Aromatherapy is the practice of using essential oils therapeutically. Plant oils have been used for therapy and cosmetics for thousands of years with records going back to ancient Egypt, China and India.
The essential oils that aroma therapists use to treat conditions are complex substances containing many chemical components. The oils aren’t concentrated from whole plant parts – unlike most herbal medicines – but are extracted from flowers, leaves, roots, peel, resin or bark.
Essential oils are either absorbed through your skin using massage or through a cream, lotion or compress to which they have been added. Some people claim this may act as an antiseptic or a painkiller, although there is limited evidence for this. Alternatively the oils can be inhaled and some of the oil components enter your body. It’s not known exactly how aromatherapy works – in particular, whether the massage or the smell (or both) has an effect.
When you inhale essential oils, this stimulates your olfactory system – the part of the brain connected to smell. A signal is transferred to your brain’s limbic system that controls emotions and stores and retrieves learned memories. This triggers chemicals to be released.
These are thought to have different effects, causing you to feel relaxed or stimulated. In addition, the gentle massage often used to apply the diluted oils to your skin is likely to have a relaxing effect.
Some of the conditions aromatherapy is used for include:
- anxiety, stress or insomnia
- muscular aches and pains
- digestive problems
- menstrual or menopausal problems