What is aromatherapy?
A branch of herbal medicine, aromatherapy involves the use of essential oils to treat, cure, relieve and beautify our bodies. The properties of essential oils have been studied since the late 19th Century, paving the way for the modern science of aromatherapy. There's a lot more to aromatherapy than just sweet smelling perfumes.
The aromatic essences of plants
An essential oil is a volatile, perfumed substance produced by certain plants that can be extracted in liquid form via a process called steam distillation. Although referred to as 'oils', these substances don't actually contain any fat! Over 4,000 essences can be extracted from plants or plant parts. But in practice, only a hundred essential oils are produced in sufficient quantity to be used in aromatherapy. For example, one litre of rose essence requires 5 tons of rose petals!
Essential oils can be used internally - mixed with a little vegetable oil, honey or yoghurt so as to not irritate mucous membranes - externally when blended with a massage oil/cream or diffused in the air. Each plant has its own distinctive qualities and use: cloves for dental pain, cumin and tarragon for digestion, coriander and rosemary to energise, evening primrose to stimulate blood flow. But beware of self-medicating!
Precautions that should be taken
Aromatherapy is not about replacing medicines with essential oils. These products are not recommended for pregnant women and should never be used in their pure form. Also be warned that some oils (notably citrus oils) can be photosensitising. Side effects can be numerous, so even if aromatherapy uses natural products, they should still be treated with caution.