops of lavender or relaxing oil can be placed on a cloth or tissue and placed inside your pillowcase.
- Skin Application: Essential oils that are for use directly on the skin should be diluted using carrier oil such as sweet almond, jojoba or apricot kernel oil. Once diluted essential oils are commonly applied behind the ears or on the wrists and temples and can be used in place of perfume. Diluted essential oils can also be used in massage.
- Steam Inhalation: Care must be taken using this method as it involves using boiling water and so may not be safe for use by everyone. Boil 2-3 cups of water and pour this into a bowl. Add 2-5 drops of your chosen oil to the water and stir to distribute. Sit so that your face will be approximately 12 inches from the water and place a towel over your head and the bowl trapping the steam inside for inhalation. Steam inhalation can be very effective for easing the symptoms of coughs and colds or for clearing the sinuses.
- Use in the Bath or Shower: Your chosen essential oil can be added to your bath water where you can benefit from their effects via skin absorption as well as through any steam that is produced. For use in showers oils can be applied to a cloth or sponge. Essential oils can also be used to create your own bath and body products such as soaps or bubble baths and salts. These do not have to be complicated to make and a simple liquid soap/bubble bath can be bath using castile soap. Essential oils can also be added to Epsom salts which have their own range of beneficial properties to our health.
- Aromatherapy Jewellery: It is possible to buy jewellery that is designed for use with essential oils and this are generally found in the form of necklaces and bracelets. Oils are added to these and then the jewellery is worn as normal keeping the benefits of the chosen oil with you all day.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
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