What is it?
Perhaps because of its “aroma” prefix, a common perception is that the Aromatherapy comes down to spreading pleasant smells just for fun … But the suffix “therapy” indicates that it is a care approach – quite complex, by the way – including the aromatic essences of plants constitute the basis. The name that has become widely used to describe aromatic essences is “aromatherapy essential oils ” and in this article we are going to discuss aromatherapy benefits.
As a therapeutic method, aromatherapy is one of the resource tools of naturotherapy. It is usually used as treatment against several conditions like cough, headache , sinusitis , asthma , digestive problems, insomnia , fatigue, sports injuries, alopecia areata, but according to aromatherapists, its most remarkable action is of antiseptic nature (against bacteria , viruses, fungi and parasites). It is also used for indoor hygiene (prevention and treatment of infectious diseases), beauty care and relaxation. It is also lent a beneficial action psychologically and to counteract anxiety.
What is aromatherapy essential oil?
The Aromatherapy essential oil is a volatile odorant produced by certain plants and can be extracted in liquid form. Although they are called oils, these substances contain no fat: a drop deposited on a paper will evaporate without a trace unlike a vegetable oil.
The vegetable kingdom has several hundred thousand species and 4,000 of them produce aromatic essences; however, only a few hundred do so in sufficient quantity to extract them. Today, the extraction is done mainly according to three processes.
- Cold pressing, for citrus zests such as orange or lemon.
- Extraction by solvent, including carbon dioxide, especially for fragile flowers.
- Steam distillation, a process invented in the XI th century and most used today.
The extraction of Aromatherapy essential oils is expensive, especially because of the very large amount of raw material required. It takes about 35 kg of plants, on average, to get 1 liter of Aromatherapy essential oil. And that’s much more in the case of some plants like the rose. Hence the high price of real essential oils. Because there are also synthetic oils, which are suitable for perfumery, but not for aromatherapy.
For thousands of years, essential oils have been used extensively in cooking, medicine, perfumery and the cosmetics industry. But it is at the end of the XIX th century France, begins the modern history of aromatherapy, when we scientifically proved the ability of Aromatherapy essential oils to neutralize the bacteria (about the same time, antibiotics were discovered, which had the effect of removing aromatherapy from the field of medicine). In 1928, René-Maurice Gattefossé was the first to use the term aromatherapy. We also see, but rarely, perfume therapy.
Complex Chemical Compounds
An Aromatherapy essential oil can contain up to several hundred kinds of molecules, each with particular properties (antiseptic, bactericidal, immunostimulant, decongestant, etc.). Scientists group these molecules into several chemotypes or “biochemical families” – ketones, esters, coumarins, phenols, monoterpenols, etc. -, depending on the similarity of their properties.
Many oils include more than one chemotype. Clary sage essential oil ( Salvia sclarea ), for example, contains 250 different molecules, 75% of which come from the ester family, and 15% from monoterpenols. The molecules work in synergy, which explains the versatility of essential oils and their broad spectrum of action. Once we know the properties of chemotypes and their concentration in an essential oil, we can determine what the effects of it, beneficial or dangerous.
Do not mix, for the same plant, the properties of its essential oil and those of leaves or flowers taken in decoction, for example. Nor confuse essential oils, culinary essences and perfumes.
Potentially toxic, essential oils are highly concentrated in active chemical elements and may present some hazards. Several compounds are irritants or allergens for the skin and mucous membranes. Others may be toxic in high doses or over a long period. As for the internal use, it should be known that some chemotypes, like ketones, are poisons and should never be absorbed. Essential oils should not, in principle, be ingested pure. As with any medication, it is important to follow the recommendations for use. If in doubt, do not hesitate to consult a qualified aromatherapist.
Finally, it should be known that the same plant can include various species, each of which will have different chemotypes. The lavender ( Lavandula ), for example, has several species including officinalis , the stoechas and latifolia ; it is therefore the complete Latin name which allows us to know of which exact plant it is. The place of culture (climate, altitude, soil composition) can also influence the chemical composition of a plant.
Therapeutic Applications Of Aromatherapy
The French, leaders of contemporary scientific aromatherapy , have identified more than 80 properties applying to the forty or so essential oils – from analgesic to deworming, hypotensive and gastric stimulant. There is, however, little or no confirmation of these effects through true clinical research. Most studies have been done in the laboratory or on animals.
For now, the results of clinical studies highlight the relaxing effects of aromatherapy, which can, for example, reduce anxiety or agitation. The difficulty of establishing blind studies, since the presence of essential oil is detected by the odor, creates an important methodological problem.
In 2000, a systematic review, including 6 randomized clinical studies, concluded that aromatherapy appeared to have a beneficial effect on reducing anxiety in the short term . Since then, other randomized clinical trials have evaluated the effectiveness of aromatherapy in reducing anxiety and improving mood in hospitalized or severely stressed patients . Their conclusions go in the same direction.
Reduce the anxiety and depression of people with cancer . In 2007, a study was conducted among 285 patients with cancer . The effectiveness of a combination aromatherapy / massage / usual care (psychological support) was evaluated. During 4 weeks, one group received these 3 therapies, while another received only psychological support. The results reveal that combination therapies did not provide more long-term benefits (after 10 weeks) than psychological support alone. For cons, the benefits of aromatherapy / massage / counseling happen more quickly than usual care alone, either from the 2 th week.
