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The History of Aromatherapy


The History of Aromatherapy – Gillian Kelly relates the history of Aromatherapy, its benefits and outlines the essential oils

The History of Aromatherapy

The history of Aromatherapy goes back to the Egyptians using Myrrh and Frankincense for the embalming process in their tombs.  Egyptians believed that Frankincense, Myrrh and Benzoin were more valuable than gold at that time.  The Greek physician Hippocrates used chamomile for reducing fever and advised his patients to have regular massages to promote health and wellbeing.  Another Greek Physician advised his patients to use Cypress to ease their stomach problems. In Medieval times, Persian Physician and Philosopher Avicenna discovered how to distill the oils.  China and India have a long history of using the oils.  Chinese Physicians used sandalwood to treat cholera and suggested clove bud for fresh breath.  In India sandalwood was used to heal wounds and it was also burnt for exorcism rites.

During the Middle Ages women used essential oils for remedies for their families. In 1649 Nicholas Culpeper an English Physician, published his book “Complete Herbal and English Physician”. This book was about the use of plants for remedies. During the Great Plague physicians wore masks filled with herbs to protect them from diseases.  Eau de cologne was invented in the 18th century by apothecaries by mixing Bergamot, Neroli, Rosemary and Lavender essential oils.

In 1910 French Chemist Rene Maurice Gattefosse burnt his hand when he was working in his lab.  He applied lavender oil to cool down his burn.  He said “The external application of small quantities of essences rapidly stops the spread of gangrenous sores. In my personal experience, after a laboratory explosion covered me with burning substances which I extinguished by rolling on a grassy lawn, both my hands were covered with a rapidly developing gas gangrene. Just one rinse with lavender essence stopped “the gasification of the tissue”. This treatment was followed by profuse sweating, and healing began the next day (July 1910).”

He began researching the positive effects of essential oils and decided to go on to treat soldiers in the First World War with them. He called this “Aromatherapie” in a scientific paper, which documented essential oils’ antiseptic, anti-bacterial, anti-viral, and anti-inflammatory properties. During the Indochina War Jean Valnet, an army physician and surgeon used the essential oils to treat the soldier’s wounds. He established aromatherapy as a therapy.

How are essential oils made?

The oils are extracted from leaves, flowers, resin, roots, peel or bark.  They are produced in one of three ways, steam distillation, expression and solvent extraction.  The extraction method depends on what essential oil is being produced.  Steam distillation is the method which is usually involved.  This entails the steam being passed over the plant parts in a still.  The steam then goes through a condenser and produces liquid containing both oil and water.  Expression is the process of extracting the essential oil from citrus fruit.

This consists of squeezing the oil out of the peel.  Solvent extraction is a complicated process which involves extracting the essential oil from Rose, Neroli and Jasmine flowers.  The flower petals are soaked in a chemical solvent and this removes the aromatic fragrance out of the plant fibres.  The sticky mass is called a “concrete”.  This mass is processed and the liquid that is left is called an “absolute”.  Rose and Neroli oil are expensive because a large number of flowers are used to make a small amount of essential oil.  The price of essential oils differs depending on the method of extraction used, the country they come from and the weather conditions. When you are buying an essential oil ensure that the Latin name is on the oil, this means it is a genuine essential oil and not a processed one.

The Benefits of Aromatherapy

  • Enhances mood and general wellbeing
  • Improves circulation
  • Stimulates the immune system
  • Encourages sleep or increases vitality depending on the oil
  • Improves digestion

5 popular essential oils include:

Peppermint oil (Mentha Piperita) – Aids digestive, relieves fatigue and headaches, reduces fever. However it is contraindicated with homeopathic remedies, it should not be used with them or stored near them. It is a stimulating oil so insomniacs should not use it before they go to bed.

Lemon oil (Citrus Limonum) – Stimulates the immune system and protects against colds and flu.  It is an antiseptic and is beneficial for oily skin conditions such as acne.  It helps to lower blood pressure and it enhances the mood. It can cause irritation in sensitive skin. It is photosensitive so it can cause sunburn.

Lavender oil (Lavandula Angustifolia) It is useful for anxiety, insomnia and fatigue. It enhances the mood and reduces agitation. Additional uses include applications for the skin, pain relief, headache relief and it increases hair growth in patients with alopecia. There are no known contraindications for Lavender oil.

Tea Tree oil (Melaleuca Alternifolia)– It has antibacterial and antifungal properties so it is useful for athletes foot, boils, acne, insect bites and it relieves sore throats by gargling with it (not swallowing it.) However it is contraindicated for sensitive skin and eczema.

Mandarin oil (Citrus Reticulate) – It alleviates insomnia, depression and anxiety.  It is used in cosmetics as an anti wrinkling agent. It aids digestive problems and it detoxifies the liver. It helps to boost the immune system and it promotes overall health and wellbeing. It is photosensitive so it can cause sunburn.

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