Saturday, October 4, 2008

Aromatherapy – More Than Just Good Smell

Aromatherapy is a form of alternative healing that makes use of volatile plant oils, referred to as essential oils, and other aromatic compounds obtained from plants for the overall physical and psychological well-being of a person.

The history of aromatherapy dates back to more than 3500 years before Christ’s birth, to a time when the use of aromatics was recorded for the first ever instance in human history. The truth is that the history of aromatherapy is deeply linked with the progress of aromatic medicine, which in its initial stages was typically combined with religion, mysticism and magic.

In India, around 2000 BC, various writings mention the role of ‘perfumers’ and ‘incense sellers’. The word ‘aromatherapy’ was used for the first time in the 1920s by French chemist Rene-Maurice-Gattefosse, who dedicated his life to researching on the discipline of aromatherapy.

The theory to explain the healing effects of aromatherapy offers two mechanisms- the influence of aroma on the brain, on the limbic system through the olfactory system in particular, and the direct pharmacological effects these essential oils have on the body.

Though the efficacy of aromatherapy as a form of healing has not yet been proven, but some clinical studies have shown encouraging results.

An overview of the materials frequently employed in aromatherapy is given below:

•Essential oils: These are fragrant oils extracted from plants mainly through steam distillation (e.g. eucalyptus oil).

•Absolutes: These are also fragrant oils, but extracted from flowers or delicate plant tissues through solvent extraction (e.g. rose absolute).

•Phytoncides: These are volatile organic compounds obtained from plants that destroy microbes.

•Hydrosols: These are aqueous by-products of distillation (e.g. rosewater). Many herbs are used to make herbal distillates. They have culinary, medicinal as well as skin care uses.

•Infusions: They are aqueous extracts of various plant materials (e.g. infusion of chamomile)

•Carrier oils: These are oily plant based triacylglycerides used to dilute essential oils for use on the skin (e.g. sweet almond oil) so as to avoid irritation.

Like any other form of healing, aromatherapy too has its uses and benefits. It doesn’t just smell good but provides immense relaxation and stress relief. It boosts the immune, respiratory and circulatory systems which help in mood enhancement and overall well being.

Essential oils, which form the heart of aromatherapy, pose some potential concerns as well. Because they are highly concentrated, they can cause skin irritation if used directly. They could also raise some health issues for pregnant and lactating women.

But on the whole, one can say that the positive effects of aromatherapy far outnumber the negative ones. It is an alternative to medicine that entails systematic use of organic essences in holistic treatments for enhancing general vitality and ensuring prevention of disease.

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