What is Aromatherapy?
Simply defined, aromatherapy is the use of essential oils extracted from aromatic plants for their therapeutic benefits. And, those therapeutic benefits go beyond just our body's wellness.
Aromatherapy is one aspect of a holistic approach to wellness, and aromatherapy helps connect you: body, mind, & soul.
When was the term aromatherapy coined?
French chemist Rene-Maurice Gattefosse first used the term 'aromatherapy' in 1937 when he documented the healing properties of lavender and other essential oils. However, plant essences have been in use by mankind for millenia to treat a variety of health conditions, in sacred rituals, and in haircare & skincare.
A brief history of aromatherapy
Vases and scent pots containing plant essences were found interned along with King Tut when his tomb was opened in 1922.
Indeed, humans have used natural plant elements for spiritual and medicinal purposes as early as 4500 BC, and use of these essences expressed from the plant, freshly harvested herbs, and dried plant matter wasn’t limited to one geographic region. Ancient and midieval cultures in Egypt and other regions of Africa, India, China, & Europe added these components in oils, balms, and resins for religious and medicinal use.
Some of the earliest most commonly used plants were lavender, cedar, rose, thyme, peppermint, myrrh, and frankincense. These oil extracts were used in burial preparations and treating a host of diseases and health conditions.
Prior to discovery of distillation by the Persians in the 10th century, it was common to soak plant matter in oil or animal fat and strain off the plant material replacing it with new material every few days until the desired level of fragrance was achieved.
Another way of creating aromatherapeutic oils was to press the plant matter. A heavy stone would be rolled through a long trough lined with plant matter and filled with a carrier oil, such as olive oil, to expel the natural fragrance compounds from the plant.
In the 10th century AD, an Arabian physician known as Avicenna experimented with the use of distillation to extract the natural essence of the plant. Along with the essential oils, floral hydrolats also known as floral distillates and floral hydrosols, were produced during the distillation process. Rose hydrosol was renowned for its healing properties in medieval Europe likely heightened by marketing efforts of the new use of distillation in creating essential oils.
Plague doctor's uniform, Mithridatium, & Theriac
During the Great Plague that swept through England between 1665 to 1666, cathedrals were fumigated with sulfur, hops, pepper, & frankincense. Incense was burned indoors and in the streets. Perfumed candles were burned in sickrooms and hospitals, and doctors even wore masks that looked like beaks. Inside the beaks was a blend of herbs and other ingredients known as theriac.
Theriac has a dark history going all the way back to the year 120 BC. Mithridates VI was the King of Pontus, and this ancient country lies in a region of modern-day Turkey along the southern coast of the Black Sea. Like many rulers of his time, Mithridates VI worried about being assassinated by poisoning, so he sought a universal antidote to all poisons.
He gathered a host of ingredients known to be antidotes to a variety of individual venoms and poisons, and then he evaluated these ingredients by experimenting with them on condemned criminals.
His results led to compounding a variety of the herbs and plants into a single antidote containing over 40 ingredients which he took daily as a prophylaxis to guard against any poisoning attempts. This concoction became known as Mithridatium.
The next noted re-formulation of Mithridatium dates to Nero’s reign. Nero, the infamous Roman ruler who couldn’t stop the spread of Christianity during the decades immediately following Christ’s death and resurrection, ruled Rome from 54 to 68 AD. Nero’s physician, Andromachus, removed some of the ingredients from Mithridate’s formula and added others. He gave this revised formula the name Galene, which means tranquility, and Galene became more widely known as Theriac.
Theriac contained over 50 ingredients including lavender buds, rose petals, iris root, likely orris iris, ginger, licorice, cinnamon, juniper, cardamom, & pepper.
This concoction was placed into the bill or beak of the plague doctor mask, and both Mitridatium and Theriac were commonly prescribed as internal remedies for those with the plague and as plasters applied three times a day in those suffering skin boils due to the Plague.
Aromatherapy for treating the body
While a great number of plants and their essential oils display antimicrobial activity, use of essential oils in treating ailments far surpasses just serving in an antimicrobial capacity.
It's also worth mentioning that quite a number of essential oils that demonstrate an antimicrobial nature do so in clinical studies rather than in petri dishes... the likely reason for that? These essential oils stimulate our immune systems.
Essential oils have been employed for treating asthma, high and low blood pressure, a variety of reproductive complaints, from prompting labor to regulating menstruation, and the use of essential oils continues beyond treating the body.
