by Leah Buysse, Health & Wellness Staff
Aromatherapy, according to the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA), can be defined as the art and science of utilizing naturally-extracted aromatic essences from plants to balance, harmonize, and promote the health of body, mind and spirit. It is an art and science that seeks to explore the physiological, psychological and spiritual realm of an individual’s response to aromatic extracts as well as to observe and enhance an individual’s innate healing process. In short, aromatherapy means using aromatic substances (essential oils) for their healing properties.
Essential oils are volatile, aromatic, naturally occurring chemical compounds that retain the qualities of the original plant substance. Many believe they contain the spirit or life force of the plants they are extracted from. Essential oils help balance the body, improve well-being, and synchronize us with the energy of the natural world.
The documented use of essential oils dates back to Egyptian times, when they were used to purify air, scent households, and embalm bodies. Wealthy ladies in Greece and Rome were perfumed with these fragrant oils. The oils were believed to bring luck, love, and marriage in Europe. Queen Elizabeth I scented linens to bring a good night’s sleep. In the United States, before the creation of synthetic scents, the woman of the house would prepare fragrances for the family. Herbal medicines, aromatic soaps, perfumes, potpourris and food flavorings were just a few of her creations. In the mid-19th century, scientists created synthetic versions of the aromatic oils. While they were very good at reproducing the scents of the oils, they were unable to duplicate the healing properties that are present in essential plant oils.
The name “essential oil” is often used as an umbrella term to include all aromatic compounds, which works if the only consideration is the end product. There are three different processes of isolating and separating the plants’ essential oils. The processes that are the most accepted are steam, steam/water, or water distillation.
In steam distillation, the steam is piped into the distillation unit containing the plant material. Once the steam has passed through the aromatic material, it is piped into a condenser that cools the steam and allows the oil to separate out. The essential oil is skimmed off the top leaving what is known as a hydrosol. Hydrosols are the byproducts of distillation that also offer therapeutic benefits. “Floral waters” offer a much more subtle aroma and may be used as skin toners, room sprays or in body care recipes in place of water.
Steam/water distillation is very similar and is able to be done at home. Water is heated to produce steam. A “basket” containing plant material is placed over the boiling water. The steam, which contains the volatile chemicals, is collected and cooled. This process works well for leafy material. For roots, woods and nuts, hydro-distillation is suggested. Fully submerge the botanical in boiling water, collect the steam and cool.
Essential oils that carry the more specific name of “absolutes” are dissolved by use of a chemical solvent. This complex system produces more concentrated oils than the process of distillation, and is beneficial for compounds that cannot withstand the distillation process, like jasmine and linden blossom. The solvent is removed in the final stages of production, but trace amounts remain in the essential oil that is produced.
“Co2s” are another type of essential oil. To produce Co2s, carbon dioxide is pressurized and turned into liquid form, which is used as a solvent. The plant material is submerged in the liquid and the oil is extracted. The pressure is then returned to normal and the Co2 evaporates leaving the essential oil. This process leaves no harmful trace materials and the oil contents are protected from damaging heat. Oils produced through this process are thicker and tend to smell more natural. They contain additional constituents that other processes leave behind.
Because of the concentration of the essential oils, it is important to keep safety in mind while using them. Certain oils should be diluted due to the fact they can cause skin irritation. Avoid contact with your eyes and mucous membranes. Be aware that some oils should not be used during pregnancy, breastfeeding or with certain medications. Be aware of allergies and watch for allergic reactions. Avoid sun and tanning booths for at least four hours as some of the oils can be phototoxic. Store oils correctly. Heat, moisture, light and oxygen cause essential oils to spoil.
There are many way to incorporate essential oil into your daily lives. They can be mixed with carrier oils, such as sweet almond or grapeseed, and massaged into the skin. They can be added to bath water, or a foot or hand bath. This way they can be inhaled and also absorbed. Essential oils can be combined and made into sprays for your house. They can freshen rooms or drive away bugs. They can also help combat headaches or lift your mood. These oils can offer antibacterial and antifungal properties, which make them useful in cleaning solutions. They can enhance gatherings and center spirits. Whatever your need, an essential oil can offer a key element to reaching and maintaining optimal health of body, mind and spirit.