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Aromatherapy is the practice of using the natural oils extracted from flowers, bark, stems, leaves, roots or other parts of a plant to enhance psychological, emotional and physical wellbeing. These oils may be inhaled directly or indirectly or applied to the skin through massage, lotions or bath salts. Aromatherapy can either be used on its own or to support modern medicine and other complementary therapies.

This section provides an overview about aromatherapy, how it works, and what you might expect from an aromatherapy session. Aromatherapy can be practiced to maintain health and wellbeing, or to treat a wide variety of health problems.

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Researchers are not entirely clear how aromatherapy works. Some experts believe that aromatherapy stimulates smell receptors in the nose, which then send messages through the nervous system to the limbic system — the part of the brain that controls emotions. Depending on the type of oil, the result on the body may be calming or stimulating. For example, scientists believe lavender stimulates the activity of brain cells in the amygdala similar to the way some sedative medications work. Other researchers think that molecules from essential oils may interact in the blood with hormones or enzymes to cause changes in blood pressure, pulse, and other body functions.

Aromatherapy can be used on its own or to support modern medicine and other complementary therapies. It is used for a variety of reasons including pain relief, mood enhancement and increased cognitive function. There are a wide number of essential oils available, each with its own healing properties.

What happens during an aromatherapy session?

Aromatherapists and other health care professionals can provide topical or inhaled aromatherapy treatment. The University of Maryland Medical Center warns that only specially trained professionals can provide treatment that involves taking essential oils by mouth.

At an aromatherapy session, the practitioner will typically ask about your symptoms, medical history and any scents you may like. You may be instructed to breathe in essential oils directly from a piece of cloth or indirectly through steam inhalations, vapourisers, or sprays. Aromatherapy massage is also popular, and involves the practitioner applying diluted essential oils to your skin during a massage. In most cases however, he or she will tell you how to use aromatherapy at home, such as by mixing essential oils into your bath.

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Aromatherapy is often used to treat a variety of conditions, help manage symptoms and act as a complementary therapy to modern medicine. In general, it seems to relieve pain, improve mood, and promote a sense of relaxation. According to the International Federation of Aromatherapists, aromatherapy has been found to be particularly helpful in stress-related symptoms such as anxiety, depression, skin problems, poor digestion, disturbed sleep and low energy. Other conditions for which aromatherapy may be helpful includes:

  • Hair loss
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Insomnia
  • Chronic or acute pain relief
  • Mood disorders
  • Reproductive issues
  • Ear, nose and throat infections
  • Bronchitis and respiratory conditions
  • Autoimmune disease, including rheumatoid arthritis and ulcerative colitis
  • Digestive disorders
  • Chronic muscular and joint aches and pain
  • Premenstrual syndrome and menopause
  • Muscle spasms
  • Psoriasis
  • Aiding in the treatment of sprains, strains, and repetitive movement injuries

Should anyone avoid aromatherapy?

There are certain circumstances in which people should avoid aromatherapy, unless it is under the guidance of a trained professional and with full knowledge of your physician. These include:

  • People with severe asthma, and those with a history of allergies
  • Women who are pregnant or breast feeding
  • People with a history of seizures
  • Those with high blood pressure
  • People with estrogen dependent tumours, such as breast or ovarian cancer

In addition, further research is needed to determine how essential oils might affect children, as well as how the oils might interact with medications and other treatments.

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Essential oils are non-oily aromatic liquids occurring naturally in various parts of plants, herbs, flowers, fruits, woods and spices. According to the Canadian Federation of Aromatherapists, these oils contain the life force of the plant and have the ability to strengthen our immune system and to stimulate our body’s natural healing abilities. An aromatherapist uses essential oils – either individually or blended together – to support and promote our body’s natural healing process.

The aim of aromatherapy is to promote and maintain health, as well as to prevent disease in body, mind and spirit. Researchers are not entirely clear how aromatherapy may work, though it is believed that aromatherapy stimulates smell receptors in the nose, which then send messages through the nervous system. This is particularly effective in treating emotional, mental and hormonal disorders as our sense of smell is linked directly to the part of the brain which controls mood and triggers the release of chemicals to help regulate and balance hormones, stimulate or relax the body, and assist memory and creativity.

In particular, aromatherapy massage is designed to maximise the benefits of essential oils by using a combination of different movements and techniques such as lymphatic drainage which facilities the elimination of toxins, and Swedish massage techniques that improve circulation, increase mobility and reduce pain. Working on many levels simultaneously, aromatherapy massage is very relaxing and eases stress and tension in the body and mind. It encourages healthy sleep patterns and can be extremely effective in treating emotional imbalance, including depression.

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