Reduce the symptoms of dementia
In 2008, a systematic review of 11 clinical studies evaluated aromatherapy for the treatment of the psychological and behavioral symptoms of patients with dementia. The wide variety of Aromatherapy essential oils, their modes of administration and the parameters studied make it difficult to interpret the results.
Reduce alopecia areata (hair loss per plate)
In a randomized clinical study, 86 patients were divided into 2 groups: massage with aromatherapy (essential oils of thyme, lavender, rosemary and cedar), and massage with vegetable oil (jojoba and grape seeds). All participants had to massage the scalp daily for 7 months. Although variable, active treatment was superior to placebo. A notable improvement was observed in 44% of patients in the aromatherapy group compared to 6% in the control group.
Decrease the itching caused by hemodialysis (pruritus)
A small pilot study compared for 4 weeks consider the aromatherapy benefits of massage ( lavender and melaleuca oils ) to a massage with sweet almond oil and jojoba. The itching decreased significantly more for the aromatherapy group compared to the vegetable oil group.
Improve the living conditions of premature children. One study evaluated the effect of olfactory stimulation on the frequency and severity of sleep apnea in premature infants. Fourteen babies born prematurely were exposed to a pleasant odor (vanillin) for 24 hours in their incubator. The effectiveness of the treatment was evaluated by comparing the frequency and severity of apnea attacks before and after the procedure. A 36% reduction in apneas was measured in more than 85% of babies. The authors conclude that exposure to a pleasant odor may be an approach to consider for the treatment of apnea in premature infants who do not respond well to conventional treatments.
In addition, a randomized clinical trial evaluated the effect of inhaling a familiar odor on behavioral distress at the time of a blood test. Among 51 premature babies who had to take blood on the hand (not very painful) or on the heel (more painful), some were previously familiar with the smell of vanilla that was then presented to them at the time of the blood test; others were exposed to this odor only at the time of the intervention; and others, finally, have received neither familiarization nor odor. The results indicate that babies’ distress (crying and grimacing) could be reduced by a pleasant smell with which babies were already familiar. But this effect was manifested only in the case of an intervention causing mild pain.
Treat mild insomnia
A small preliminary study carried out in 2005 shows that lavender essential oil , applied by massage, could be an effective treatment against mild insomnia . For 4 weeks, 10 patients suffering from sleep disorders were massaged before bedtime, alternating from one week to the other either with active treatment (sweet almond oil and lavender), or with a placebo (oil of ‘Almond). The results reveal a trend toward better sleep quality in patients who have been massaged with lavender oil.
Another study highlights the sedative effect of lavender essential oil . Thirty-one participants stayed for 3 nights in an experimental laboratory. The first night consisted of a period of adaptation. During the second, lavender essential oil was released during the participants’ sleep. The 3 night, they received a placebo stimulation (distilled water). A brainwave measurement found that lavender stimulation increased periods of deep sleep and decreased rapid eye movement during sleep.
Reduce the symptoms of menopause
Fifteen women participated in a nonrandom pilot study on the therapeutic effect of aromatherapy against menopausal symptoms . They received a first session of aromatherapy massage (lavender essential oil diluted 1% in macadamia oil), then were invited to practice self massage for 1 month, 3 to 4 times a week . Comparison of pre- and post-treatment results indicates a reduction in the severity of symptoms in all patients. However, given the absence of a control group, and knowing that the placebo effect may account for at least 30% of the observed effect, no formal conclusion can be derived from this small study.
Studies exist in the scientific literature regarding the beneficial effect of aromatherapy against certain conditions: eczema , infections, respiratory diseases, postoperative nausea, arthritis , multiple sclerosis , fibromyalgia , labor reduction during childbirth, prenatal anxiety, epilepsy , depression , postpartum depression, cognitive abilities, dysmenorrhea , etc. However, none of these studies can draw clear conclusions about the effectiveness of aromatherapy in these situations.
- Some essential oils are irritating to the skin and should be diluted in vegetable oil before application.
- Some studies report allergic responses to essential oils.
- Oil rich in ketones can cause neurological problems. According to some reported cases, it is possible that the essential oil of rosemary to camphor triggers epileptic seizures.
- Some oils have a photosensitizing effect, that is, they can make the skin more vulnerable to the effects of sunlight.
- Some authors believe that studies should be conducted to determine the safety of the use of essential oils during pregnancy, childbirth or with newborns
Aromatherapy In Practice
Modes of use
Aromatherapy essential oils are composed of volatile molecules. They penetrate human tissues easily, ingested, applied to the skin or breathed. The choice of route of absorption will depend on both the intended effect and the nature of the oil, as some are unsuitable for internal or cutaneous use.
- Internal way . Since essential oils are irritating to the mucous membranes , they are usually mixed with a little vegetable oil, honey or yogurt (they do not dissolve in water). Oils prepared with alcohol, oleocapsules (with a vegetable oil base) as well as preparations in capsules and suppositories are also available on the market.
- External way. The oil diffuses into the body through the skin ; it is mixed with a massage oil or an ointment.
- Airway . The oil diffused in the air is absorbed by the respiratory tracts ; there are several modes of diffusion.