How Aromatherapy Works
A common question that people ask when they first meet an aromatherapist is, 'how does aromatherapy work?' Good question. From the very start of aromatherapy's resurgence back in the 1980's, how aromatherapy works together with essential oils has been a somewhat misunderstood subject.
Well, the name is a bit misleading since there is far more to it than just smelling aromas. Hardly surprising it was met with ridicule for the first 10 years! So here are some of the most important facts about the way that aromatherapy helps improve your health and well being.
When essential oils are applied to the body they penetrate the skin via the hair follicles and sweat glands and are absorbed into the body fluids, where they not only help to kill bacteria and viruses but also stimulate the body's immune system, thereby strengthening resistance to further attack.
Some essential oils increase the circulation and help with the efficient elimination of toxins, others promote new cell growth and encourage the body's natural ability to heal itself. Each essential oil has its own character and aroma, exhibiting a varying number of properties and benefits which are unique to itself, since no two essential oils are quite the same.
The minute molecules of essential oils are readily absorbed into the bloodstream when they are inhaled as the lungs work to oxygenate the blood. This form of absorption is most efficient when inhaling essential oils from a tissue, diffusing them in a vaporizer, or adding them to your bathwater. The aroma sends a signal directly to the Limbic System in the brain which is the centre of emotions, memory and sexual arousal. This is why essential oils have such a powerful effect on our moods and general state of mind, as we will see later.
Massage is one of the best ways to enjoy aromatherapy because you not only receive the therapeutic properties of the essential oils, but you also get the wonderful benefits of the massage itself. The therapeutic action of the essential oils when brought together with the revitalising effects of massage stimulate all of the organs in the body, plus the skin, muscles, nerves and glands. The increased circulation of the blood and lymph flow also assists with the clearing away of body toxins.
Because essential oils can influence our emotions, aromatherapy can help to lift depression, soothe irritable nerves and generally encourage a better state of mind. It has been discovered that relaxing oils such as lavender, sweet marjoram, clary sage, sandalwood, frankincense and ylang ylang work by stimulating a neuro-chemical called serotonin that is naturally produced by the body to help relaxation and induce sleep. It is this action that makes these oils so invaluable in helping long-term conditions such as insomnia, stress and tension.
Cycle of illness
Physical illness that has continued over a long period of time causes a negative emotional state, and this can eventually lead to a compromised immune system. This situation can be particularly devastating since the weakened immune system will now be more vulnerable to further infection, and another new infection can lead to even further emotional depression. A downward spiral of emotional and physical health can ensue, producing a vicious cycle of illness that can be very difficult to break without the correct treatment.
Scientists have proven that negative and positive emotions really can change the complex chemistry of our bodies, and these changes can have a negative or positive effect on the immune system. For example, some research has shown how prolonged stress can cause the body to over-produce cortisol and adrenalin which are hormones produced by the adrenal glands.
Fight or flight
These two hormones are normally secreted to produce a burst of energy as part of the 'fight or flight' response, and of course this response is an essential tool for survival. Prolonged periods of emotional and psychological pressures however, means that the over-production of these hormones can begin to weaken the integrity of the immune system because they reduce the level of T-helper cells, and inhibit the production of natural killer cells.
The research leading to this discovery supports the claims of aromatherapists who have always believed that the sense of well being produced after using essential oils in a treatment can help to boost the immune system, especially in cases of stress and depression where the immune system has become depleted. Regular treatments using essential oils and aromatherapy massage helps to break the cycle of depression which causes immunodeficiency, whilst at the same time helping to boost the depleted immune system.
Two way street
It has also been proven recently that a communication network exists between the immune system and the nervous and endocrine systems. This points to the mind-body communication pathway being a two-way street - not only do your emotions and thoughts influence your health, but the immune system appears to inform the brain and endocrine organs of the changes.
Small protein hormones called cytokines are secreted by many types of white blood cells and also in the brain. Cytokines appear to act as chemical messengers in this communication network, and the results of all this research opens up a mind-boggling range of exciting possibilities for future medicine. Further research into this fascinating subject will no doubt continue until what has been learned can be put into practice with modern medicine.
Meanwhile, those of us who enjoy aromatherapy will quietly carry on putting into practice what Plato had discovered over 2,000 years ago. Since it has now been proven by scientists that essential oils can influence both the mind and the body - as we have always claimed - perhaps the skeptics will accept this and at last understand why aromatherapy has been so effective and popular for all these years.
Aromatherapy excels as a form of complementary and alternative medicine, helping and bringing relief to millions of people where conventional medicine currently fails. Of this there can surely be no doubt. But there is one more area where aromatherapy is more effective than possibly any other healing paradigm.
It has long been understood that preventative measures go a very long way towards protecting the body against all types of illness. Therefore the relaxing and de-stressing influence of essential oils and massage, together with their effect on the immune system, places aromatherapy in the pre-eminent position as the finest preventative medicine.
And no matter what your opinion or beliefs may currently be about the efficacy of aromatherapy, there is one thing that we can all surely agree on: Prevention really is much better than cure.
Copyright © Quinessence Aromatherapy Ltd 2001. Written by Geoff Lyth
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