How does aromatherapy work?


The definition of aromatherapy is:

"The use of selected fragrant substances, such as essential oils, in inhalants and lotions in an effort to affect mood and promote health."

Inhaling an aromatic substance has a direct effect on the limbic system, which is found in the subcortex of the brain. Stimuli to the limbic system produce powerful effects which are both emotional and physical in nature.

When you inhale a fragrance, the molecules of the fragrant item stimulate the olfactory nerve, which governs the sense of smell. The olfactory nerve conducts these molecules to the limbic system in the brain. The limbic system contains the hippocampus, the hypothalamus, and the amygdala, which all have an affect on the emotions, energy level, immune system, appetite, and the heart.

How aromatherapy affects the emotions

To understand the power of an essential fragrance, just visit a candle shop. Does the bayberry or cinnamon scent evoke memories of a particular holiday or occasion? When you go into a bakery does the aroma of cookies baking in the oven remind you of a favorite aunt or grandmother? These kinds of experiences illustrate the power of aromatherapy to evoke memory.

In much the same way, aromatherapy also arouses human emotions. Maybe the scent of bayberry or cinnamon made you feel the happiness you experienced during the holidays, or the sadness at the loss of a grandmother or favorite aunt.

A walk through an orange grove can give us a refreshing and uplifting feeling. On the other hand a stroll past a garbage can on a hot summer day makes us feel disgusted, maybe even nauseous. The power of aromatherapy is evident in our lives. The wonderful news is that it can be used to calm and balance the emotions, and have a therapeutic and positive effect on our bodies, our pets, our homes and our workplace.

How to use essential oils

Essential oils are essences produced from the roots, seeds, stems, leaves, and branches of plants. They have a fragrance which can directly affect one's emotions and health. But there are many other uses of essential oils too. They can be used for inhalation aromatherapy, topical application to the body, or ingestion in foods and beverages.

How does aromatherapy work on the body? Essential oils contain specific molecules that speed absorption by the body. Some of these are: pinenes, 1,8-cineole, and d-limonene. The rate of entry of an essential oil from the upper surface of the skin to the blood vessels to the bodily tissues is only about twenty minutes.

Inhalation aromatherapy

There are a few ways to inhale essential oils.

  • The easiest way is to simply open the small bottle, hold it under the nostrils, and take a deep breath. Hold the bottle under each nostril so that the aroma is scented through both nostrils. This ensures that both the left and right sides of the brain receive the effect.
  • Dab a drop or two of oil onto a handkerchief and sniff it.
  • Use an aromatherapy diffuser. The best method of diffusion is cold diffusion because warming or heating an oil can change its molecular structure and effect.

    Aromatherapy diffusers will be further described in future.

    Topical application of essential oils

    How does aromatherapy work on the body? Before applying an essential oil or blends to the skin or face, note:

    • Always patch test an essential oil or lotion to make sure it does not irritate the skin. Some essential oils are quite strong and may cause an itchy or burning sensation, so use caution before applying any unknown blends or oils to your body. Rub a small amount onto the back or your hand or am and wait a minute or two to see if it causes any reaction. If it doesn't, it is OK to use.
    • Always dilute essential oils before applying, unless you are already familiar with the oil and its effect.
    • One good rule of thumb is to use a 1:1 ratio in diluting. One teaspoon of carrier or vegetable oil to one drop of essential oil, to start. You may experiment with amounts to mix and blend, but start out with a gentle recipe and then work your way up to stronger blends.
    • When mixing two essential oils together for the first time, also use a 1:1 ratio: 1 drop of one to one drop of the other. For example, one drop Lavender to one drop Orange.

    How does aromatherapy work with carrier or massage oils? It's fun to make your own massage oils, carrier oils and aromatherapy blends and it can become a rewarding and profitable hobby too. Carrier oils are simply oils or lotions that which serve as a diluting base for mixing essential oils.

    Use Only pure vegetable oils for making carrier oils and massage oils. Some examples are:

    Almond oil
    Grapeseed oil
    Apricot oil
    Safflower oil
    Sunflower oil
    Olive oil
    Peanut oil
    Canola oil
    Sesame oil

    You can also use cocoa butter or a favorite skin lotion as a carrier substance if you intend to use the blends on sensitive areas like the face. Don't use body lotions containing any kinds of chemicals because these can spoil the therapeutic effect of the essential oils. Use pure oils and pure lotions. If they contain chemicals that you can't even pronounce, like methyl paraben or sodium laureth or lauryl sulfate, don't use them.

    Massage aromatherapy blends into your arms, legs, back, neck, face, hands, and even your feet! The feet are very porous and contain thousands of receptor cells. Use a Foot Reflexology zone chart to determine the corresponding zones on the feet for producing a desired effect. If you have a sore shoulder, rub an aromatherapy blend into the corresponding Shoulder zone. See chart below.

    How does aromatherapy work with Foot Reflexology? You can rub essential oil blends right into the soles of your feet. The absorption through the large skin cells of the feet is quick and effective. Rub generally into the entire sole of the foot for therapeutic uses. If you are trying to work on a digestive problem, rub the oil into the Stomach/Large Intestine/Small Intestine area of the foot, approximately the lower half to lower third of the foot.

    reflexology chart, foot reflex zone chart

    Ingestion of essential oils

    How does aromatherapy work with foods? Many essential oils provide healthy benefits when eaten or drunk. They have antibacterial, antioxidant and antiviral properties and can strengthen your immune system, improve your digestion and circulation, and regulate your metabolism. But you must be very cautious when ingesting an oil. Some oils, like black pepper, are too strong to be eaten. Essential oils that may be ingested are listed in the Essential Aromatherapy Oils guide.

    Rule of thumb in eating or drinking an essential oil: One drop will suffice! Place one drop of Peppermint oil into a glass of milk or warm water - that's all you need! More will be overpowering!

    Or place one drop of ginger essential oil onto a piece of cooked fish. Do not sprinkle a bottle of essential oil like a salt shaker! Less is more.

    Milk, rice milk, or a thick substance like a pudding, is a good medium for ingesting an essential oil, or you can just add the drop directly to any food, vegetable or salad.