The Truth About Aromatherapy
Aromatherapy is the practice of using the extracted aromatic essences of specific plants, seeds, flowers, bark etc for healing purposes, or to promote well-being and health. It is widely perceived as being relaxing and non-invasive, and can be of help to some people when not used in place of conventional medicine.
Proponents of aromatherapy say it works because it has a profound effect on the central nervous system, and can help the immune system function better and trigger general healing. They say its benefits are manifold: that it can help relieve anxiety and depression, reduce feelings of stress and promote an overall feeling of vitality and well-being.
The actual term "aromatherapy" came about purely by chance, when French chemist Rene-Maurice Gattefosse burned his hand during an experiment in the 1920's. He accidentally plunged his hand into a vat of lavender oil, as one does, and - hey, presto! - within a few days it had healed completely, without leaving a scar, any blistering etc. The experience prompted old Rene-Maurice to investigate the use of other essential oils.
Keep in mind that feeling uplifted because the smell of cinnamon buns reminds you of your dear departed mother's home cooking is not, in the strict sense of the word, aromatherapy. Neither is simply burning - and enjoying the scent of - a perfumed candle. People who practice aromatherapy believe it is an exact science, and that it works only through using precise essential oils, derived from plants, which have a chemical effect on our nervous system, and thus our bodies in general.
Essential oils are volatile liquids, or those which tend to vaporize and evaporate, which are extracted in certain ways from plants. Proponent of aromatherapy believe they have certain almost magical properties. Anti-viral, anti-fungal, anti-infectious and anti-bacterial are just some of the qualities believed to be inherent in these special elixirs. Beware of synthetically derived oils, which may smell nice but lack any real content whatsoever.
Unlike many other types of massage, aromatherapy massage relies on essential oils blended together to create a relaxing and therapeutic treatment. They are added to the carrier oil or massage lotion, where they are thought to be both breathed in as well as soaked into the skin for beneficial effect.
People have aromatherapy massages for a variety of reasons. As the essential oils used are all thought to have different healing properties, one will be selected especially for you after a brief consultation with the massage therapist.
-Lavender oil: to calm, aid in sleep, balance and relax
-Sweet marjoram: Often combined with lavender to relieve pain associated with muscular strains and menstrual cycles
-Eucalyptus oil: Powerful antiseptic thought to be effective against certain airborne viruses
-Grapefruit oil: This lovely citrus scent uplifts and refreshes
-Clary sage: Soothes, relaxes and can help re-balance the hormones
-Lemongrass oil: Not just a staple of Thai soup, this oil also calms, relaxes and can be helpful as an astringent - and an insect repellent!
-Ylang-ylang: Mainly used to relieve stress but can also be used to help treat sexual dysfunction when mixed with other oils, such as rose and jasmine. Use in moderation of headache and/or nausea can result
Bizarre Aromatherapy Products
Once an alternative therapy has created a following, there will always be some people out there interested in making a quick buck on the back of its popularity - and aromatherapy is no exception. Here are just a few of the "aromatherapy" products on offer today, some helpful and others less so...
Aromatherapy Shampoo. Fragrance-free shampoos allow you to add your own essential oils, whether you need to wake up in the morning or fall into a deep sleep come evening time. Others come ready-blended, such as tea tree oil shampoo, which is useful in keeping lice at bay.
Aromatherapy Money Drawing Watch. Advertized as a way to "attract material wealth". By adding just two drops of money drawing (frankincense) oil to the back of the watch, you "may" attract monetary gain. "The pad release [sic] a alluring scent which can be rubbed on your wrist to attract attention," the ad says. No thanks.
Aprodisiac [sic] Oil (roll-on). Claims to be made with a combination of "gemstones, empowered herbs, resins, essential oils and love". Can help you "recognize the divinity in your beloved through spiritual sexuality. Couples approaching each other in sexual embrace recognizing the God and Goddess in each other and uniting in transcendental bliss." Or not.
Credit Crunch Crisis Cream. A jojoba-based body cream designed to give back energy to those in need of a quick pick-me-up.
Aromatherapy Earphones. No, really. This smelly MP3 player wafts odors into your ears as you listen to your fave tunes.
Smelly Pencils. These Japanese writing instruments come in three scents: Healing, Refresh and Positive. Supposedly the smells have been manufactured by qualified aromatherapists, who claim that anyone within smelling distance will have their learning power enhanced. Yeah, right.
Does Aromatherapy Really Work?
Aromatherapy seemingly works because it is a holistic therapy, which means that a practitioner takes into account not only a person's medical history but also their emotional feelings, lifestyle and health background overall. They listen to their patients, and make them feel both cared for and as if they have a say in what the treatment will be.
As many ailments aromatherapy seeks to treat are stress-related - backache, depression, anxiety, mild muscular pain - it's no surprise that people can genuinely notice a positive outcome after experiencing an aromatherapy massage, or relaxing in a bath scented with essential oils. And in some clinical trials, specific essential oils were shown to have effects on health: jasmine, for example, was found to be a powerful aide to sleep. However, always check with a medical professional first as not all oils are suitable for everyone, ie, pregnant women.
In the skeptic's dictionary, Robert T Carroll writes that he would not reject aromatherapy out of hand. "When I have a cold and a stuffy nose, I'll use Vicks VapoRub, a mixture of camphor, menthol and eucalyptus oil. Strictly speaking, I suppose I am a practicing aromatherapist.
However, when I look at what people who call themselves aromatherapists claim, I have to conclude that aromatherapy is a mostly a pseudo-scientific alternative medical therapy. It is a mixture of folklore, trial and error, anecdote, testimonial, New Age spiritualism and fantasy. What aromatherapy lacks is a knack for sniffing out non-sense. Indeed.