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What is aromatherapy?
Aromatherapy is a complementary therapy that involves using essential oils therapeutically. Plant oils have been used for therapy and cosmetics for thousands of years. Records go back to ancient Egypt, China and India.
Modern aromatherapy developed in France during the early twentieth century. A French chemist, René-Maurice Gattefossé, was impressed by the healing powers of essential oils. He coined the term "aromathérapie". Dr Jean Valnet, a military surgeon, used them to treat both military and civilian patients. Later, Marguerite Maury developed the use of aromatherapy in beauty therapy and massage.
The essential oils that aromatherapists use to treat conditions are complex substances containing many chemical components. The oils are not concentrated from whole plant parts - unlike most herbal medicines - but are extracted from flowers, leaves, roots, peel, resin or bark.
How does aromatherapy work?
Aromatherapy is used to reduce the symptoms of a range of conditions and is believed to work both physiologically and psychologically. It's not clear exactly how aromatherapy works - in particular, whether the massage or the smell (or both) has an effect.
Essential oils can be absorbed through your skin by massage or if you use a cream, lotion or compress to which they have been added. This may act as a painkiller, an antiseptic or have an antifungal effect.
Essential oils evaporate very quickly, so if you inhale them, they are effective physically and psychologically. They can alter your mood. When you smell a certain essential oil, this sensation travels from the part of the brain connected to smell (olfactory system) to your brain's limbic system, which controls emotions and stores and retrieves learned memories. This triggers chemicals to be released. These may have different effects, causing you to feel relaxed or stimulated. In addition, the gentle massage often used to apply the diluted oils to your skin is likely to have a relaxing effect.
What problems can aromatherapy help?
Some of the conditions aromatherapy is used for include:
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