Essential oils made from plants and flowers have been used for thousands of years in ancient civilisations such as Egypt, China, Greece, India and Rome. They were commonly used in traditional medicine, perfumes, cosmetics and spiritual rituals, with records suggesting that Greek doctors used them as far back as the first century.
In recent times, the practice of aromatherapy—the therapeutic use of aromatic plant oils—and the benefits of essential oils have come under more scientific scrutiny. Aromatherapists can now achieve recognised qualifications and studies show it may be an effective treatment in some complaints.
Essential oils are usually massaged into the body, but you can also use them diluted in a carrier oil and added to a warm bath, use a few drops on a compress next to your skin or add them to an aromatherapy oil burner.
Combining essential oils with massage is a great way to enhance wellbeing and relaxation. In one study, Japanese researchers found that a massage using a blend of lavender oil, cypress oil and sweet marjoram oil was a valuable relaxation technique for reducing anxiety and stress, compared with a massage just using almond oil. Ylang ylang oil may also have a calming effect by helping to relieve the symptoms of stress, while a massage with lemon balm oil has also been shown to reduce levels of agitation.
Breathing in the scent of essential oils may also benefit wellbeing. Researchers believe this is because our sense of smell is linked to the part of the brain called the cerebral cortex—the oldest, most primitive part of our brain considered to have a direct link to our emotions.
Citrus fragrances in particular have been shown to have invigorating and uplifting qualities, with one study suggesting they may contain antidepressant qualities. Jasmine oil has also been shown to have a stimulating effect, while Lavender is said to have calming and refreshing properties that may help alleviate stress and sleeplessness.
Remember, essential oils can be poisonous if taken in by mouth and must be kept out of reach of children at all times. They should never be applied undiluted to the skin. Always consult with your doctor before using any aromatic plant oils as they can be dangerous during pregnancy and for people with certain conditions.