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Most people know the word "aromatherapy." They have wandered the aisles at retail stores examining lotions and candles that have an aromatherapy label. However, chances are these products aren’t authentic.
"There is a misconception that any smell will be considered aromatherapy, but aromatherapy is the use of pure and natural essential oils distilled from real plants. It is not synthetic or perfume oils, and they are not created in a laboratory," says Teshan Laucirica, a spokeswoman for The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA) in Seattle, and a certified aromatherapist.
Pure essential oils are extracted from various parts of certain plants through steam distillation and other methods. For example, citrus oils are extracted by mechanically cold-pressing the fruit peel. About 300 essential oils and related natural aromatic products can be purchased through specialized sources according to NAHA.
The oils are considered a tool for holistic healing, improving health and overall well-being and can be administered in a number of ways. They can be absorbed through inhalation into the bloodstream through the use of such devices as a nebulizer, electric diffuser, or ceramic diffuser, which uses a votive candle to vaporize essential oils that have been dropped onto water. They also can be absorbed through the skin during massage, while taking a bath, or with compresses. Carrier oils, such as grapeseed oil, are used to apply the essential oil to the skin.
"Even if other types of treatments are being used, aromatherapy can be complementary. Some of the most common reasons aromatherapy is sought is for relaxation, colds, flu, and infections," says Laucirica.
Each of the essential oils has attributes that fit specific needs. Lavender is believed to have a relaxing effect that calms anxiety and helps people sleep. Geranium is used to balance mood swings, ease depression, or help relieve the symptoms of premenstrual syndrome.
The oils are extracted from the "essential" part of the plant, thus their name. It is the part of the plant that contains the characteristic aroma and "life force," according to NAHA. However, the oils are only as good as the plants they were extracted from. Quality depends on the geographic location of the plant, the cultivation method, and climate. Distillation techniques also affect the quality of the oils.
To determine which oils to use, an aromatherapist interviews clients gathering information about their physical and psychological health history so he or she can create a personalized blend of essential oils, explains Laucirica. To make sure a blend of oils will suit their needs, people should think about how they feel overall and what issues they want to address before their visit to an aromatherapist. If muscle pain is the main problem, the aromatherapist will create a blend of oils that address the physical pain caused by muscle tension and also address the mental and emotional state that contributes to the muscle tension.
The customized blending of essential oils is called synergy and requires knowledge and skill. "The therapist should have a certificate of a minimum of 200 hours aromatherapy training, have a diploma which is generally 300 hours training, or have national registration, which means the therapist completed and passed the national exam. They also should have some experience," says Laucirica.
Aromatherapy works because the molecules from the essential oil enter the nasal passages and stimulate the olfactory nerve, according to NAHA. The inhalation causes physiological and psychological changes within the body. "People can expect almost instant results, as the sense of smell affects the whole body. Of course, it does depend on what is being treated," says Laucirica.
Aromatherapy is a holistic therapy, so people shouldn’t expect to walk into a clinic with an ailment and get a little bottle of "miracle cure," warns Laucirica. The number of sessions varies depending on people’s state of health and their willingness to become actively involved in improving their health.
The techniques of aromatherapy can be learned for personal use through books and short courses. However, essential oils should be administered with care because they are highly concentrated and more is not better, says Laucirica. They should never be used undiluted on the skin or taken internally.
Essential oils were used for mental and physical well-being thousands of years ago by the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and Chinese. How-ever a French chemist, Rene-Maurice Gattefosse, coined the term aromatherapy in the 1930’s. He discovered the healing power of essential oils when he stuck his burned hand into a vat of lavender oil while working at his family’s perfume factory. The burns healed within hours.
"The largest misconception about aromatherapy is that people think it is for relaxation and spa purposes only. While it is very effective for these purposes, it is also a very effective form of natural medicine with many uses," says Laucirica.