What is aromatherapy? People commonly think that "aromatherapy" refers to anything that smells good, like scented candles, potpourri, and perfumes. We use the term "aromatherapy" to refer to the therapeutic application of plant essential oils (usually diluted in some type of solution) by qualified individuals.
Extracted from plants, flowers and citrus fruits, essential oils are hot: Industry revenue has gone up about 13 percent in five years. The ancient Chinese, Egyptians, Indians and Greeks relied on essential oils as medicine. They're now gaining new ground because of growing evidence of their powers; a review published in the International Journal of Neuroscience concluded that various scents can significantly affect mood, cognition and physiology. Increased openness to complementary and alternative treatments is fueling this boom.
How Aromatherapy Works
When you sniff an essential oil, your olfactory bulb fires off signals to the limbic system, the part of the brain that controls emotions—that's how scents affect your mood. Depending on the type of oil used, your blood pressure or heart rate may rise or fall, and your body may release certain hormones. Aromatherapy isn't healthy for everyone. People with asthma should avoid essential oils, says Alan Hirsch, MD, neurological director of the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago, and pregnant women need to check with their doctors first. Never drink an essential oil, even in a small amount, without medical supervision. "Essential oils can be poisonous if you ingest too much—they could affect your nervous system and cause seizures," Dr. Fugh-Berman cautions.
Also note that essential oils may not mix well with certain drugs. For example, blue chamomile oil can hamper the enzyme that metabolizes some antidepressants. "If you're using patch medication, applying essential oils in the area could cause an interaction," adds Andrea Butje, a clinical aromatherapist who runs the Aromahead Institute, which offers virtual courses.
Although essential oils are generally safe when used correctly, proper care should always be taken. Some oils can cause skin or allergic reactions and most oils need to be diluted before being applied directly to the skin. Since some essential oils can react with certain medications, or shouldn’t be used with certain health conditions, it is always best to get advice from a qualified aroma-therapist when choosing oils. Always remember to check that the oils you use are made from high quality plant ingredients and are not synthetic aromas claiming to provide aromatherapy benefits.