In today’s world, there are so many avenues presented to us to help us heal — whether it’s physical, mental, or spiritual. And while a trip to a doctor is among one of the first things that comes to mind in terms of understanding your symptoms and then treating them, there’s something incredibly powerful about alternative methods that have been around for centuries. Long before we were given the ability to swallow a simple pill, there was aromatherapy.

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What Is Aromatherapy?

According to The National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy, it is “the art and science of utilizing naturally extracted aromatic essences from plants to balance, harmonize and promote the health of body, mind and spirit.” In other words, with the use of essential oils from plants, aromatherapy’s purpose is to heal. The essential oils can be extracted from a variety of things, whether it be flowers, seeds, barks, herbs, or roots.

While scientific data is still lacking in regards to the correlation between preventing or treating illnesses and aromatherapy, a variety of studies have found it to be an effective alternative method for treating infections, stress, and many other health issues.

The History of Aromatherapy

Dating back almost 6,000 years, essential oils have been used as a means to heal by many cultures. From using them in cosmetics and perfumes to drugs, the ancient Chinese, Indians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans utilized them regularly for spiritual, therapeutic, hygienic, and even ritualistic reasons.

One of the most prominent stories related to the healing powers of aromatherapy is that of the French chemist René-Maurice Gattefossé, who found that, after burning his hand in a laboratory explosion, it was lavender oil which provided healing properties to his hand. This prompted the chemist to uncover how the chemical properties of essentials oils can work to treat burns as well as skin infections, gangrene, and wounds in soldiers as a result of World War I. In 1928, Gattefossé founded the science of aromatherapy, and by the 1950s, a variety of healthcare providers were taking advantage of aromatherapy, from massage therapists to nurses, physiotherapists and doctors.

How Does It Work?

Experts believe that, much like certain smells can set off the release of neurochemicals in the brain, such as serotonin, aromatherapy works by stimulating the smell receptors found in the nose, which then connect with the parts of the brain known as the amygdala and hippocampus, which harbor emotions and memories. By breathing in essential oil molecules, it is believed that these parts of your brain are affected on a physical, emotional, and mental level.

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One study discovered that citrus fragrance could lessen the doses of antidepressants needed in the treatment of depression. “The treatment with citrus fragrance normalized neuroendocrine hormone levels and immune function and was rather more effective than antidepressants,” the research noted. And another study found that cancer hospice patients experienced a positive change in blood pressure and pulse, pain, anxiety, depression, and their overall health as a result of being exposed to humidified essential lavender oil aromatherapy.

How It’s Done

Inhalation: When essential oils are inhaled through the nose or mouth, many systems and pathways can be affected. For instance, when inhaled through the nose, airborne molecules come in contact with the olfactory organs and the brain, and when inhaled through the mouth, they make their way into the lungs where they meet the respiratory system. A study published in the journal Phytomedicine discovered that, by inhaling lavender essential oil vapor for an hour each day, rats with dementia experienced a prevention of brain oxidative stress. There are many ways you can inhale essential oils, including steam inhalation, a diffuser, an aroma lamp, or room sprays.

Skin Application: To get the benefits of the active chemicals of essential oils, they can be applied topically to the skin, where they are then absorbed. Massaging the skin upon application is recommended as a means of increasing circulation in the particular area that it is applied to. Heat is also believed to help with absorption. Common areas of application are those with the greatest amount of sweat glands. Rubbing lavender oil with peppermint oil on the back of the neck, temples, and the sides of the forehead is often used in the treatment of headaches.

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