Aromatherapy for treating the mind
A number of essential oils have been used to treat mental health conditions ranging from fear & paranoia to hypersensitivity, impatience, irritability, panic, & hysteria.
Because our sense of smell is part of our limbic system, which is responsible for processing our emotions & forming memory, fragrances can deeply impact our mood.
Several studies have shown that essential oils can improve memory, and one study in particular conducted in 2017 showed that rosemary essential oil helped a group of teens with memorization tests. There have also been a number of studies looking at EEG patterns of the brain recording alpha, beta, theta, & delta waves when people inhale different essential oils.
You can find each of these studies linked in today's shownotes.
And, here's a quick list of a few essential oils found useful for these conditions:
- Anxiety: Neroli, Ylang Ylang
- Depression: Rose, Sweet Orange, Vetiver
- Grief: Cypress, Frankincense, Lavender, Marjoram, Neroli, Rose
- Insomnia: Chamomile, Vetiver
- Stress: Chamomile, Lavender, Vetiver, Ylang Ylang
Aromatherapy for the soul
Plant essences have long been used in spiritual rituals, and is it of any wonder? These plant essences have been defined as life force of the plant, ebbing and flowing throughout the day in connection with the rhythm of nature, sunrise, sunset, and the progressions of the season.
As ceremony and ritual were intended to connect us more closely to the higher force of the universe, is it any wonder that essential oils are a way for mankind to feel more connected with the Creator?
Kurt Schnaubelt points out that aromatherapy is able to help people realize health in a way that science alone cannot hope to achieve. Why? Because aromatherapy accepts and integrates the phenomenon of the soul.
Before we move on from this conversation, I'd like to ask one more question...
Do you think plants are sentient?
Robert Tisserand eloquently wrote of these plant essences:
Essences are like the blood of a person. They are not the whole plant, but are whole, organic substances in themselves. Like blood, they will die (lose their lifeforce) if they are not properly preserved. Like blood they incorporate the characteristics of the body (plant) from which they came. They are like the personality, or spirit, of the plant. The essence is the most ethereal and subtle part of the plant, and its therapeutic action takes place on a higher, more subtle level than that of the whole, organic plant, or its extract having in general a much more pronounced effect on the mind and emotions than herbal medicine.
And, just one more quote, this time from Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird:
Flowers that remain unfertilized emit a strong fragrance for as many as eight days or until the flower withers and falls; yet once impregnated the flower ceases to exude its fragrance, usually in less than half an hour.
-The Secret Life of Plants
The magnificence of the universe truly cannot be overstated.
If you'd like to try aromatherapy, now's a great time to reach for some of Rain Organica's products.
You'll find a rose water mist for your hair & body (& linens) at Rain Organica now.
You can also pick up one of three body oils. These all natural blends each feature a blend of essential oils, and you can choose the one that most resonates with you.
Lastly, if you already have a collection of essential oils and are looking for ways to use them, pick up a terra cotta disc diffuser at Rain Organica. Just add a few drops of your favorite essential oil (or essential oil blend) to the diffuser disc and hang in your car or other small space like a closet or set inside a drawer to diffuse the fragrance over time.
The Alchemy of Things In Tune Segment
The composition of an essential oil can vary greatly depending on the region where the plant was grown, the time of day the plant was harvested (were petals picked at first light, were leaves gathered at dusk?), the timing of the last thunderstorm.
Bulgarian lavender is highly coveted because of the particular climate and altitude where its grown. The same is true of Bulgarian rose. And, the composition of an essential oil doesn't stop with the harvest. The conditions of the distillation are also important. The duration of the distillation also alters its composition, which in turn alters its fragrance and even its health benefits.
Next week, we're diving into a series on holistic health starting with a discussion on lymph flow then segueing into a talk about Pilates and concluding with a conversation around acupuncture.
I hope you're excited for those episodes.
Until next time,
The Art of Aromatherapy by Robert Tisserand
The Complete Aromatherapy & Essential Oils Handbook for Everyday Wellness by Nerys Purchon and Lora Cantele
About the Author
Brandy's a formulation scientist and self-proclaimed health geek who loves hiking, gardening, bird-watching, and body boarding.
Her struggle with acne during her teens and 20s led to a holistic and healthy approach to skincare, embracing skin as an organ to be loved and cared for rather than a canvas to wage war on.
Since 2008, she's been developing all-in-one products for a simple routine at home, & Rain Organica started when her backpacking friends asked for a portable skincare routine to keep their skin healthy & happy on and off the trails.
You can try Rain Organica for yourself with The Essentials Kit, a complete skincare routine in just 3 steps.
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