Aromatherapy (or aromatic medicine) is the use of aromatic plants and plant extracts (essential oils) to promote health and well-being. The essential oils stimulate an individual’s sense of smell, which affects a region of the brain called the limbic system. The limbic system helps to control an individual’s hormones, emotions, and instinctive behavior, as well as heart-rate, blood pressure, and even breathing. 

The History of Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy has been used as a treatment for at least 5,000 years, as the medicinal use of plant oils was recorded in the early Egyptian and Persian empires. In Egypt, plant and animal extracts were mixed to form aromatic balms they believed to be essential for care of a person’s mind, body, and soul. Healers in ancient Greece and the Roman Empire used essential oils for their healing powers as well. More recently, essential oils were used to help fight the plague in Europe and to treat skin burns and infections during World War I.  Additionally, essential oils help comprise many traditional systems of medicine, such as Ayurveda in India and Traditional Chinese Medicine.

In the early 20th Century, a French chemist named Rene-Maurice Gattefosse introduced the term “aromatherapy”, coming from the Greek words aroma (meaning smell), and therapeia (meaning healing). Gattefosse coined the term after he burned his arm while working in a perfume factory, and proceeded to dip his arm in lavender oil. After noticing that his arm healed more quickly (without a scar) and pain dissipated, he started to study the potential therapeutic effects of essential oils.

A French biochemist named Marguerite Maury later added upon Gattefosse’s work, using essential oils with massage to treat a patient’s mind, body, and spirit. Another French physician, Dr. Jean Valnet, had his patients take the oils orally to alleviate the symptoms of cancer, tuberculosis, and diabetes in the 1950s.

How Aromatherapy is Practiced

Aromatherapy works when smells travel from the nose to the amygdale and hippocampus in the brain. These structures are involved in the brain’s emotional memory, and also help control alertness, hormone release, and other important bodily actions and reactions. Because essential oils are highly volatile and thus evaporate easily, the oils quickly travel from the skin to the nose.

Some aromatherapy involves the application of oils to the skin, often in conjunction with massage therapy. Because large amounts of plant material are needed to produce small amounts of oil, pure oils like rose petals are often very expensive. Instead, many oils are mixed with a “carrier oil”, such as vegetable oil. Oils are applied to the skin through compresses, tinctures, creams, lotions, or ointments.

Aromatherapy sessions, usually carried out through massage, often last about an hour. The sessions begin with a consultation that includes detailed questions about the patient’s health. Then, the aromatherapist will tailor a blend of oils for the patient to address their various medical issues. Aromatherapy may also be conducted at home by applying essential oils to the body, chest, stomach, or temples. Additionally, the oils may be inhaled using a vaporizer or by adding a few drops to bathwater.

Aromatherapy is commonly used in France,  and in the U.K. it is the fastest growing alternative therapy. Additionally, many nurses in the National Health Service are starting to use aromatherapeutic message.

How Aromatherapy Works

One of the most popular essential oils is that of the chamomile herb, which can be used to promote relaxation, aid sleep, ease infant colic, and help skin conditions. In fact, people have been using chamomile for these purposes for centuries. Lavender, geranium, and jasmine oils are thought to promote relaxation. Peppermint may be used as a digestive aid, and eucalyptus oil may be used to ease breathing and reduce the congestion caused by upper respiratory infections (indeed, it is a common ingredient in over-the-counter cough and cold medicines). Lemon, vanilla, and rosemary oils are considered to be revitalizing, while tea tree oil may be used as an antiseptic aid.

While essential oils may be used during aromatherapy, they are not to be ingested, as the oils themselves are often poisonous. Additionally, some oils, if not diluted, may cause chemical burns or skin rashes when applied directly to the skin. The oils are also often flammable, and should be kept away from flames and direct heat. Essential oils should always be stored out of reach from children and users should always consult a licensed medical professional when first learning how to use essential oils.

Conditions Benefited by Aromatherapy

While most research is in the preliminary stages, aromatherapy may treat various diseases and ease the side effects of medication, alleviate stress and anxiety, help relaxation, and improve an individual’s mood. Aromatherapy is often used to treat the following conditions:


The hair loss associated with alopecia may be partially eased by applying essential oils to the scalp on a daily basis.


Essential oils may be used to ease the pain and depression associated with arthritis.


Aromatherapy may be used to clear the sinuses for up to an hour.


Though more research is needed, aromatherapy is thought to reduce anxiety in cancer patients, as well as ease some of the physical symptoms of the disease.


Aromatherapy is thought to prevent some of the complications and labor pains often associated with childbirth.


A study by the Keimyung University College of Nursing in 2005 showed that abdominal massage with essential oils (rosemary, lemon, and peppermint) was more effective in treating constipation for the elderly than abdominal massage by itself.


Aromatherapy message may ease some of the symptoms caused by dementia, including agitation and disturbed behavior, as well as the inability to sleep.


Some people have been able to prevent epileptic seizures by sniffing an essential oil when the seizure shows its first warning signs. In the past, aromatherapy has been used along with hypnosis to train people to associate a particular scent with relaxation.

Fungal Infection

Lemongrass has been shown to suppress fungal growth.


Massage with certain essential oils has been shown to improve immunity by boosting lymphocyte count.


Manchester University researchers reported in 2004 that certain essential oils could kill a number of bacteria and fungi, including bacteria that had shown a resistance to antibiotics. The research also showed that essential oils could be blended into soaps and shampoos used to help prevent and counteract infections acquired in hospitals.


Reports indicate that aromatherapy may ease some of the symptoms associated with menopause.

Stress, Anxiety, and Insomnia

Lavender oil may be used to ease anxiety and stress, and prevent insomnia.


  1. Bratman, S. The Alternative Medicine Ratings Guide: an expert panel rates the best treatments for over 80 conditions, Prima Health A Division of Prima Publishing (1998)
  2. Brown, L. Alternative Medicine, NTC/Contemporary Publishing (1999)
  3. Deepak Chopra, M.D. Alternative Medicine: The Definitive Guide, Celestial Arts (2002)
  4. Nancy Allison. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Body-Mind Disciplines, The Rosen Publishing Group (1999)
  5. Servan-Schreiber, D. The Encyclopedia of New Medicine: Conventional & Alternative Medicine For All Ages, Rodale International Limited (2006)

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