What is Aromatherapy?
Aromatherapy is a tangle of
modern, ancient, esoteric, and
scientific practices, but it can be
loosely defined as “treatment with
odors.” The term aromatherapy
was coined by French cosmetic
chemist René-Maurice Gattefossé
combining aroma (fragrance or
sweet scent) and therapy
(treatment or remedy). The petals,
leaves, seeds, fruits, roots, bark,
and stalks of aromatic plants are
the source of the essential oils
(also called essences, Figure 1)
used in aromatherapy as well as
perfumes, cosmetics, and flavors.
Figure 1: Small dark-tinted bottles are longtime essentials of aromatherapy
In Aromatérapie: Les Huiles
essentielles hormones végétales, published in 1937 and translated into English in 1993 as Gattefossé's
Aromatherapy: The First Book on Aromatherapy, Gattefossé recounts his work with medical doctors
treating the wounds of French soldiers using lavender and other essential oils. In 1923 Italian
researchers Giovanni Gatti and Renato Cajola published "The Action of Essences on the Nervous
System" and demonstrated the sedative and stimulating effects on the central nervous system by
various essential oils ingested and inhaled by their anxious and depressed patients. The
psychotherapeutic work of Gatti and Cajola, along with the medical findings of Gattefossé, occurred at
the beginning of modern aromatherapy, but the foundation for their discoveries was laid centuries
before by Medieval pharmacists, Arab alchemists, and Greek physicians.
It is an ancient belief that certain aromas released by burning wood, resin, and
incense have religious significance. The word perfume is derived from the Latin
per fumus, meaning "through the smoke." Some 5,000 years ago the Egyptians
were capturing the essences of aromatic woods, plants, and spices with oil
infusions and a crude method of distillation. In addition to creating perfumes,
medicinal potions, and scented oils the Egyptians used essences for massages,
embalming, and religious ceremonies. The Greek physician Hippocrates (c. 460
BC – c. 370 BC, Figure 2), considered a father of medicine in the West,
prescribed perfume fumigations and advocated daily aromatic bathes to prolong
life. The Romans followed the Greeks by making extensive use of aromatic oils
and fragrances in their sensual lifestyle. Figure 2: Hippocrates
In the eleventh century Persian physician Avicenna (c. 980 – 1037), considered a father of medicine in
the East and West, invented steam distillation. Avicenna first applied this improved method of
distillation to rose petals and produced attar of rose (rose oil) and rose water. Demand for these new
and sophisticated aromatics grew quickly. The Caliphs of Baghdad are said to have made lavish use of
them in their palaces. In addition, rose water is used heavily in Iranian cuisine to this day. Importantly,
Avicenna is credited with introducing experimental medicine, promoting evidence-based medicine, and
separating medicine from pharmacy. This final contribution benefited physicians and pharmacists by
allowing each professional tradition to focus their efforts on improving the diagnosis of disease in
patients and creating a wider range of effective medications.
In the Middle Ages ancient Greek medicine, along with the advancements of Islamic physicians and
pharmacists, was conveyed from the Islamic world to the West by returning crusaders. However, the
conveyance was only partial and many important advancements in Islamic medical practice, including
evidence-based medicine and experimental medicine, failed to take root among European physicians.
The inability of physicians to effectively differentiate between good and bad theories, or between
beneficial and harmful treatments, led to a multitude of dubious theories and hazardous treatments
being developed and applied in Medieval Europe. Some of these theories and treatments persisted, in
whole or in part, into the modern era.
The Renaissance physician Paracelsus (born Theophrastus
Phillippus Aureolus Bombastus von Hohenheim, 1493 – 1541,
Figure 3) plays a central role in the nomenclature of
aromatherapy and its continued association with the alchemical,
mystical, and esoteric. In addition to being a physician he was
an herbalist, astrologer, and alchemist—steam distillation was
one of his specialties. Paracelsus accepted the Greek concept
that all things are composed of four elements (air, fire, earth,
and water) and he viewed distillation as a means of separating
the essential from the crude with the help of fire. He proposed
that a quinta essentia (literally fifth element) also exists in all
things which encompasses the powers, virtues, and medicinal
effects of the thing. When freed from their extraneous
incorporation with crude matter and separated from all
impurities by distillation these "quintessences" are powerful
remedies for disease. The term essential oil recalls this concept
from Paracelsus. Similarly, essences relates directly to the
extensive catalogs of astrological associations of the
“quintessences” of various metals, stones and plants produced Figure 3: Paracelsus
and compiled by Paracelsus.
The re-discovery and growing acceptance of the scientific method, evidence-based medicine, and
experimental medicine in Europe, along with the evolution of esoteric alchemy into modern chemistry,
resulted in many medical theories and treatments being discredited, ignored, and forgotten. Many
treatments involving essential oils became part of folk medicine, and the therapeutic use of essential
oils by conventional medical practitioners generally disappeared. Scientific interest in aromatherapy
returned with the studies of Gattefossé, Gatti and Cajola, and a handful of other researchers in the late
1800s and early 1900s.
Advances in the field of biochemistry—along with specialization, led to the emergence of
phytochemistry, the scientific study of plant chemicals. Researchers have confirmed many medicinal
properties of different essential oils, including antibacterial, antimicrobial, antifungal, and
antispasmodic properties. However, for modern medical doctors, aromatherapy is one of many
techniques outside the bounds of conventional medicine which exists in the realm of complementary
and alternative medicine. Examples of other techniques used in complementary and alternative
medicine: acupuncture, chiropractic, massage, and meditation. Research has also confirmed that some
essential oils used in aromatherapy cause allergic reactions and pose other risks from direct exposure.
Given these risks aromatherapy is no longer used by conventional medical doctors to treat illnesses
directly. However, aromatherapy has been used as a complementary therapy for managing chronic pain.
Relaxation has been shown to alter perceptions of pain and pleasant smells tend to relax patients.
The human tongue can distinguish only among five distinct qualities of taste, whereas the nose can
distinguish among thousands of substances, even in minute quantities. In 2004, the Nobel Prize in
Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Dr. Richard Axel and Dr. Linda Buck for their pioneering
work on deciphering the inner workings of the sense of smell. Axel and Buck showed the deep
connection between the olfactory bulb, primary organ of smell in the nose, and the limbic system, a
focal point of emotional processing within the brain.
The exact mechanism of the sense of smell was certainly not known to Hippocrates, or any other
ancient or medieval physician, but the connection between smelling pleasant odors and feeling
physically well was understood. Clearly, the “treatment with odors” will continue.
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