Ask Eartha: Is there any truth to aromatherapy?
June 22, 2017
I'm interested in exploring new ways in which I can improve my health holistically. I've been told to look into aromatherapy. Is there any truth to this method of healing? What should I know about aromatherapy and essential oils before I dive in?
Thanks for your question this week. Although some may think of holistic medicine as an entirely new or trendy topic, its roots in health care extend back to the ancients. Early humans were believed to approach health in a holistic approach, focusing on spiritual, mental and emotional health in addition to the more obvious physical aspect. Eastern medicine has explored holistic healing extensively and still remains a primary focus in modern health care systems. In a world in which convenience and quick fixes have become the norm, many holistic healing practices have fallen by the wayside in Western culture.
Holistic health may not maintain the focus it deserves in Western health care paradigms, but is undoubtedly potent and effective. In fact, the case can be made that many of our modern approaches to health care take convenience to the extreme, by offering solutions that may simply be covering up deeper issues. To support this theory, I would argue that many medicinal solutions are designed to treat symptoms rather than actual root concerns. For example, a common Western medicinal norm for sleeping difficulties may be a sleeping narcotic, designed to trigger or release certain receptors in the brain to synthetically knock you out; while a more holistic approach may be to understand what deeper issues cause a lack of sleep (i.e. stress, poor circulation, lack of chemical balance in the body, etc.). These are the types of deeper issues that a holistic healing approach such as aromatherapy aims to help address.
Typical aromatherapy involves absorbing the healing characteristics of various compounds directly through the skin or via the airborne aromas they produce. Most commonly, essential oils derived from plant matter are used in aromatherapy. Essential oils exist within a plant and serve various purposes. They can help attract pollinators, fight disease, help a plant compete against invasive species and are ultimately the 'lifeblood' of the plant. Essential oils contain various compounds that vary widely from species to species which have been found to carry a vast array of healing benefits for humans.
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When inhaling aromatic compounds from essential oils, specific locations in our brain interact with the chemicals to trigger memories, emotions and can even help open up or shut down the production of brain chemicals to improve certain internal healing characteristics. Professional aromatherapists utilize oils to trigger happy emotions or memories to lift a patient's spirit or increase their energy. The applications and potential for holistic healing through these means are seemingly endless. On the other hand, when we apply an essential oil directly to our skin, we absorb its healing compounds directly into our bloodstream. Both these methods of aromatherapy application serve their purposes depending on what health concerns you are looking to address.
In addition to the primary uses of essential oils in aromatherapy, you can also utilize them during a massage, a bath, a sauna or steam room session, a facial, or foot bath, they may be diluted in liquid or food and taken orally, added to a load of laundry or at the A/C vent on your car, or even on an artificial holiday tree this winter. The applications are vast and provide for great creativity. I personally have a small collection of essential oils that I often add to laundry or my shampoos and liquid soaps. Lavender, eucalyptus and tea tree essential oils are products that I always keep stocked for these applications. Ginger and peppermint can be applied directly to the skin to treat various ailments including muscle cramps, stomach aches, nausea, and are effective pain relievers. Fennel, frankincense and chamomile are calming oils that can be utilized through various methods including inhalation, or in a steaming pot of tea.
When first looking into aromatherapy, do your own research and make sure to utilize the essential oils that will work best for your particular concerns. Visit NAHA.org for more information regarding aromatherapy and in regards to which particular essential oils you should look to purchase. Be sure to use the proper essential oils for either direct skin application or inhalation. Furthermore, some essential oils are derived through a distillation process while others through direct expression. While in some cases it matters little how the essential oil has been captured from a plant, it does alter the compounds that end up in your oil. Most essential oils are clearly labeled with instructions for application as well as the health concerns it effectively addresses. Essential oils for aromatherapy can be purchased locally at Natural Grocers and Whole Foods, or online at various retailers. Of course we recommend organic alternatives or sustainably sourced essential oils. The human body can recognize nearly 10,000 different scents, explore the holistic healing benefits of essential oils and take note of the subtle ways they may improve your day.
Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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