Aromatherapy and its Relationship to Herbal Medicine.

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Aromatherapy and its Relationship to Herbal Medicine

What is Aromatherapy? - Aroma-therapy is the use of 'Aroma' as a therapy to promote health and wellbeing. Aromatherapy has been used in one form or another for thousands of years and is still as valuable today. The Aroma comes from the essential oils of aromatic plants and is used both in the cosmetics/perfume industry as well as in medicine.










Archaeological excavations have uncovered signs of the use of medicinal herbs as long ago as 60,000 years providing evidence that hunter/gatherer societies used plants as foods, medicines, clothing and consciousness-altering substances. Similar uses are still to be found in those human societies which continue to live traditionally.

Between 10,000 and 5,000 B.C. written evidence shows that aromatic plants were used extensively as foods, cosmetics, medicines, trade currency and in religious rites in China, India, Mesopotamia, North and South America, Egypt, Britain.

THE EGYPTIANS used aromatic plant substances as medicines, for embalming the dead, in religious practices and for cosmetic and aesthetic purposes. Alabaster vases have been found dating back to 1400 B.C. which still retain the aromas of the oils which were stored in them. The Egyptian Goddess Isis is the Goddess of the moon, magic and sorcery, and Myrrh is her fragrance. MYRRH is also an anti-inflammatory with a specific use in inflammation of the mucous membranes, which are moon ruled, 'water' tissues.

By 1200 B.C. it would appear that the use of plants as medicines had become more sophisticated and a standardised medical practice was instituted in Greece by Aesculapius the Egyptian healer.

Hippocrates the Great of Greece further developed the concept of medicine in the Western world around 460 - 377 B.C., leading to the establishment of the Alexandrian School of Medicine in 331 B.C.

THE GREEK, Theophrastus, wrote a treatise called 'Concerning Odours', in which he discussed the effects of aromatic substances and the sense of smell on thinking, feeling and general health.

As the influence of Greece as a centre of social change began to decline and the Roman Empire began to wax in power in the Mediterranean, Northern European and Middle Eastern regions, medicine also began to change. In 1 A.D. Dioscorides, considered one of the greatest Roman Physicians wrote the first complete Materia Medica, documenting thousands of medicinal plants and their therapeutic uses.

THE ROMANS loved aromatics. By the 3rd Century A.D. Rome had 1,000 communal bath houses in which aromatic oils were used for massage and anointing the body. ROSE oil was a favourite of Rome. This is an interesting paradox, because the Romans were a martial society by nature, and Rose is a plant of Venus, the Goddess of love. It may be that the Romans achieved some psychological and emotional balance by adopting Rose Oil as the preferred fragrance. Or maybe because Rose is a good hang-over cure!


From 131 to 200 A.D., around the time The Church of Rome was established, Galen of Pergamon developed the practice of medicine in a rationalistic and dogmatic form. Up to this time, healing was intimately related to the human connection with the natural world, the influence of nature spirits and the spirit world.

By 400 A.D. as the power of the Roman Empire began to wane, The Holy Roman Church took over from Roman Empire rule and the governing of the colonies, including law making, tax collection and education. Christianity spread through out northern Europe by 600 A.D. and the Holy Wars had begun by 700 A.D., heralding the beginning of the Dark Ages. It was during this time that a lot of empirical and traditional knowledge about herbal medicine was lost.


Between 900 - 1037 A.D. a revival in the study of medicine and the use of plants and minerals began due to the influence of Avicenna, a Spanish born Arab who brought the healing traditions of the Arab world to Europe. Known as 'the first Pharmacist', Avicenna taught the application of chemistry (known then as Alchemy). AVICENNA was the first known to extract Rose Oil by the process known as Distillation. It is estimated to take 1,000kg of Rose petals to make 500mls of Rose oil, representing a cost of about $40,000 per litre today.

