An Individual’s Uncovering of the Medicine in Essential Oils

Posted on Monday 23 November 2009

Known for Centuries, Unknown to Me

Although college educated, I have had little acquaintance with aromatherapy, or aroma-therapetutics as my friend prefers to call it. I have spent many university classroom hours reading about the interactions between plants and insects, plants and other plants and of course plants and humans. Yet, what was not explained in all the lectures I attended and books I read were the wide-variety of medicinal and chemical properties of aromatherapy. Below is brief synopsis of my discovery of aromatherapy and the science that revels what plants have been making for centuries.

So Much More Than Just Aroma

In the many years that I have been interested in natural medicine, I have only vaguely associated aromatherapy with getting a massage or putting lavender on my pillow for a better night’s sleep. What I did not realize is that there have been centuries of usage of aromatherapy and currently used in medical facilities in France. Now, with a rising interest and even demand for alternative and complementary medicine, research is actively being conducted on the benefits of aromatherapy for infections, psyche, nerves, hormones and to some extent inflammation, allergies and metabolic conditions.

Uses of Aromatherapy

Contrary to the name, aromatherapy is more than just smelling certain botanical scents. Jane Buckle, RN, Ph.D., concludes that there are four main types of aromatherapy: clinical, stress management, beauty therapy and environmental fragrancing. I am sure that many of us have an association of aromatherapy when it comes to beauty treatments such as facials and hair care, as well as using good smelling essential oil fragrances to enhance the atmosphere of a room, yet the clinical and stress management aspects of aromatherapy have been largely hidden from view.

To wrap my investigative mind around what truly is aromatherapy, I needed to get more of a simplistic definition. The general idea of the meaning of aromatherapy is that it is therapeutic uses of essential oils from aromatic (fragrant) plants. These oils are usually extracted from plants using water or steam distillation and typically used in diffusers as well as topically. Once the aromatic essential oils are extracted, the oils are rather unstable in nature – when the oils are exposed to air, they change from a potent liquid into an aromatic vapor within seconds.

In his book Advanced Aromatherapy: The Science of Essential Oil, Kurt Schnaubelt, Ph.D., explains that the main chemical component of essential oils are terpenes and it higher homologues as well as phenylpropane derivatives. Yet it must be pointed out that the synergy of each oil has it own unique qualities as well as specific chemical components.

Reacquainting with Nature

Each of us is aware of the far reaching affects of the high-tech civilization that we live. Yet, one that is often overlooked or forgotten is the loss of nature – both in our surrounding environment and in personal knowledge. In this modern age, it seems that humans have separated mind from body and body from soul. If we were to look at the essence of what aromatherapy is, it is simply nature in a bottle.

Probing into my biology textbook, I read about plant defenses in a whole new light. Plants produce chemical compounds, mostly terpenoid compounds, in order to defend themselves against predators such as insects and animal herbivores as well as against fungai and other microbes. These terpenoid compounds also are used in plant to plant competition, where established plants inhibit germination of other plants. And of course plants use scent in attracting beneficial insect and bat pollinators. (4) (5) Thus, it is evident that the role of essential oils is vital to the continual establishment and growth of plants.

Creatures and Aroma

I wonder in my own mind why the usage and medicinal properties of plants is so unfamiliar in our culture. I have known for years that horses select various plants to facilitate detoxing of metabolic toxic buildup, as well as for antiviral and anti-parasitic properties. I remember in college learning about Chimpanzees eating certain plants to cleanse their accumulation of internal parasites.

I also know from my graduate work in entomology that insects have fairly well developed chemoreception and some are attracted to plants by their scents. It seems strange thinking about it now (the light bulb just turned on) why plants and their essential oils are not more widely used in everyday life, but as I have pointed out above that is now changing. In part two of this paper, I will investigate the physiological pathways of absorption into the human body and the current research on clinical and stress management uses of aromatherapy.

The author is a consultant to The Ananda Apothecary, an excellent online resouce for medical grade essential oils, aromatherapy formulations, flower essences, and usage instructions for a great many natural products and therapies.

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