Aromatherapy might seem strange or mysterious, but it’s really nothing of the sort. It’s not homeopathy and it’s not just scented hand lotion… So what is aromatherapy?

Aromatherapy is the science of using the volatile essential oils from botanical sources to promote healing, relaxation, and balancing of the body’s systems. The use of essential oils and botanicals for both physical and psychological treatment have been documented in ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman cultures, so aromatherapy isn’t just some fad of the day.

The origin of the word according to the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA):

The term “aromatherapie” was coined by Rene Maurice Gattefosse in 1928.  He utilized the word to imply the therapeutic use of aromatic substances (essential oils). Since the beginning of Aromatherapy, the practice has encompassed human pathology and the treatment of different conditions (emotional and physical) with essential oils.  As Aromatherapy developed into a practice it adopted an holistic approach which encompasses the body, the mind and the spirit (energy).

Perhaps the most practical example of the power of scent that I can give is that of Proustian memory, or involuntary memory. (hat tip to @passionategreen) Proustian memory describes the experience when “cues encountered in everyday life evoke recollections of the past without conscious effort.” Like smelling wood smoke and then having the experience of being back at a specific point in time that you relate to woodsmoke because of it.

Aromatherapy works in two different ways. One is through the nose, with the aromas reaching the olfactory receptors and affecting the body’s limbic system, and the other is by the oils being absorbed into the bloodstream. The oils used for aromatherapy are not perfume oils, but pure essential oils, so read the labels carefully before buying any. Perfume oils are also called “fragrance” oils and are synthetic versions that aren’t derived from botanicals. Because the use of the term aromatherapy is not regulated, many products that claim to be beneficial to you because of aromatherapy are not made from pure essential oils.

Aromatherapy oils are applied to the skin, sometimes in a carrier, like almond oil, or warmed over a candle in a diffuser. They can also just be wafted around you or applied to a handkerchief and then inhaled. Getting a massage with essential oils blended into the massage oil is heavenly, and you can make your own custom blends to use for you and your partner.

NAHA has a page listing their Top 10 Essential Oils along with therapeutic qualities and in-depth articles about each. The website has a wealth of information, and I’ll bet that any questions you have about the practice of aromatherapy can be answered there.

Image: Tylfe at Flickr under Creative Commons

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