Aromatherapy is the science of using smells and scents to trigger an emotional response in the brain. Most commonly, these smells are generated by heating an essential oil and thus aromatizing the compounds contained within. Essential oils have been used since ancient times for their therapeutic effect, but aromatherapy itself was developed in the early 20th century. Below are some of the most commonly reported benefits of aromatherapy massage.
Arguably, the most common reason for people to take up aromatherapy is its purported benefits for combating stress. There are a number of aromatic compounds present in a variety of essential oils that have been scientifically proven to have a real effect on stress-related neurotransmitters. The oils most commonly used for this purpose include lavender, vanilla, and lemon oil. Lavender contains many different compounds with a biological effect; camphor has been used since ancient times as a vasodilator and decongestant to clear the sinuses and eucalyptol is an effective cough suppressant with a long history of human use.
An increasing number of scientific studies are demonstrating that aromatherapy can have beneficial effects on well-being. There has been a corresponding rise in interest from people looking for an effective alternative to pharmaceutical antidepressants when used alongside traditional help such as counseling. For antidepressant effects, the most commonly used oils are those of peppermint, chamomile, and jasmine.
Peppermint is a very versatile oil which contains two primary compounds; menthol and menthone. While menthone has only a weak biological effect, if any, menthol has a number of confirmed effects and uses. Menthol has long been used for a variety of conditions in both alternative medicine and pharmaceuticals. These include lip balms and cough medicine, owing to menthol’s anti-irritant properties, as a topical solution to reduce itching, as a topical analgesic, and as a decongestant.
Chamomile contains apigenin, a purported neuroprotective compound that has been shown to have several significant health effects in animal tests. It has been shown to preserve renal function in some forms of kidney disease and functions as a monoamine transporter inducer, meaning it induces production of certain types of protein (the monoamine transport system), which move neurotransmitters through the brain. The net result of inducing monoamine transporters is the same as using monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOI), an already recognized treatment for depression. Pharmaceutical MAOIs are much more dramatic in their effect and patients using them must eat a strictly controlled diet, as they have major interactions with several common foods.
A Mild Sedative
Apigenin, found in chamomile oil, affects the body’s natural inhibitory hormone GABA, which is similar to benzodiazepines. In fact, it interacts with the same set of receptors. The effect is much milder with apigenin but is still strong enough to have an appreciable effect on anxiety, so it can be a useful treatment for insomnia. Other oils act as sedatives through a variety of different pharmacological pathways and these are also useful in treating anxiety and insomnia.
How to Use Oils Effectively
There are several different methods for ingesting the compounds within essential oils that are beneficial to us. As the name implies, the easiest and most common way of doing this is by heating the oil, usually using a candle, so that the aromatic compounds within are aerosolized and released into the air.
Some people prefer to use a vaporizer. Depending on its design, a vaporizer will either be filled with dry plant material or a specially prepared oil, but always be sure that any liquids you use in a vaporizer have been designed specifically for that use.
An atomizer is often used by vapers. It heats aromatic compounds, stored either in a specially formulated liquid or within the plant itself until they boil and become airborne, the vapor is then inhaled and the compounds absorbed this way.
Topical preparations are applied directly to the skin. Not all compounds are suitable for absorption through the skin but many are and others can be enticed through the body’s natural defenses by using what is known as a carrier molecule. Sometimes the carrier molecule can be something simple like another common oil, but sometimes it requires more complex chemistry and it becomes prohibitively expensive to engineer a substance to carry molecules through the skin.
Aromatherapy is an ancient practice that has proven to be safe and effective for many people. It can all seem a bit daunting at first with the sheer variety of different oils for different purposes, but if you stick with it and do your research you will pick it up fast.