What Is Aromatherapy?


Aromatherapy uses extracts of plants (called essential oils) in a variety of ways to promote mental and physical health. It is a form of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM).

People inhale these oils or put them on the skin. They can be used alone or with “carrier oils” that dilute them.

What are essential oils?

For thousands of years, essential oils have been used in various cultures for medicinal and health purposes. They have antidepressant, stimulating, detoxifying, antibacterial, antiviral and calming properties, and continue to gain popularity as natural, safe and cost-effective therapies for many common ailments.

These concentrated liquids can be extracted from the roots, seeds, flowers and bark of plants. They contain a variety of chemical compounds known as phytochemicals, including polyphenols, terpenes and esters. These chemicals give the plant its scent and help protect it from harsh environmental conditions and assist in its pollination.

When used for therapeutic purposes, they can be inhaled (using a diffuser), applied to the skin or occasionally taken internally – though only with specific instruction from a trained and credentialed aromatherapist. When inhaled or applied to the skin, they are absorbed through the pores and into the bloodstream. For internal use, they must be diluted with carrier oils like coconut oil or jojoba oil to prevent sensitivities.

How do essential oils work?

The scent molecules in essential oils travel to the brain and specifically impact the amygdala, a part of the limbic system that controls emotions. This may explain why certain scents have been shown to lift mood or reduce stress and anxiety.

The oils can be inhaled or diluted and applied to the skin, but they should not be swallowed (1, 2). The chemicals in the oil collaborate with your body in several ways, and it’s thought that certain application techniques improve absorption, such as applying with heat or to different zones of the body.

Proponents of aromatherapy claim that essential oils can help with everything from reducing pain and nausea to improving sleep and decreasing anxiety. More research is needed to prove these claims, but some studies support the use of essential oils for promoting relaxation and well-being. Many people also find that pairing aromatherapy with other spiritual or healing modalities enhances the effects. For example, using lavender in conjunction with a meditation session can help you relax more deeply.

What are the techniques for aromatherapy?

Aromatherapy can be used in a variety of ways. Inhaling oils is one of the most common methods, but they can also be massaged into the skin or inhaled via a diffuser. Some people have found that combining aromatherapy with other therapies (such as massage) can enhance the benefits.

Many cancer hospitals and clinics in the UK have aromatherapists that are trained to work with people with cancer. Ask your nurse or doctor if they can recommend someone.

Before you start an aromatherapy treatment, it’s important to check that your aromatherapist is qualified. Look for one that is a member of a professional body, as this will ensure they have been properly trained and adhere to a code of practice. It is also a good idea to let your aromatherapist know if you have any diagnosed medical conditions, like epilepsy or asthma, or if you take prescription medication as some essential oils may interact with these.

What are the risks of aromatherapy?

Some people use aromatherapy to relieve skin problems, such as dermatitis or psoriasis. Other conditions that may benefit from aromatherapy include nausea, headaches, or pain from rheumatoid arthritis and other forms of chronic illness.

The smell of the oils triggers cells in your nose to send messages to the brain, which in turn affect how you feel and function. For example, studies have shown that smelling lavender reduces anxiety in people with trait anxiety.

The safety of using aromatherapy varies according to the method used and the type of oil used. Inhalation and ingestion of essential oils should be done under the guidance of a trained professional. Some essential oils are poisonous, even before dilution, and can cause serious damage to the liver, kidneys, or nervous system when taken by mouth. Certain oils can also interfere with some medications. Pregnant women should avoid using most oils because some can cross the placental barrier and harm a fetus.