What is Aromatherapy and Does it Really Work?

What is Aromatherapy

Everywhere I look these days, whether on product labels on store shelves or across the vast internet and social media, the term “aromatherapy” is being thrown around as a “feel good” expression of happiness and relief for whatever ails us in these challenging times. And with the rise in demand for more natural products and a healthier way of life, essential oils have become the accessible means with which to practice this “therapeutic” lifestyle.

But the meaning and intent of aromatherapy has been hijacked.

Let me explain with just a brief historical perspective that has led us to this point. The fact is, the use of aromatic plants has been around since the beginning of time. And with the discovery of distillation and more sophisticated means of extraction, essential oils and their scent became an integral part of many societies in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, for both herbal medicine and perfumery.

It wasn’t until the 1930’s that the term “aromatherapy” was first expressed. It was coined by a French chemist named Rene-Maurice Gattefosse, who, like several others at that time, used essential oils in a more therapeutic way (not just as a perfume) to treat soldiers in military hospitals during WWI. In fact, his book “Gattefosse’s Aromatherapy” was written to clearly distinguish the medicinal use of essential oils from their perfumery use. As a result, he is known as “the father of aromatherapy” because he documented and devoted his life to researching the healing properties of essential oils.

But another form of medicine was already building momentum.

It was in the year 1869 that the first synthetic drug was discovered and the birth of pharmacology, as we know today, was essentially established. Although Gattefosse and the French continued to explore the therapeutic properties of essential oils, most research and practical application was shifting to synthetic drug treatments. And, as we know, throughout the 20th and 21st centuries to date synthetic drug treatments dominate Western medicine.

No doubt humanity has greatly benefited from the science and chemistry of synthetic molecules to treat disease. The pragmatic and singular focus on isolating chemicals to treat isolated parts of the body have helped countless people overcome horrendous diseases.

But sadly, with this focus on pharmacology, aromatherapy and its extensive history were relegated to the sidelines… and eventually the term was adopted by competing interests to serve their own purpose. In fact, it is the failure to clearly define and establish aromatherapy within a pharmacologically dominated society that has led to misunderstanding and abuse of the concept.

The truth is aromatherapy has become a commodity and a generic term.

Today, for most people, aromatherapy is an expression - not a practice - for a way of using essential oils, or products that contain essential oils, to simply feel good. Through no fault of our own, we are fed this belief by the marketing of products for our bodies (“the scent of lavender in this lotion helps you sleep”) and our homes (“the scent of lemon will help your home smell fresh”).

In fact, Kimberly Lau, in her book New Age Capitalism makes clear that aromatherapy has been transformed from its original intent into “a collection of products that fragment the body into a series of parts and separate the mind and soul into various states of being, each ‘treatable’ with different aromatherapy products”.

It’s as if we are approaching the use of essential oils the same way as we approach the use of pharmacological medicine - in fragments, in parts, in isolation. Generally, there’s nothing wrong with this approach, but…

Aromatherapy is, and can be, so much more.

In the English-speaking world, most trained aromatherapists practice a form of holistic aromatherapy. This means looking beyond just treating a symptom, and aiming to support the whole person. As the National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy defines it:

Aromatherapy, also referred to as Essential Oil therapy, can be defined as the art and science of utilizing naturally extracted aromatic essences from plants to balance, harmonize and promote the health of body, mind and spirit. It seeks to unify physiological, psychological and spiritual processes to enhance an individual’s innate healing process.

Simply put, this means looking at the big picture and incorporating all aspects of your life. It’s an integrative form of medicine - working in tandem with, and as a support to, conventional medicine.

It’s about changing the focus of medicine to one of healing rather than disease.

Healing is a dynamic process of recovery, repair, reintegration and renewal that increases resilience, consistency and wholeness.

It means understanding the influences of the mind, the spirit (your energy) and community that surrounds you, as much as your body. Because when you understand all of these things, you are better able to trigger the necessary changes in behavior that will result in improved health.

For example, you may take a tablet to treat your headache (passive approach), but looking at it from a holistic aromatherapy perspective (active approach), you may want to consider what is causing your headache in the first place - is it a lack of sleep, is it your diet, is there a stress trigger? How can essential oils support treating the cause that leads to the symptom of a headache.

Furthermore, In holistic aromatherapy, the aim is to teach prevention in order to avoid relapse, as much as it is providing support during the healing process itself.

Aromatherapy works when you approach it the right way.

The next time you use your essential oils, consider using them for more than just the feel-good factor. Although there’s nothing wrong with that - it’s an incredibly important part - I want you to know there is so much more you can do. I invite you to join me on an aromatherapy journey.