Aromatherapy is the therapeutic use of essential oils and other extracts from aromatic plants that are administered through inhalation, topical application, or other methods. Essential oils are extracted for therapeutic or medical purposes, and for overall wellness (Buckle, 2003; Rhind, 2012). Aromatherapy is one of the fastest growing modalities within CAM (complementary alternative medicine), as it is believed to improve physical and psychological conditions, and aid in curing, mitigating, or preventing diseases (Lis-Balchin, 2006).
Essential oils are extracted through distillation from all parts of the plant that contain essential oil components, including the fruit, flower, leaf, stem and bark, seed, and roots (Chiu, 2010). Extraction from citrus fruits involves expression from the peel of the fruit (Freeman, 2009). Once the oils are extracted, they are mixed with other substances, such as alcohols, lotions, or oils (WebMD, 2015). Essential oils are up to 100 times more concentrated than the plant, need to be diluted before they are used, and be used in small amounts (Freeman, 2009).
It is important to use the scientific name for essential oils because common names may be misleading. For example, Lavandula angustifolia and Lavandula latifolia are commonly known as lavender, but L. angustifolia is relaxing and L. latifolia is stimulating (Lillehei & Halcon, 2014).
Almost every tradition has a history of using aromatics including in Australia, China, France, India, and Tibet (Freeman, 2009). The earliest account dates 60,000 years to a Neanderthal skeleton found near seeds of aromatic plants (Freeman, 2009). Egyptians are the first recorded users of aromatherapy and perfumery, with evidence dating to 3,000 B.C. (Rhind, 2012). Pharaohs were buried with jars of perfume containing essential oils of frankincense and myrrh, and aromatherapy was used when embalming bodies in preparation for mummification (Buckle, 2003). In the seventeenth century, scented body parts from these mummies were distilled to extract the aromatic components for use as medicines. The Egyptian Papyrus Ebers manuscript, written around 2,800 B.C., indicated essential oils such as frankincense, galbanum, myrrh, and myrtle were used to treat disease (Buckle, 2003).
The oldest Chinese herbal text, Pen Ts’ao, dated to around 2,700 B.C. to 3,000 B.C. and included aromatic remedies. Ayurveda has used aromatic herbs in treatment for more than 2,500 years (Gale, 2014). Ancient Greeks learned the art of perfumery from the Egyptians, and later spread it to the Romans (Rhind, 2012). Both Greeks and Romans used fragrances in their baths and religious rituals. The Greek physician Pedanios Dioscorides included medicinal uses of aromatics in De Materia Medica written in 60 A.D. It was used as “the standard textbook for Western medicine for 1,500 years” (Gale, 2014, p. 155).
Distillation to make aromatic waters was developed in the eighth century by a Persian pharmacist named Jabir Ibn Hayyan (Rhind, 2012). The use of aromatics in medicine started in the tenth century by a prominent Persian physician named Abd Allah Ibn Sina, also known as Avicenna (Buckle, 2003). Avicenna also invented the alembic, a device used for distilling essential oils. These and other Arabian physicians of the time played an important role in developing herbal medicine (Buckle, 2003).
It was not until 1937 that the term aromatherapy was first used. René-Maurice Gattefossé, a French chemist and perfumer, discovered the therapeutic properties of lavender (L. angustifiola) when he burned himself badly and lavender oil stopped gangrenous gasification on wound. This inspired him to study other essential oils, and he collected his discoveries in Aromatherapie: The Essential Oils – Vegetable Hormones (Buckle, 2003). He wrote that the scents of essential oils had antimicrobial and physiological properties (Lis-Balchin, 2006). Gattefossé inspired aromatherapy’s modern holistic approach (Rhind, 2012).
Jean Valnet was a French physician who spent time researching aromatherapy, and used botanical aromatics to treat patients in World War II. He published his discoveries in 1964 in Aromatherapie, Traitement Des Maladies Par Les Essences Des Plantes (Gale, 2014). Valnet also developed a system of blending essential oils that is still used today (Rhind, 2012).
