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What is Aromatherapy?

Unless you’ve been living under the sea for the last 30 years you would’ve definitely either used essential oils (EOs), heard of them, joined or have brought from a “MLM” advocate, seen them in shops or know of someone who uses them. They are currently trending along with the natural, ecofriendly, cruelty free, gmo free, gluten free, dairy free, organic movement. But what is Aromatherapy? Like really?

The practice of Aromatherapy predates written history, going back thousands of years to the most ancient of civilisations, but why? Resin oils and fragrant plants were used in some form for medicinal, ceremonial or pleasurable purposes – making aromatherapy one of the earliest forms of ‘medicine’.

Aromatherapy is, in essence [lol] a holistic therapy, this view of health is based on the relationship between the mind, body and spirit. Meaning that the mind influences the body and spirit; the body influences the mind and spirit, and the spirit influences the body and mind. Harmony between these three areas is vital for our health & wellbeing.

Aromatherapy uses essential oils, which is the pure oil extracted from the plant, tree, or shrub including the flower, leaf, resin, bark, root, twig, seed, berry, rind and rhizome. These essential oils carry specific therapeutic properties that can heal and balance the conditions of the mind, body and spirit. Essential oils are considered to be the lifeblood of the plant kingdom.

There is a lot of confusion around what defines aromatherapy and what is merely fragrance, as there are a lot of synthetic ‘essential oils’ on the market. Only 100% pure essential oils have therapeutic value.

Aromatherapy practice can be classified into three core areas. Medical Aromatherapy is the area that medically trained doctors engage in, this area of practice is commonly found in France. Holistic Aromatherapy is the area many aromatherapists, including myself, naturopaths, natural product developers and healers work within. This involves using oils for a therapeutic treatment, enhancing the energetic quality of an environment and or for spiritual practice. This form of therapy is where the Holistic approach comes into play – mind, body, spirit, and unlike medical aromatherapy, really focuses on treating more than just the symptoms of dysfunction or illness. Now, popular aromatherapy is really an umbrella term for the use of oils at a superficial level for aesthetic, rather than therapeutic reasons which is totally ok. This includes burning oils in a diffuser for their aroma or for use during a massage for their aroma instead of for their therapeutic value. This is why many EO blends contain oils that might smell great together but may not work well together at a therapeutic level.

EOs have four modes of action when interacting with the human body. You’ve probably seen me share this information on social media but here it is again –

1. PHARMACOLOGICAL: the effects of chemical changes which take place when an eo enters the bloodstream & reacts with hormones, enzymes etc

2. PHYSIOLOGICAL: the way an eo affects the systems of the body, whether they are sedated or stimulated etc

3. PSYCHOLOGICAL: the individual response to the inhaled aroma of an eo

4. HOLISTIC: the human body's total response to an eo, including but not limited to the responses listed above

Eos have the ability to penetrate the body’s cellular membrane, making them a valuable tool to reinstate equilibrium within the body as it recognises them as beneficial. They are not nutrients per say – and contain very little, if any nutrients at all. This means no water-soluble or fat-soluble vitamins, minerals, proteins, enzymes or hormones are found in EOs. In fact, when I talk about a Ritual Wellbeing skincare product being loaded with nutrients, I am referring to the value that the vegetable oils bring to the product – not the EOs. Now, don’t get disheartened! I bet you are wondering “well if they contain no nutrients why are they beneficial to healing?” An individual EO contains as many as 100 chemical components, which has a strong effect on the whole person and depending on the dominant EO component, the EOs act differently from each other. This means that some are relaxing, soothing or pain relieving to name but a few, then there are some that adapt to your body’s needs – these oils are known as adaptogenic. EOs contain chemicals which include….

Acids – principally antiseptics.

Alcohols – bactericidal (killing bacteria), stimulant, energising, vitalising, antiviral, diuretic.

Aldehydes – anti-inflammatory, calming, sedative & antiviral.

Esters – antifungal, sedative, calming, spasmolytic, fungicidal, anti-inflammatory.

Ethers – harmonising to the nervous system, antiseptic, stimulant, expectorant, spasmolytic & diuretic.

Ketones – wound healing, mucolytic, stimulates new cell growth.

Phenols – strongly bactericidal, tonic that stimulates immune system, invigorating, warming, can produce liver toxicity if taken in high doses for extended periods.

Sesquiterpenes – antiphlogistic, anti-inflammatory, sedative, antiviral, anticarcinogenic, bacteriostatic & immune stimulant.

Terpenes – antibiotic, very stimulating, potential skin irritants, antiviral.

Whilst aromatherapies popularity rests mostly on its ability to the entice the senses, a lot of therapeutic blends are crafted based on their chemical components rather then their ‘smell’. Now, this is not to say that the smell isn’t important, the sense of smell effects the following bodily systems -

Our emotions and memory (the Limbic System), the pituitary regulation (Hypothalamus), the release of hormones and body regulation (Pituitary), odour identification (Olfactory Cortex), the connection to the neocortex (Thalamus) and the intellectual connection (Neocortex) Nerve cells in the nasal cavity detect aromas and then pass the information through the Olfactory bulb and into the brain. Aromas then link through the limbic area of the brain to the areas that affect many of our human functions where the nervous and endocrine systems regulate and control bodily processes such as hormones, digestion and breathing. This direct link between the sense of smell and certain areas of the brain helps to explain why certain smells have a powerful effect on the emotions and can trigger memories.

Now before I get into an Olfactory wormhole because it’s truly AMAZING, I will stop there. Hopefully you have a better understanding now, how and why Aromatherapy is a holistic therapy, bringing mind, body & spirit back into harmony with one another. Whether you are simply diffusing EOs or (safely) applying them topically, they have a profound effect on your bodily systems, which is why it is also important to use only pure oils from a reputable source. Unlike synthetic drugs, EOs do not accumulate in the body, therefore have a low potential to be physically habit-forming because they are eliminated quite quickly through the skin and organs. Therefore, there is no residual or accumulative effect to ‘withdraw’ from or become ‘addicted’ to – which I think is debatable (lol) as once you’ve seen the benefits of Aromatherapy, you’ll soon want to use EOs for absolutely everything!


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