Aromatherapy is a branch of herbal medicine that exploits properties of essential oils to maintain psychophysical well-being and for the treatment of various ailments. Essential oils are complex volatile molecules produced by plants as secondary metabolites. In plant species, the essential oils they are synthesized in various districts or in specific organs, based on function. In fact, they can be found in the whole plant or only in the flowers, fruits, seeds, roots, rhizomes and bulbs, in the wood and in the bark or in the resins produced by the plant. In flowers, for example, essential oils are used to attract pollinating insects that perceive their scent at great distances. In the leaves, roots, barks and bulbs, however, the essences are mainly produced for defensive purposes, because thanks to their antimicrobial properties, are able to protect the plant from parasites and diseases. The odorous molecules are also useful for communication between individuals of the same species or of different species since, under certain circumstances, their production can alert other plants of an imminent danger.
Essential oils can be extracted from the parts of the plant that contain the greatest quantities of them through the use of solvents, steam distillation and, in some cases, by pressing. The essences contained in the peel of citrus fruits such as lemon, orange, bergamot, grapefruit are extracted by pressing. The essences are then used as natural flavoring in the food sector and especially in perfumery, cosmetics, phytotherapy and aromatherapy.
The benefits of aromatherapy depend on the properties of essential oils. In fact, most of the essences have activities that can be exploited to treat ailments of various kinds or to improve the psychophysical well-being of the organism.
Action against bacteria, viruses and fungi
Essential oils have antimicrobial property and are therefore active against viruses, bacteria and fungi. This property is very useful in case of flu, infections affecting the respiratory tract or urogenital tract, as well as to combat mycosis and intestinal parasites. Thanks to the properties of the essences, aromatherapy is often used to fight candida infections, skin fungi, cystitis, warts and herpes.
Some essences combine the antimicrobial action with the expectorant and mucolytic action and are more suitable for relieve flu symptoms. This is the case, for example, of the essential oils of thyme, pine and eucalyptus, excellent remedies for coughs, colds, sinusitis and excess phlegm.
Many essential oils have spasmolytic and carminative action therefore they are able to relax smooth muscles and reduce the accumulation of air in the stomach and intestines. The essences are therefore used in aromatherapy to relieve gastrointestinal spasms, irritable bowel syndrome, aerophagia, abdominal bloating, meteorism and flatulence.
Aromatherapy exploits the properties of essences for mental well-being as well as for physical well-being. This is because many essential oils have been shown to be able to cross the blood brain barrier through inhalation, with effects on the central nervous system. Many essential oils, including that of lavender and that of neroli, have sedative properties and are used in aromatherapy for their relaxing action in case of agitation, anxiety and insomnia. Others, such as sage and mugwort essence, appear to be able to increase serotonin levels, promoting a good mood. Still others, such as lemon and rosemary, can increase concentration levels and are used in aromatherapy to improve performance during study and work.
How does it work
The administration of essential oils in aromatherapy can take place in different ways. L’internal use of essences involves the administration of one or two drops of essential oil in hot water or herbal tea or on a sugar cube or in a teaspoon of honey. Generally the essences are used internally in case of intestinal problems, parasites, infections. Since essential oils have a non-negligible toxicity, and since not all essences can be taken by mouth, the internal use of oils should take place under medical supervision.
Another route of administration of essential oils in aromatherapy is that which occurs through the skin and mucous membranes, thanks to massages, hot baths, foot baths, mouth rinses and vaginal douches. These application methods are particularly useful for promoting relaxation, for treating skin problems, fungi, blemishes such as cellulite, mouth and gum infections, vaginal infections, but also menstrual pain and abdominal swelling. As for massages, essential oils are diluted in a vegetable oil, to the extent of one or two drops for each tablespoon of oil. For baths, foot baths and rinses of skin and mucous membranes, the essence should be diluted in a fatty liquid such as cow’s milk and coconut milk to be poured into hot water, or added first to a powder or salt, for example rice starch, sodium bicarbonate or sea salt, to be dissolved later in water.
Finally, essential oils are used in inhalation aromatherapy, which can take place in different ways: through the use of a diffuser or burner with candle, fumigations, or by pouring a few drops of essence on a cloth handkerchief. The inhalation of essential oils in aromatherapy is useful for mood disorders or to promote sleep, but also to treat problems affecting the respiratory system such as cough, cold, sinusitis and bronchitis.