If you have ever caught the smell of something – a certain kind of perfume, pipe tobacco, a flower or even a chemical – that evoked powerful memories of a time, a place or a person, and even affected you emotionally and/or psychologically, you understand the basis of aromatherapy. It is an alternative treatment the purpose of which is to effect the state of the patient’s emotional and mental – and from there, physical – health through the use of essential plant oils which give off particular scents.
How Aromatherapy is Administered
Generally, aromatherapy practitioners use these essential oils as part of a topical medication; often it is used in conjunction with massage, or applied to the skin as an ointment. Aromatherapy oils may also simply be inhaled as these volatile substances evaporate. In some cases, the treatment may have spiritual overtones, which – at least from a strictly scientific standpoint – is in keeping with the evidence demonstrating that the effects of aromatherapy are primarily psychological.
This of course is not to say that aromatherapy has no physical effects at all, as a patient’s mental and emotional state can have great bearing on his/her physical well-being. It only indicates that aromatherapy is an alternative treatment that acts primarily on the brain.
Aromatherapy is not new; noted physicians of ancient times such as the Egyptian Imhotep and Hipokratēs of Kos employed “fragrant oils” and scented bath salts in the treatment of disease.
Modern aromatherapy originated in France during the 1920s. It was discovered by accident; a French chemist by the name of Rene-Maurice Gattefossé was working in a perfume factory when his sleeve caught fire. He doused the flame with the nearest liquid handy, which turned out to be lavender oil. Burn injuries are exquisitely painful, but Gattefossé experienced relief almost immediately; in addition, the burn injury healed much faster than usual, with little discomfort and no scarring at all. His research was continued during the Second World War by a young army medic named Jean Valnet, who used essential plant oils in the treatment of gangrene.
How Aromatherapy Works
Aside from some preliminary clinical studies, there is little scientific evidence of how aromatherapy works on a physiological level. Theories suggest that scent of certain essential oils, entering the brain via the olfactory sense, affect the limbic system – that part of the brain in which emotions, behaviors and long term memories are based. In essence, chemical messages are being sent to that part of the brain that affects the patient’s mood and emotional state.
Part of the problem in studying the effectiveness of aromatherapy is the fact that there are no standard procedures. While some essential oils are used for specific conditions, the types of oils used and the particular combination in which they are employed vary greatly according to the preferences and experience of the practitioner.
Aromatherapy and Cancer
Like most complimentary and alternative therapies, aromatherapy appears to be primarily a palliative mesothelioma treatment; such treatments can be of assistance in coping with the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation treatments, and may indeed have some positive effect on the patient’s emotional and psychological state. This in turn has had the effect of lowering patients’ blood pressure, respiration rate and anxiety levels.
There have been indications that aromatherapy techniques can be effective in the treatment of certain bacterial infections, but aside from palliative relief, has little effect on mesothelioma or other forms of asbestos cancer. Generally, aromatherapy is harmless and indeed can provide a psychological “boost” for many individuals; however, certain individuals with sensitive skin and/or mucous membranes should be aware that some essential oils can cause irritation.