Aromatherapy is a branch of herbal medicine that uses the essential oils found in plants for their healing or medicinal properties. Fragrant, concentratedoils from parts of plants, such as their flowers, fruit, stalks, roots, andbark, are used for the purpose of improving a person's health and well-being.

Although its name suggests that it is primarily a form of aroma or smell therapy, the essential oils are, in fact, intended mainly to be absorbed into thebody via the skin, through massage, and the lungs, through inhalation. Aromatherapy is widely used to reduce stress, as well as to rejuvenate and detoxify the body. It is also used to treat a wide variety of other conditions.

There are several things to be concerned about when using essential oils, inaddition to the purity of the oils themselves. Some individuals experience askin reaction (dermatitis) to certain oils when they are applied, whereas others suffer skin irritation from overuse. More serious are instances in whichoils are incorrectly taken internally. Individuals with conditions like highblood pressure or epilepsy should never treat themselves, and young childrenand pregnant women should be especially careful.

As a holistic therapy, aromatherapy is believed to benefit both the mind andthe body. As far back as the time of the Egyptians, fragrant oils were recommended for bathing and massage, and plant fragrances were used against the plague in both ancient and medieval times. However, not until the 1930s was aromatherapy formalized by its advocates as a specialized branch of herbal medicine.

Aromatherapists select particular oils for certain conditions. A plant's essential oils or aromatic essences, (the concentrated substances produced by plants) are used for specific purposes such as repelling insects or enemies, storing energy, or attracting pollinating insects. Each oil has its own scent, as well as its own claimed healing characteristics. Some are considered antiseptic, some anti-inflammatory, and others stimulating or relaxing. These oilsenter the body through inhalation and absorption. Inhalation can be as simpleas putting a drop of oil on a handkerchief (to promote relaxation) or a fewdrops into steaming water (to relieve congestion). Massage is the most commonform of absorbing the oils directly into the body through the skin, and is considered the most effective method.

Proponents of aromatherapy argue that it works on the mind as well as the body. The body is affected directly, since the tiny molecular structure of the oils allows them to penetrate the skin and be absorbed into the bloodstream. Then, depending on the particular "healing properties" of the specific oil, the oil produces an internal effect that can be diuretic, anti-inflammatory, orantiviral. Other oils support the immune system or energize, pacify, or detoxify the body.

The mind is affected by aromatherapy via the sense of smell. Whether inhaleddirectly or as a result of the fragrance emitted by an oil massage, the concentrated aroma is said to initiate a complex chain of events within the body.First, the aroma enters the nose and is received by the cilia or fine hairs that are linked to the olfactory nerve. The converted, electrical message is then transmitted to the limbic area of the brain. Stimulation of the brain's limbic system is believed to influence an individual's mood, emotions, and overall alertness. Aromatherapists emphasize that essential oils can affect thechemical activity of the brain and therefore produce both psychological and physical changes.

Certain scents are known to soothe and relax the body and mind. Aromatherapists claim regular relief for patients with physical conditions like headachesand emotional situations like anxiety and irritability. However, essential oils can be dangerously toxic if taken internally. Oils applied externally alsocan have a powerful, unintended effect, such as producing uterine contractions in a pregnant woman. In general, it is important not to overestimate the healing properties of oils. A physician should be consulted if a critical situation occurs.

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