The Renaissance began in 1200 A.D. and medicine as a "Nature Cure" became virtually extinct, being kept alive mainly by the practice of "folk medicine", generally dubbed 'witchcraft' in those times.

In 1300 A.D. the Crusaders brought Eastern distillation techniques back to Europe and the scope for utilising plants commercially was widened considerably with the work of scholars such as Paracelsus leading to the development of Perfumery and chemical medicine.

Meanwhile, the practice and transformation of herbal medicine continued in the western world. Whilst the history of the use of aromatic substances runs parallel to that of herbal medicine, it also separates from it around this point in history.

Essential oils were still being used as medicines and 'Herbals' have been written around the 15th Century which verify this, giving recipes for the use of aromatic herbs and essential oils to be used externally for various internal disorders. For example, it was advised to rub Frankincense Oil into the front and the back of the effected part as a standard practise in the treatment of stomach, liver and spleen diseases.

During the time of the Great Plague, incense balls composed of essential oils and resins of Labdanum, Styrax, Clove, Camphor, Nutmeg, Gum Tragacanth, Gum Arabic and Rosewater were burned in homes. The aromatic oils and resins acted as strong antiseptics and were used to prevent  the Plague entering the house. Fires of sulphur, Hops, Pepper and Frankincense were burned in the street during this time for the same reason. Essential oils were then and in many cases still are today, the best form of antiseptic available to mankind.

Across the world in the Americas, the Spanish Conquistadors were astounded at the botanical gardens they found in the Palace of Montezuma - the Aztec physicians were well supplied with raw materials for their medicines and aromatic plants played a major role. The European invaders found the Native Americans of North Amercia had a sound traditional Materia Medica in which many aromatic herbs were to be found.


By the 19-th Century, medicinal herbs and essential oils were being investigated more scientifically than had previously been possible. The result has been more thorough testing of medicinal and aromatic plants over the last 150 years, which has revealed their chemical composition and explained their usefulness in many areas of cosmetics and medicine. Many economic advantages associated with the research of aromatic plants and essential oils have been realized and better understanding of the chemical composition of essential oils and herbs has allowed the manufacture of synthetic flavours, fragrances and medicines to flourish.

Aromatherapy began its evolution in the 1920's with researchers like Rene Gattefosse, a cosmetic chemist who, whilst researching the medicinal properties of essential oils, "accidentally" discovered the healing properties of Lavender Oil. According to accounts, Gattefosse sustained severe burns in a chemical fire and decided to test out the reputed pain relieving properties of Lavender oil on his burns. To his surprise and delight, Gattefosse found that the Lavender oil not only relieved the pain but also aided the scarless and infectionless healing of his wounds! This personal experience encouraged Gattefosse to further research, not only into the cosmetic applications of essential oils but also into their medicinal uses.

Research into the uses of aromatic substances in psychotherapy was undertaken by two Italian researchers, Gatti and Cajola, in the 1930's and showed convincing results in the application of essential oils in medical, psychotherapeutic and skin care areas.

One of the most famous researchers and champions of Aromatherapy was Dr Jean Valnet. A French physician, Valnet saw the effects of essential oils first hand. Owing to the shortage of more 'orthodox' drugs, Valnet used essential oils almost exclusively on wounded soldiers and civilians during World War II.

During the 1950's, another Italian researcher by the name of Paolo Rovesti conducted further research into the use of essential oils for the cosmetics industry, providing yet more information to the already large knowledge base. Paolo Rovesti also did much to demonstrate clinically the benefits of certain essential oils in states of anxiety and depression.

Probably one of the most famous researchers in terms of the cosmetics industry is Madame Marguerite Maury, a cosmetic chemist who developed "medico - cosmetic therapy" : the use of essential oils based on application by massage. The wife of famous Homeopath Maurice Maury, Mde Maury carried out extensive clinical research into the therapeutic benefits of essential oils and was awarded for her work in this field. Her knowledge was based upon ancient texts and records she had studied, particularly on information obtained from China, India and Egypt.

