The practice of integrated medicine involves the use of a wide variety of approaches and treatments to help tap into the body’s own healing power to cure disease and promote optimum wellness. In recent years, one therapeutic approach that has been gaining popularity is the practice of aromatherapy, a form of alternative medicine that employs aromatic oils derived from plants to heal, improve mood and cognitive functioning, and promote relaxation. The oils may be diffused into the air, breathed directly by the patient, or applied topically as part of a massage or bath, for example.
Tapping Nature’s Essence
The oils used in aromatherapy, called essential oils, are extracted directly from plants either by steaming or pressing. Steam distillation, or steaming, is the most commonly used method for extracting essential oils. It involves steaming fresh plants until they decompose, producing oils that are then separated, cooled, and filtered to remove water and other impurities. Pressing, also called expression, involves crushing the plant and squeezing out the oils, in much the same way olive oil is produced. Dozens of different plant oils are used in aromatherapy. Some of the more well-known include chamomile, eucalyptus, tea tree, and lavender.
Aromatherapy through the Ages
Physicians have known about the existence of essential oils for millennia. The first century AD Roman physician Padanium Dioscorides described a number of essential oils and contemporary believfs about their therapeutic properties is his work De Materia Medica. Dioscorides’ work became the foundation of European knowledge about plant-based medicine until the advent more scientific investigations in the 1800s. Another early precursor of aromatherapy was the great Arabic scientist and philosopher Ibn Sina, known in the West as Avicenna. In the early 11th century, Avicenna used the newly-invented process of distillation to produce essential oils for the first time. Until that time, all essential oils were produced by expressing.
Although aromatherapy had been practiced popularly for centuries, the scientific medical community was slow to recognize it as a legitimate treatment. The first appearance of the word “aromatherapy” in print did not occur until the 1937 publication of the book Aromathérapie: Les Huiles Essentielles, Hormones Végétales. The author, a French chemist by the name of René-Maurice Gattefossé, claimed to have successfully treated his badly burnt hand using lavender oil. Just a few years later another Frenchman, surgeon Jean Valnet, used essential oils as antiseptics to treat wounded Allied soldiers in World War II.
Benefits of Aromatherapy
Different essential oils are credited with different benefits and healing properties. Stress and anxiety reduction are two of the most popular applications of aromatherapy. Chamomile, jasmine, lavender, lemon and peppermint oils are commonly used for this purpose in aromatherapy. Controlled research supports the stress reducing and mood enhancing properties of lemon oil. Lavender oil is also used to treat wounds, particularly burns, and as an antiseptic ointment. Tea tree oil and thyme oil are two other popular antiseptics.
The exact mechanisms by which aromatherapy operates are not known, but it is thought that the aromas of the essential oils exert an influence on the limbic system, that portion of the brain that regulates emotions. Essential oils are also believed to have a direct pharmacological action on the body. Valnet’s successful application of essential oils as an antiseptic has been supported by more recent studies that confirm the oils’ anti-microbial properties. In addition, preliminary clinical studies of aromatherapy combined with other approaches have shown positive effects in reducing anxiety and improving mood.
There are several safety concerns associated with the use of essential oils. Essential oils are highly concentrated, so if not diluted they can cause skin irritation. Fr this reason, topically-applied oils are diluted in a “carrier” oil such as olive, coconut, or jojoba oil to protect the skin. One must also be careful not to ingest essential oils. Many are toxic, even at quite low doses. Swallowing even a small amount of eucalyptus oil, for example, can be fatal. Other essential oils that should not be taken internally include cedar, hyssop, and sage. In addition, some oils can have adverse reactions with prescription medicines. Be sure to consult with your physician before using any essential oil if you are also taking prescription or over-counter medications or if you are pregnant.
If you are in the Miami area and would like to get more information about aromatherapy or other aspects of integrative medicine, contact Dr. Jorge Bordenave at (305) 446-2444. Let Dr. Bordenave show you how a holistic approach to health that deals with the mind, body, and spirit, can help you achieve total wellness. Call us today to get on the path to optimum health!