CAM Profile: Aromatherapy

Many of us have experienced that scents can have a real, tangible impact on our state of being; lavender oil during a massage soothes us, the smell of rotting food disgusts us, the scent of a grandparent’s sweater evokes memories in us. Through these daily experiences, we have learned that our sense of smell has power over us physically, as well as emotionally and psychologically.

Keeping this powerful human function in mind, there are healing specialists who want to ask: “What if we were able to channel those powerful cerebral responses into supporting the body, or at least the spirit, and thus provide healing on at least a metaphysical level?”(Psychology Today)

Aromatherapy is a CAM (complementary and alternative medicine) practice that involves using essential oils for emotional, psychological and physical healing. In other words, it is a natural healing process for the mind, body and spirit. While the practice of using oils therapeutically has been around for nearly 6,000 years, it was not until the 1920s that the term aromatherapy was coined by French chemist and perfumer Rene-Maurice Gattefosse.

So, what is aromatherapy and why do we believe it is a beneficial CAM practice for integrative pain management?
There are a couple ways that aromatherapy is administered; the three primary methods are inhalation, ingestion and topical application. For a list of application methods with detailed directions, please follow the link found at the end of the article—it will take you to the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy’s website.

Whichever mode of application used, essential oils have repeatedly proven to help with symptoms of chronic pain. These symptoms include insomnia, stress, anxiety, depression, nausea and even headaches or arthritis. Inhaling oil that has been diffused in boiling water, for example, not only eases anxiety but distracts you from any physical pain you might be experiencing.

What are essential oils, you might be wondering. Through an extensive and laborious process, essential oils are extracted and distilled from natural substances such as roots, flowers and other plants. When in nature, these oils are incredibly important to the plant they inhabit, often described as the lifeblood of the plant. They help the plant adapt to the environment around it including attracting pollination, and defending against insects and bacteria. When extracted from the plant, these oils have similar properties when used on humans.

The scientific explanation for essential oil’s healing power on the human body has not been pinned down yet, simply because the benefits have been evident despite the explanation, and as a practice aromatherapy has not reached a platform mainstream enough to prompt widespread research. People continue to practice aromatherapy regardless of understanding exactly why it works. Scientists do know that our sense of smell is directly linked to the limbic system of our brain, which controls emotions and memory. This link obviously has much to do with the effect of aromatherapy on our psychological and emotional well being.

It is important to note that essential oils are not the same as synthetic fragrances. Synthetic fragrances are found in most lotions, candles and soaps. Due to their non-natural ingredients, synthetic fragrances do not have the aroma therapeutic properties of essential oils. Often, companies will use mostly synthetic scents but include a small amount of essential oil so they can advertise “made with essential oils” on their product. Unless a product advertises that it is made entirely with essential oils, it most likely has synthetic fragrances in it. These chemically created fragrances have been linked to long term health problems, but that is a topic for another time…

Slowly but surely, aromatherapy is entering the medical mainstream, as evidenced by the endorsement of the practice as a valid CAM therapy by various diverse and prestigious institutions such as the American Cancer Society and the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. Hopefully aromatherapy will continue to move in this direction and as a result will shed light on the benefit of holistic and integrative healing. Already, some hospitals in America have started implementing aromatherapy by certified professionals into their care plans, including Harris Methodist in Fort Worth, Texas, which provides the service free-of-charge.

*Note: some essential oils are more powerful than others, and some are even toxic when ingested. If you are practicing aromatherapy without the help of a professional, make sure you do some research first.

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