Aromatherapy is the use of essential oils. Essential oils are concentrated extracts, most commonly distilled from the roots, leaves, seeds or blossoms of plants. Younger plants produce more oil, but older plants are richer. Each has its own active ingredient, used to promote physical healing or relaxation. They are called “essential” because they were thought to possess the very essence of odor and flavor.
Out of the vast number of plant species in the world, essential oils can only be identified in a few thousand plants. The oils are stored as microdroplets in the glands of plants. The oils diffuse through the walls of the glands and spread over the surface of the plant before evaporating and filling the air with perfume. The most odoriferous plants are found in the tropics, where solar energy is the greatest.
The most frequent way of isolating essential oils is through distillation. The first step is crushing or grinding the plant material to marginalize the particle size and to rupture the cell walls, of the oil bearing glands. Steam distillation is generally the method used, either enfleurage (cold) or maceration (hot). Both these methods are rather an expensive process, and some essential oil specialists have shifted almost completely to using volatile solvents for the recovery of the oils. Through the chemical process they are able to use plant material that wouldn’t usually be used in distillation. True essential oils are generally pricey, because of their limited availability and hard to find replacements.
Citrus are the only oils expelled through a procedure called expression. They outer peel is squeezed by presses and the oil is separated or decanted from the water and cell debris. Most citrus oil is produced by the citrus-juice industry as a bi-product.
Essential oils have been used for therapeutic purposes for nearly 6,000 years. The ancient Chinese, Indians, Persians, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans used them as drugs and in cosmetics and perfumes. They were also used for spiritual and ritualistic purposes. The oils are also mentioned numerous times throughout the Bible. The three wise men, bestowed frankincense and myrrh on the baby Jesus. They were scarce substances during this time, known for their antiseptic, anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties. More recently, Rene-Maurice Gattefosse, a french chemist, discovered the healing properties of lavender, after he used it to treat his burned hand, injured in a lab explosion. He then researched the chemical properties of essential oils and how they were used to treat burns, skin infections, gangrene, and wounds in soldiers during World War I. By the 1950’s essential oils were being used all over the world, by people in numerous fields including massage therapists, physiotherapists, doctors and other medical providers. Aromatherapy however didn’t become popular in the States until the 1980’s.
Experts are not exactly sure how aromatherapy works. Some believe our sense of smell plays a role, communicating with parts of your brain (the amygdala and hippocampus) that store our emotions and memories. When you breath in essential oils, they stimulate that part of your brain and influence physical, emotional and mental health. For example, scientists believe lavender stimulates the amygdala, similar to how some sedative medications work. Other reseachers suspect they interact in the blood with hormones or enzymes.