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Aromatherapy: Essential Oil Use in Clinical Practice

The word aromatherapy conjures for many a mere sensual experience, at best the ability of pleasant smelling things to make us feel better. The practice of aromatherapy does suffer from a bit of misnomer, and it’s misinterpretation, particularly in this country furthers the notion that this profound healing art is just about smelling flowery aromas. In truth, our sense of smell is only one application of using essential oils, which are also applied to the skin and with proper guidance, even ingested.

Essential oils are the basis of aromatherapy, and are always derived from plants. It takes many pounds of plant material to yield an ounce of oil. They are concentrated substances, and therefore mainly used externally, and almost always diluted. Essential oils are very chemically complex substances, possessing a hundred or more chemical constituents in a single oil. This chemical complexity makes essential oils a very difficult opponent for bacteria to beat. Antibiotic resistant bacteria is becoming a serious health threat, as the overuse of antibiotics, and their presence in our foods have forced doctors to use stronger doses to achieve the same results. It is difficult for bacteria to outwit the oils, as they are so chemically complex. Furthermore, oils will even yield more subtle differences with different crops from season to season, and those grown in different regions. Research on essential oils is starting to stir interest in more mainstream health fields as the problem of antibiotic resistant bacteria persists.

Nearly all essential oils have some anti-bacterial component. Essential oils are translated as the immunity of the plant, warding off insects and diseases, so it makes sense that very fragrant plants such as aromatic herbs and old variety roses are so hardy and carefree. Essential oils are known to kill air-borne bacteria, which is a very useful application in areas that are crowded with people and yet have limited ventilation. Oils such as thyme, eucalyptus, clove, and basil could be used in a diffuser in both a clinical and home environment to ward off germs. Simply adding the oils to a spritzer bottle and misting the air frequently is a simple but effective air cleanser for someone in the hospital or nursing home. Essential oils can also be added to hand soap to wash between patients instead of using harsh anti-bacterial agents, which are drying to the skin. Another advantage of using essential oils over strong chemical agents is their subtleness. The oils evaporate quickly and do not overwhelm the senses. They are also less likely to cause allergic reactions. Many people who claim sensitivity to smells discover that true oils will not cause the headaches, sneezing, and nausea that chemical odors provoke.

In burn units lavender essential oil is used to speed the healing of even severe burns, and encourage new cell growth. Other essential oils such as tea tree, geranium, and thyme have been used to treat persistent wounds. Doctors and aromatherapists will use essential oils internally to treat inflammatory internal conditions, and more. Essential oils should not be ingested except under the guidance of one trained to do so, so I mention this only as an indication of their healing potential.

In other countries, essential oils are more integrated into the health care setting, employed as in the examples above. It will be interesting to see how essential oil therapy, or aromatherapy evolves in this country. Their potential is vast and largely untapped. Will the United States be left behind?