Aromatherapy can be defined as the skilled use of a plant’s essential oils by topical application or inhalation for therapeutic and/or aesthetic results. It is considered by the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA) to be both a science – the use of essential oils which contain chemical properties known to produce certain physiological and psychological effects – and an art – due to a multitude of blending possibilities which can achieve desired physiological benefits, and at the same time, be personalized to each client’s unique situation and sensibilities.
Aromatherapy works by absorption of the aromatic molecules through the skin and via the olfactory-limbic connection to integrate with the human body and psyche.
What are Essential Oils?
Essential oils are tiny, aromatic droplets of volatile liquid produced in the glands, sacs, and veins of plants, and are what gives the plant its scent. The origin of essential oil production differs from plant to plant, and may be produced in the flower, fruit, leaf, stem, bark, root, or seed. Essential oils are not vital to the life of the plant, but are essential to the survival of its species. Volatile oils exist to attract pollinators, deter pests, and protect from diseases. Each essential oil has its own characteristic aroma and profile of therapeutic properties. Essential oils possess physical properties that can be antibacterial, antiseptic, and/or anti-inflammatory, and have the potential to kill germs, destroy bacteria, and eliminate offensive odors. Some oils can relax, others may stimulate. These aromatic gifts from nature can help combat depression, exhaustion, and anxiety. They have the power to evoke distant memories, lift spirits, aid in concentration, and balance emotions.
What Essential Oils Are NOT
Essential oils do not contain all of the properties and constituents of the plant it came from. It is not the life essence of the plant.
The synergy theory of plant medicine is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The synergistic properties contained within the entire plant work together within the body to provide a more complete holistic healing action, which is, in itself a very good reason to forego the internal use of essential oils in favor of other forms of plant medicine which will provide safe levels of the volatile oil, plus the added beneficial properties of the rest of the plant – such as minerals, vitamins, and demulcent properties.
Extracting Oils From The Plant
A pure essential oil is obtained by extracting a plant’s volatile oil from the flower, leaf, fruit, bark, root, or resin through the process of steam distillation, or the cold-pressing of citrus oils such as orange, lime, lemon, and grapefruit.
Heated water vapors are forced through a large vat of plant material, rupturing the oil sacs and glands, thus releasing the oils in a vapor. From here, the steam and vapor are forced through a condensing chamber which is surrounded by cool water. The cooled steam and vapor become water and oil which naturally separate. The lighter essential oils are siphoned off the top of the distilled water. What remains is distilled water aromatically infused with plant properties known as hydrosols or distillates.
Citrus peels are machine pressed to extrude the oils and fruit waxes. The oils are then separated from the wax.
Solvent Extraction (Absolutes)
Oils extracted in this manner, are not considered true essential oils, and are not used in the practice of aromatherapy, but are used heavily in the perfume industry. The aromatic plant chemicals are extracted through the use of a solvent (usually certain gases or alcohols) which produces a highly scented concentrate. CO2 extractions produce the most pure form as virtually all of the CO2 can be removed.