Marguerite Maury, originally Austrian, moved to France to become a nurse. Similarly to Gattefossé and Valnet, she researched essential oils and published her works. She classified essential oils by clinical uses such as “surgery, radiology, dermatology, gynecology, general medicine, psychiatry, spa treatment, physiotherapy, sports, and cosmetics” (Buckle, 2003, p. 21). Maury used essential oils externally, and revamped the application of essential oils through massage that was originally created by Hippocrates. Many of her techniques are still used today (Rhind, 2012).
Studies have demonstrated essential oils are effective as antibacterials, anti-carcinogenics, antifungals, anti-inflammatories, antimicrobials, antivirals, bronchodilators, and decongestants; in controlling atopic dermatitis; and treating dysmenorrhea, dyspepsia, gastroesophageal reflux, headache, hepatic and renal stones, hyperlipoproteinemia, infantile colic, irritable bowel syndrome, joint pain, nausea, neuralgia, nipple pain, osteoarthritis, pain, prostatitis, and pruritis, (Husnu Can Baser & Buchbauer, 2009). Biochemically, the active constituents of essential oils produce these effects (Husnu Can Baser & Buchbauer, 2009).
A study on 20 hospitalized children with HIV used Roman chamomile Chamaemelum nobile and lavender L. angustifolia essential oils to treat pain. The children saw reduced need for analgesic drugs and some felt complete relief from pain (Buckle, 1999). L. angustifolia essential oil reduced pain by 50% on 100 patients in a critical care unit (Buckle, 1999). Peppermint Mentha piperita essential oil was found to produce an analgesic effect to relieve headaches (Buckle, 1999). A systematic review on aromatherapy indicated that essential oil of pepper helped reduce craving for cigarettes, inhalation of geranium essential oil reduced anxiety, a daily massage of a blend of essential oils onto the scalp helped treat alopecia, and massage with lavender or chamomile essential oils was effective in reducing anxiety and improving a sense of well-being (Cooke & Ernst, 2000). Lillehei & Halcon (2014) conducted a systematic review of essential oils used in sleep studies, and found that jasmine, lavender, and peppermint essential oils were effective in improving quality of sleep. A blend of basil, juniper, lavender, and sweet marjoram also improved sleep.
It is often difficult to study the effects of essential oils following the scientific method of a double-blind randomized controlled trial (RCT) because the application of aromatherapy through essential oils involves touch and smell, and these elements cannot be blinded (Buckle, 1999). Nonetheless, plenty of clinical evidence is available on aromatherapy.
Buckle, J. (1999). Use of aromatherapy as a complementary treatment for chronic pain. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, 5(5), 42-51.
Buckle, J. (2003). Clinical Aromatherapy: Essential Oils In Practice (2nd ed.). London, United Kingdom: Churchill Livingstone.
Chiu, T. (2010). Aromatherapy: the challenges for community nurses. Journal of Community Nursing, 24(1), 18-20.
Cooke, B. & Ernst, E. (2000). Aromatherapy: a systematic review. British Journal of General Practice, 50, 493-496.
Freeman, L. (2009). Mosby’s Complementary & Alternative Medicine, A Research-Based Approach (3rd ed.). St. Louis, MO: Mosby Elsevier.
Gale (2014). The Gale Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine, (4th Ed). Farmington Hilla, MI: Gale Cengage Learning.
Husnu Can Baser, K. & Buchbauer, G. (2009). Handbook of Essential Oils: Science, Technology, and Applications. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.
Lillehei, A. S. & Halcon, L. L. (2014). A systematic review of the effect of inhaled essential oils on sleep. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 20(6), 441-451. doi:10.1089/acm.2013.0311
Lis-Balchin, M. (2006). Aromatherapy Science: A Guide for Healthcare Professionals. London, United Kingdom: Pharmaceutical Press.
Rhind, J.P. (2012). Essential Oils: A Handbook for Aromatherapy Practice (2nd ed.). London, United Kingdom: Singing Dragon.
WebMD. (2015). Aromatherapy (essential oils therapy) – topic overview. Stress Management Health Center. Retrieved on March 29, 2015 from http://www.webmd.com/balance/stress-management/tc/aromatherapy-essential-oils-therapy-topic-overview