Aromatherapy Basics

Sept. 19, 2002 -- Whether you want to soothe your spirit, or protect your body, the nose knows when it comes to aromatherapy.

The positive effects of aromatherapy have been known for thousands of years.

Using essential oils extracted from flowers, leaves, branches, or roots, aromatherapy is used to treat everything from infections, insomnia, impotence, arthritis and skin disorders, to stress and immune system deficiencies.

In fact, some aromatherapists even claim the oils have the power to heal problems of the ovaries, kidney, and veins, among others.

However, successful aromatherapy treatments of these ailments have not been scientifically proven, and the world of medicine has been slow to embrace this alternative approach. Until now.

Researchers at the University of California-Davis have now released findings that suggest some smells, such as basil, rosemary, and cinnamon can actually protect the body against disease by acting as anti-oxidants — protective agents often found in fruits and vegetables. It is believed that anti-oxidants may reduce the risk of developing conditions such as cancer and heart disease by helping destroy free radicals, which are known to damage a cell's DNA.

In addition, a report this summer from the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry showed that aromatherapy with lemon balm oil has a significant calming effect for patients who are suffering from dementia. And though more research is needed, scientists are optimistic that more reports will follow.

Understanding Scents

There are many theories as to how aromatherapy works.

Many advocates suggest that the scents trigger a "feel-good" effect in the brain. Aroma molecules may enter the part of the brain that is responsible for memory and emotion and induce emotional responses which can immediately calm or energize the body.

Other proponents believe the scents stimulate certain glands to produce hormones that fight pain and inflammation.

Whatever the case may be, aromatherapists assign specific oils to treat certain conditions. Here are some of the more common claims:

Chamomile: Relieves stress; reduces swelling; treats allergic symptoms; relieves insomnia; useful in treating digestive problems.

Lavender: Relieves depression, inflammation, spasms, headaches, respiratory allergies, muscle aches, nausea, menstrual cramps; lowers blood pressure.

Rosemary: Decongests the chest; increases circulation, relieves pain, indigestion, gas, and liver problems; lessens swelling; fights infection; helps alleviate depression.

Lemon Balm: Relieves anxiety, depression, hypertension, insomnia, migraine, nervous tension, shock and vertigo. Also may be helpful for asthma, bronchitis, coughs and colds; quiets racing of the heart and slows an overactive thyroid.

Eucalyptus: Lowers fever; clears sinuses; has antibacterial and antiviral properties; relieves coughs.

Peppermint: Alleviates digestive problems; cleans wounds; decongests the chest; relieves headache, neuralgia, and muscle pain; useful for motion sickness.

Thyme: Relieves digestive problems; lessens laryngitis and coughs; fights bladder and skin infections; relieves pain in the joints.

Inhale or Apply

In order to reap the benefits, experts say that you must inhale the scents or apply them externally. Although many companies now manufacture candles and potpourri as "aromatherapy," more "genuine" treatments — given under the supervision of a certified aromatherapist — are reportedly more effective. The most standard approaches are as follows:

Inhalation: Try adding 6 to 12 drops of essential oil to a bowl of steaming water. Place a towel over your head, and deeply breathe the scented vapors.

Diffusion: Aromatherapists often suggest spraying oil-containing compounds into the air. This technique is said to calm the nerves, enhance a feeling of well-being, and even to improve respiratory conditions. Add 10 drops of an essence to 7 tablespoonfuls of water.

Massage: Blend 5 drops of essential oil with a light base oil. A higher concentration could irritate the skin. Bathing: Adding eight drops of oil to a tubful of water is usually sufficient. If you shower, after washing yourself, dip a wet sponge or cloth in an oil-water mixture and apply to your skin while you are under the spray.

Hot and cold compresses: For muscle aches or pains, bruises, or headaches add 5 to 10 drops of oil to approximately 4 ounces of water. Soak a cloth in the solution and apply to the sore area.


Aromatherapy is not for everyone. Infants and young children, pregnant women, and people with skin allergies may want to avoid it altogether. When using aromatherapy, remember to keep your eyes closed when inhaling the scents, and because oils are highly concentrated, never ingest them. This could lead to a toxic overdose.

Information provided by: the American Council on Science and Health, the National Associatin for Holistic Aromatherapy, and the Pacific Institute of Aromatherapy.