How to use aromatherapy at home

The art of using essential oils to benefit wellbeing is an ancient practice. Evidence dates back to mummification over 3000 years ago when the Egyptians used essential oils for the preservation of their corpses. They also pioneered aromatherapy incense burning, using aromatic woods and herbs in ritual sacrifice to the gods.

When the black plague struck Europe in the 1300s, fragrant herbs and spices such as rosemary, sage and thyme were used to purify the air. Clothing was soaked in camphor and laurel, dried herbs were scattered on floors and aromatic spices such as nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves were embedded in masks.

Forgotten for centuries, aromatherapy was revived in 1928 by Frenchman René-Maurice Gattefossé, who severely burnt his hand while working in his cosmetics laboratory. After plunging the burn into a vat of lavender oil, his symptoms were considerably relieved and healed without scarring. With that knowledge, another Frenchman, Dr Jean Valnet, administered essential oils to wounded soldiers in World War II.

Art of aromatherapy

Aromatherapy today is a fusion of these old techniques with a contemporary twist. In Australia, knowledge has been harnessed from Aboriginal bush medicine. “We’ve got lots of eucalyptus, tea-tree, lemon eucalyptus, lemon tea-tree and Australian sandalwood, which is one of the purest sandalwoods around,” says Anna Mason, aromatherapist and lecturer at Nature Care College, Sydney.

She says aromatherapy can be administered in a burner, a bath, or blended with a carrier oil as a lotion. “Touch can help essential oils travel through the skin,” she says. Professor Stephen Myers, from the School of Health and Human Sciences at Southern Cross University, believes ambient aroma (using a burner or vaporiser) is the most common application. “When inhaled, the active constituents of essential oils act as olfactory stimulants. Impulses generated from the stimulants then travel from the olfactory bulb to the limbic system,” he adds. The limbic system is the part of the brain responsible for emotions and memories.

Essential oils can also be ingested, though this practice is not widely accepted in Australia. “There’s a real value in taking the purest quality internally. Sometimes, I use oils as a mouth gargle when I have a sore throat,” says Mason.

Aromatherapy’s healing effects

Research has shown that different oils have different capabilities. Mason adds, “For nursing home treatments I advise burning essential oils like bergamot, rosemary, basil and lemon to wake people up. Around lunchtime, I suggest burning orange because it makes people want to eat.”

Herbalist and naturopath Eliza Blackwood also rotates her essential oils according to her schedule. “If I’m working at Home I’ll burn oil that is quite uplifting and energising and at night I’ll burn something relaxing so the kids will go to sleep. By diffusing into the atmosphere, it can purify the air and affect health and mood in positive ways,” she says.

Tina White is an avid fan of aromatherapy and uses it to boost her 18-month-old son Hugo’s environment and immune system. “As far as mainstream medical science is concerned, Hugo has an incurable, incredibly rare disease (Sandhoff) that stops him producing a particular enzyme that breaks down fat in the bloodstream, with a prognosis of living up to three years old. Aromatherapy oils can penetrate Hugo’s blood-brain barrier and break down fats in his brain,” White says. Professor Myers explains, “Essential oil constituents are lipid-soluble and the molecules of the active constituents are small enough to pass the blood-brain barrier.”

Hugo is also susceptible to chest infections and recently had a bout of pneumonia. “I used frankincense and eucalyptus in the vaporiser and put lavender drops around his bed, as their antiseptic properties pass into the air,” says his mother. She also massages Hugo’s spine with Blue German chamomile, a renowned muscle relaxant with anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties.

Only the purest form of essential oil will perform its function. Extraction is by steam distillation, contributing to the expense of essential oils. “A lot of my clients will say they picked up rose for three dollars but it’s a perfume of rose that’s manufactured in a laboratory,” says Mason. “You need 1000 bushels of rose to get 250ml of essential oil,” she adds.

Reportedly, aromatherapy has cured patients where conventional medicine has failed but generally most practitioners agree the two approaches work hand in hand. In France, it is impossible to practise aromatherapy without first qualifying as a medical physician.

Professor Stephen Myers is an example of a trained medical practitioner who has branched into complementary medicine. “Aromatherapy is a specialised discipline within the wider field of herbal medicine and is part of the domain of complementary medicine. The term “complementary” comes from the concept of “complementarity” to make whole, as such complementary medicines do not seek to replace conventional medicine but to complement and enhance it so that together we can make a better (hopefully holistic) health system. As the scientific evidence mounts for specific essential oils, this information should be incorporated into evidence-based clinical practice. Peppermint oil, for instance, is widely used in the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) based on good clinical evidence,” he says.

Other benefits of essential oils are surprising. “If you are cooking fish in the kitchen, burning bergamot will stop that smell. Sandalwood is relaxing but also good for urinary tract infections when applied over the tummy area,” Mason adds. Lemon myrtle has a reputation as a bush tucker plant but, as one of the most anti-fungal, anti-viral and antiseptic Australian essential oils, it also heals damaged skin, calms, aids digestion and helps recovery from colds, flu and chest infections.

Home remedies

Seeking expert advice should always the first step but some examples of home remedies include:

Depression. Burn orange and zesty ginger essential drops together.

Insomnia. Burn Roman chamomile, clary sage and bergamot oils together.

Menstrual cramps. Blend peppermint, Cyprus and lavender oils with a carrier oil for massage.

Memory boost. Burn peppermint and lemon oils together.

Calming anger. Burn ylang-ylang, bergamot and jasmine drops.

Energiser. Burn a blend of rosemary and bergamot oils.

Skin infections. Tea-tree oil with a carrier oil can even treat athlete’s foot.

Professor Stephen Myers adds that clinical studies have demonstrated the beneficial effects of essential oils on anxiety and stress states; improvement in positive mood; inducing a sense of calm; providing mild sedation; and ameliorating pain perception.

One study in the journal Physiology & Behavior, which looked at the effects of the essential oils of orange and lavender in a dental waiting room, found that, individually, both of these ambient odours reduced anxiety and improved mood in patients waiting for dental treatment.

Sandalwood and myrrh, the first Christmas presents, have both been demonstrated to have valuable antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties.

Meryl Hancock

Meryl Hancock

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