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Aromatherapy 101

Aromatherapy is the therapeutic use of essential oils from plants. The term was coined in 1928. The food and perfume industries are the largest users of essential and fragrance oils. Essential oils are the odoriferous part of plants. These extracts are distilled and are applied to the body by message, inhaled, used as a compress or inserted into a bodily orifice.

Modern day aromatherapy is one of the fastest growing complementary therapies. Skeptics reject aromatherapy as lacking in scientific basis and for a lack of clinical trials.

The use of incense and oils is in fact ancient. They were widely used by the ancient Egyptians, Native American and others from all over the world. You know one from the stories in the Bible. Have you heard of myrrh? Vases of essential oils were found with Tutankhamen in 1922. They still retained their distinctive fragrance after 3,000 years. Essential oils are commonly mixtures of over 100 different organic compounds.

Aromatherapy has been practiced since the beginning of time. There are over 180 references to essential oils in the Bible, not too mention the many other cultures that have used fragrances for healing.

Aromatherapy is used for a wide range of physical, mental and emotional conditions, including burns, severe bacterial infections, insomnia, depression, hypertension, and arrhythmias (irregular heart beat).

The basis of the action of aromatherapy is thought to be the same as that of modern pharmacology, but in using smaller doses. The chemical constituents are absorbed into the body, affecting particular physiological processes. Aromatherapy oils are taken into the body via the oral, dermal, rectal, or vaginal routes--or simply by olfaction (smell).

These reasons have been proposed for the administration of aromatherapy in conventional medical settings: relaxation, stress and anxiety relief, pain and discomfort relief; insomnia and restlessness, infections and wound healing, burns, enhanced self image, stimulating immune function, and treatment for constipation.

Essential oils have a well established track record in their action as antimicrobial agents. Alcohols, geraniol, eugenol (which has a long history in dentistry), menthol and citral all have high antibacterial activity.

In summary, aromatherapy is a recent development in alternative/complementary medicine. While aromatic substances and oils have a usage reaching into antiquity, there has been no sound system developed for their use. Until a sound scientific base is ascertained, it is believed that aromatherapy will not take its full place beside the more established complementary health care systems.

Stevenson, C. "Aromatherapy", pp 137-148, in Fundamentals of Complementary and Alternative Medicine, Miccozi, M. ed. New York: Churchill Livingstone, 1996.
"Its zealots are intense over benefits of incense" Chicago Tribune October 28, 1998
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