There’s nothing more soothing after a stressful day than drawing a warm bath, lighting a few candles and cracking open a bottle of…essential oil!
Aromatherapy, defined by the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA), 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.” This practice can be traced back as far as 2800 B.C., when Egyptians commonly used myrrh, and pharaohs were buried with urns containing aromatic resins (1). Today, it is still common to use the oils of plants to help naturally restore and enhance the health of the body.
What Are Essential Oils?
Essential oils, the main ingredients used in aromatherapy, are the highly concentrated aromatic extracts that are distilled from plant materials (1). Distillation of these oils occurs either through steam or expression. In steam distillation, the plant matter is steamed until it is broken down to its fragrant oils. These oils are then cooled, separated from the water and filtered. In expression, the oil is simply pressed out of the plant. In either method, one is left with a highly concentrated, essential oil (2).
There are several ways to use essential oils on and around the body. The safest and most common use of essential oils is massaging them over a local area or the entire body. Because the oils are so highly concentrated, they must first be diluted in a carrier oil, or the fatty acid portion of the plant. Common carrier oils are derived from olives, avocados, rapeseeds and almonds (1). Body oils are commonly made into a 2% dilution, or 10 to 12 drops per ounce of carrier oil, before they are applied (3).
Oils can also be used through inhalation, which can produce psychological and physical results. The olfactory (or smelling) sense can link with the rest of the body, causing certain regions to either be stimulated or sedated. The aromatics also physically come in contact with mucous membranes inside the nose and lungs, which allows them to quickly travel through the bloodstream. When using this method, three to five drops can be placed in a bowl of hot water or into a tissue and inhaled (1). Oils can also easily be utilized by placing three to 10 drops in a bathtub before bathing (3). Lastly, only under the recommendation of a physician, oils are rarely prescribed for ingestion to aid with severe gastrointestinal or respiratory issues (1).
It is important to properly store essential oils, especially because some carrier oils can become rancid. Oils are best kept in a cool place (40 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit) with the lid secured tightly to prevent oxygen from mixing with and degrading them. When correctly stored, oils can last from six months to two years (1).
Top 10 Essential Oils
According to NAHA and Aromatherapy authors Kathi Keville and Mindy Green, the following oils are 10 of the most common essential oils, and the ways in which they support a healthy body are listed (1, 3).
• Bergamot: healthy mood and inflammation.
• Chamomile: healthy mood and inflammation, antiallergenic, digestive and relaxant.
• Cypress: astringent, circulatory tonic and antiseptic.
• Eucalyptus: supports respiration, antibacterial and benefits immunity.
• Geranium: balancing hormones, antifungal and healthy inflammation.
• Lavender: antibacterial, benefits immunity, healthy mood and inflammation.
• Marjoram: antispasmodic, healthy inflammation and antiseptic.
• Peppermint: digestive support and decongestant.
• Rosemary: pain and muscle ache support, decongestant, circulatory tonic, mental and immune system stimulant.
• Tea Tree: antifungal, antiyeast and antibacterial.
Safety and Precautions
While aromatherapy uses natural oils from plants, there are still some best practices to follow. Because essential oils are very highly concentrated, the key to aromatherapy is that “less is more.” Using more of an oil will not increase any benefits, and may actually cause adverse effects such as irritation or burning of the skin. Pregnant women should avoid hyssop oil and ask their physicians before starting aromatherapy. This practice is also not advised for people with asthma. Lower dilutions are recommended for young children and the elderly. Most importantly, one should always read the label before using any product (3). WF
1. National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy, www.naha.org/index.html, accessed Sept. 15, 2012.
2. Aromatherapy.com, www.aromatherapy.com, accessed Sept. 15, 2012.
3. K. Keville and M. Green, Aromatherapy a Complete Guide to the Healing Art (Crossing Press, Berkeley, CA, 2009).
Published in WholeFoods Magazine, November 2012