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Aromatherapy

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Updated May 29, 2012

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

What is Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy is a branch of herbal medicine that uses the medicinal properties of the essential oils of plants and herbs. The use of plant essential oils dates back to the ancient times in Egypt, Italy, India, and China. French chemist Rene-Maurice Gattefosse coined the term aromatherapy in 1937, when he witnessed first-hand the healing power of lavender oil on healing skin burns.

Today, aromatherapy is widely practiced in North America and Europe. It is often integrated into holistic treatments, and is used in spa treatments and products such as candles, massage oil, and other relaxation products.

The essential oils used in aromatherapy are plant volatile oils from the flowers, leaves, stems, buds, branches, or roots that have been extracted using steam distillation, water and stem distillation or cold-pressing.

How Aromatherapy Works

Essential oils can affect almost every organ system in the body. Each essential oil has a unique pharmacological effect, such as anti-bacterial, antiviral, diuretic, vasodilator, tranquilizing, and adrenal stimulating.

When an essential oil is inhaled, the molecules enter the nasal cavity and stimulate the limbic system in the brain. The libic system is a region that influences emotions and memories and is directly linked to the adrenals, pituitary gland, the hypothalamus, the parts of the body that regulate heart rate, blood pressure, stress, memory, hormone balance, and breathing. This makes the effects of essential oils immediate in bringing about emotional and physiological balance.

Essential oils can be toxic when taken internally so they should only be taken orally under the guidance of a qualified professional.

Conditions Treated by Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy can be used for a variety of health conditions, such as allergies, stress, bruises, burns, diarrhea, earache, prementrual syndrome (PMS), energy, insect bites, relaxation, poor digestion, headache, menopause, insomnia, nausea, bronchitis, colds, flu, sinusitis, sprains, wounds, shingles (herpes zoster), muscle and joint pain, arthritis, nervousenss, restlessness, and scars.

Home Remedies Using Aromatherapy

Essential oils can be used at home by inhalation or topical application. Steam inhalation is often used for respiratory conditions. Steam inhalation involves adding 2-3 drops of essential oil of eucalyptus, roosemary, tea tree, or other oil to hot water and holding the face over the pot with a towel draped to form a tent.

A few drops of essential oils can also be added to baths, compresses, or massage oils.

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