Learn about aromatherapy so you can teach patients

Provide accurate information and resources

Interest in aromatherapy is growing, evidenced by the shelf space given products at variety stores and specialty shops springing up. Aroma therapy is a complementary therapy that requires education on proper use of the products, according to the Seattle-based National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA), which encourages consumer education.

Aromatherapy is the practice of using essential oils derived from plants to obtain psychological and physical well-being. "In the form of inhalations or massage, incorporating essential oils derived from specific plants into aromatherapy has a wealth of applications," says Julia Meadows, LMT, an aromatherapist based in Ojai, CA, who is public relations director for the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy.

To facilitate consumer education about aromatherapy, NAHA is designing an educational brochure for distribution at wellness centers and consumer resource centers within health care systems. The brochure will discuss the evolution of aromatherapy in the U.S., professional practice, safety issues, and essential oil purity. Information on accessing true aromatherapy products and services also will be included. (For contact information, see source box at the end of this article.)

What additional information can patient education managers provide? It is important for consumers to understand the purpose of aromatherapy and how it works. They need to know about the tools of aromatherapy and how to use them in self-care. Also, they need to know how to select a professional aromatherapist.

Health care professionals can use aromatherapy to prepare patients for stressful procedures or surgery. It’s most beneficial when used for stress-related conditions, nervous and emotional complaints, skin disorders, respiratory problems, and women’s health issues such as premenstrual syndrome or menopausal problems, says Meadows.

"The purpose of aromatherapy is to reduce stress symptoms, address physical complaints in a natural and noninvasive manner, bring balance to both body and mind, and promote a feeling of harmony and well-being," she explains. (For a list of essential oils and their uses, see p. 46.)

When inhaled, the aromatic molecules of essential oils are transported through the limbic system of the brain, triggering responses that involve emotion and memory. "Inhalation of diffused essential oils is at the heart of psycho-aromatherapy," says Meadows.

The oils have energizing, balancing, or sedative effects. Oils applied to the skin are thought to be transported through the bloodstream before being excreted. The method for application is frequently body massage.

Before the essential oils are applied to the skin, they are diluted in a carrier base such as sweet almond oil, grapeseed oil, or fresh, cold-pressed vegetable oil. Fragrance-free lotions and gels also can be used as carriers.

While aromatherapy is safe and effective, people should understand that essential oils are much stronger than most other herbal products and should not be confused with herbal extracts or tinctures, says Meadows. (For additional information on herbal remedies, see Patient Education Management, March 1999, pp. 27-30.) Essential oils should not be taken internally or applied directly to the skin without being greatly diluted by a carrier oil. For body care, the proper mixture should be 2% to 3% of essential oil to 97% to 98% carrier oil.

To begin using aromatherapy at home, consumers can purchase several essential oils and an device for diffusing the oils via heat into the immediate atmosphere for inhalation. Such devices use heat from either an electrical source or a candle. Consumers also should purchase a carrier oil or lotion for skin care and massage applications. Meadows also recommends consumers read a good book on aromatherapy. (For information on resources, see list on p. 47.)

Premium-quality essential oils can be found through specialty stores and catalogs, over the Internet, and through practitioners. A trained aromatherapist will be familiar with the plant species of the essential oils he or she uses, including its origins, growing conditions, and methods of extraction and processing.

"When seeking a professional aromatherapist, consumers should be sure the therapist is knowledgeable in these areas and is not an untrained individual associated with enterprises involved primarily in the commercial sale of oils," advises Meadows. An aromatherapist should use only natural botanical oils. Synthetic scents or fragrance oils such as musk, gardenia, or strawberry are never used in the practice of true aromatherapy, she says.

Most aromatherapists use between 50 and 100 essential oils in their practice, custom-blending the oils to create mixtures specific to each client’s needs. The blends are modified as the client’s health profile changes.

The therapist works with a therapeutic index, which designates the most effective essential oils to use for each of the bodily systems. Oils are selected after a comprehensive evaluation of the client’s health profile, usually during the first visit, says Meadows.

If arranged beforehand, the initial consultation would include an "aromassage" of one to one and a half hours in duration, using pre-blended oils or a custom blend created for the client at the time of the appointment, explains Meadows. Depending on the aromatherapist’s specialization, the treatment might include lymphatic drainage techniques, shiatsu, deep tissue work, craniosacral work, or reflexology. Also, hydrotherapy, sauna, color, music, and movement therapies might be included in an aromatherapy session.

A professional aromatherapist can be found by contacting a professional association such as NAHA; by asking for a referral at a local health food store, massage school, or complementary medical clinic; and by looking in the local telephone directory under aromatherapy, massage, or spas.

Before making a selection, a consumer should find out how the aromatherapist was trained, the duration of the aromatherapist’s training, and how long he or she has been in business. "A visit to the aromatherapist’s business office and an initial mini-consultation by the therapist at no charge to the prospective client would be a good indication of professionalism in the field," says Meadows.

For more information about aromatherapy, contact:

Julia Meadows, LMT, Public Relations Director, Executive Committee, National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy, 205 North Signal St., Ojai, CA 93023. Telephone: (805) 640-1300. Fax: (805) 640-1413. E-mail: nahapr@west.net.

National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy, 2000 2nd Ave., #206, Seattle, WA 98121. Telephone: (888) ASK-NAHA. Web site: www.naha.org.