Aromatherapy is really a misnamed and therefore misunderstood application of care management.  Aromatherapy is actually the therapeutic use of Essential Oils which are essences of a given plant and contain all the complexities/compounds of that plant material.  The oils are obtained through a process of extraction making them quite potent and their use should not be taken lightly!  They were originally referred to as ‘quintessential oil’-consisting of five parts-fire, air, earth, water, and spirit.

Essential Oils

Do not confuse Essential Oils with Fragrances (taking a smell and reproducing chemically) or Tinctures (a diluted extract form of the botanical).

Keep in mind that Aromatherapy is a treatment method which addresses the whole person.  it is Holistic in nature requiring a thorough evaluation of/determination for need in support of a person’s mental, emotional, spiritual and physical well-being.  In reality, the use of Essential Oils is a branch of Herbal Medicine (oldest of the Modalities).   Remember also, they are very concentrated 75-100 times more powerful than dried herbs; and have molecules corresponding to certain molecular structures in our bodies.

Here is a brief history lesson regarding the use of plant materials for medicinal purposes:

  • Neanderthal people used botanical materials for burial 60,000-80,000 years ago.
  • Cro-Magnon paintings have been found in caves in France dating 16,000 BCE
  • 3000 or 2000 to 600 BC Babylonians left records about use of fragrant plants and medicinal herbs.
  • 6000 years ago plant and botanicals were used by Civilizations of Ancient Sumerian peoples in Mesopotamia.; 5500 BC evidence comes form Middle East and China; 2600 BC American Indians, South American Cultures were also using!
    • Use of aromatic plants first used by Chinese for well-being.  Also involved use of incense to create harmony and balance.
    • Oils were used by the Egyptians for perfumes, embalming and massage.  They used a distillation machine process for the extraction of the oils and also develop an infusion process. They utilized both oils and herbs for their spiritual, medicinal, fragrant and cosmetic use.  (perfumes referred to the latin per fumum  meaning through the smoke.)    
    • The Greeks credited their use of oils to the Gods although taken from Egyptians also.  Hippocrates ‘Father of Medicine’ practiced fumigation for aromatic and medicinal benefits.  Mageleion, a Greek perfumer, included Myrrh (placed in a fatty oil base) which served for 1 Aroma, 2. Anti-inflammatory properties toward skin, and 3. Healing of Wounds.
    • During the Roman Empire , Discords described the properties of some 500 plants in a book “De Materia Medica.”
    • The first distilled oil is thought to be rose 1000 AD.
    • Emphasis on distilled the oils and producing concentrated forms really transpired from the 11th – 13th Centuries.
    • During the Medieval Times, Monks grew, processed, and administered the herbs used for medicinal purposes.
    • From 13th-16th Centuries, the Pharmaceutical Industry was born utilizing the development of many additional oil distillations.  Those involved daily escaped the Black Plague of the 14th Century!  Much research was done along with experimentation of different plant usage.  Books were written! paracelsus, an alchemist, medical doctor, and rather radical in his treatment regime’ -used term ‘Essence’ and focused upon using plants as medicines.
    • By the 16th Century a person could purchase oils at an apothecary-having a large selection addressing medical and other issues.
    • The perfume industry broke away and became its own art form during the 17th-18th century,
    • The 19th century brought about the scientific research isolating the constituents of essential oils.
    • Up until the mid 18th and into the 19th century, all parts of the botanical materials were used in the treatment of illnesses. 
      • It is during this time that chemical compounds and medicines were invented and became popular. Worthy of note: these chemical compounds and medicines were derived from the very same plants and essential oils  always used!  However only one active compound  would be selected (thought most active) and the process was cheaper to produce.
    • By the 20th-21st centuries, the practice of separating the constituents of plants and essential oils to make synthetic chemicals and drugs grew leading to ‘modern medicine/pharmaceutical’ applications— The premise being that these would be more beneficial therapeutically and economically.  This has included the rise of synthetic fragrances also.
    • Reality check!  These processes have actually weakened the effectiveness of the drugs and medicines being currently used.  Essential oils use the complete complement of constituents contained within the plant part for their medicinal and aromatic benefits. It is the fact that all of the plant material is used thus allowing the constituents to effectively work together.
      • —-The cries are going out for the resurgence— calling for the return to the natural beneficial use of the ‘tried and true’ forms for our therapies.  These are advocated in their true forms, not changed!

    Administration and How Essential Oils Work

    Each oil is comprised of complex mixtures of chemical constituents!  These are further broken down into Chemical Compounds, Esters and Ketones.  There are literally hundreds of them in each oil resulting in numerous uses:

    • Anti-fungal properties.
    • Anti-inflammatory properties.
    • Antiseptic.
    • Calm and Sedate the mind.
    • Calm the nervous system.
    • Cooling.
    • Expectorant.
    • Healing properties.
    • Mood Altering.
    • Stimulant.
    • Toning.
    • Warming.

    Inhalation is the most common administration of Essential Oils. (Affects mood and emotions.) By stimulating the Olfactory nerves, the chemicals are able to work on the brain and nervous systems.  There is a direct route to the Limbic System which is our memory centre.  What we smell, affects memory, emotions, self-expression, the adrenal system, our internal environment, and sexual system.  The Limbic System then connects to rest of brain where the Endocrine System is alerted.  Inhalation also directly effects the Respiratory System, bloodstream, and organs.

    Topical administration is second choice by applying directly on skin. (Physical-body response) Remember that anything put on the skin is provided with a direct route to the bloodstream via absorption.  Effects of topical applications are: cooling, calming, warming, toning, and invigorating.

    Oral Ingestion is reserved for Advanced Practice Healthcare Providers because of the additional knowledge base needed by the practitioner.  Must dilute oils before administering!

    Robert Tisserand, pg 50, of Essential Oil Safety states that ‘only Medical Professionals who are qualified to diagnose illness and qualified to prescribe medications should be using oils internally.’

                    • Slowest mode of action: takes at lest one hour to exert effect
                    • Food can interfere with absorption=erratic
                    • Oils are concentrated- can cause irritation/ulcers to esophagus and digestive tract. (Some are toxic when taken internally!)
                    • High risk of adulteration through processing—don’t know what chemical solvents were used.
                    • Action has low bioavailability.
                    • There are more contraindications and side effects
                    • Hazards are magnified—risk of overdose!
                    • Can induce nausea and vomiting
                    • Esters may hydrolyze (decompose) in stomach.
                    • Internal oils are processed by liver

    There are many safety considerations to become aware of when using Essential Oils—they are Medicinal in nature.  It is advised you do your homework:

    If interested in addition information or  taking classes to learn about Essential Oils and the Standards of Practice applied to their use. i recommend this organization and instructor.

    National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy

    Mind, Soul, and Self LLC  Christina Wilke-Burbach