Madame Maury recognised that Aromatherapy offers a wider potential than is generally realised because essential oils can be absorbed into the body through the skin, which is effectively the body's largest organ. Madame Maury found that Aromatherapy encouraged the reproduction of the cells of the skin and restored elasticity to muscle tissue. Essential oils are distributed rapidly around the body, having a direct healing effect on the internal organs and muscles, as well as on the local tissues to which they were initially applied. She thoroughly studied the way in which they worked physically, mentally and cosmetically.


By the 1960's the reputation of essential oils as substances that were more than pleasant-smelling had grown and public interest in these amazing plant compounds was great. In 1964 Dr. Jean Valnet published "The Practice of Aromatherapy" and in 1965 Madame Marguerite Maury published her fascinating book, "The Secret of Life and Youth".

During the 1970's and 1980's the use of essential oils in Aromatherapy practice was well established and Aromatherapists such as Robert and Maggie Tisserand, Danielle Ryman and Shirley Price popularisd Aromatherapy as a healing modality, leading to the founding of the "International Federation of Aromatherapists" and other professional associations.

We know from present day research and experience, that the essential oil of Jasmine, for example, is indicated for conditions such as impotence, frigidity, uterine disorders, depression, dysmenorrhoea and skin problems. It is also described as an anti-depressant, aphrodisiac, galactogogue, parturient, uterine tonic and sedative by Robert Tisserand in his book ‘The Art of Aromatherapy'.

Frankincense is recommended for the treatment of gonorrhoea, haemorrhage, leukorrhoea, metorrhagia and spermatorrhoea among other related sexual function disorders.

Today, Aromatherapy is a house-hold word and still offers enormous potential in the wholistic approach to the preservation of human health.

Use of Essential Oils in Alternative Medicine, Aromatherapy, Natural Skin Care, Cosmetics and Perfumery

Essential oils are found in aromatic medicinal plants and are powerful healing agents and their value in both the prevention and treatment of diseases of the body, mind and spirit are appreciated by health workers everywhere.

Over many years this research into the traditional uses of aromatic plant substances by the pharmaceutical, cosmetic and perfumery industries uncovered the many and varied uses of essential oils and other aromatic compounds, such as resins and waxes, that are found in plants.

Aromatherapy is a healing approach which has arisen as a result of this research and combines the traditional ways herbalists use essential oils with methods used by aromatherapists and beauty therapists.

A popular form of healing that has spread all over the world, interest in Aromatherapy continues to grow amongst both lay people and Health Professionals from all areas of health care.

Some general uses of essential oils are many and varied and are listed below.


Aromatherapy technique, Swedish/Remedial techniques, Acupressure, Shiatsu, Foot and Hand Reflexology, Neuromuscular Massage, Bowen Technique, etc.

Foot and Hand baths, Whole baths, Sitz Baths, compresses, poultices, inhalations.

Counselling, Hypnotherapy, Psychology, Stress Management.

To assist in spiritual observance, to enhance personal development and relaxation.

Essential oils can be used as a means to access subtle energy levels.

The beneficial and healing effects of essential oils can be utilised to maintain healthy and youthful skin.

To enhance and provide a pleasing atmosphere at home and work.



From the Greek word "Holos' meaning "healing or " health".

Dis-ease is caused by imbalance, whether that be bio-chemical, physiological or psycho-spiritual. The approach in traditional forms of healing is to recognise the inter-connectedness of all the parts of the person: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual and to integrate these. That is, the aim is to restore balance and equilibrium in harmony with nature.

By regaining our connection with Nature, through the realisation that we are dependent upon the natural world for our existence, we can then begin to experience true balance and good health.

The concept of synergism is related to the concept of wholism and is fundamental to the practice of traditional herbal medicine. Synergism argues that individual entities in nature function interdependently to produce a balanced whole (e.g. an ecosystem). The concept of synergism also argues that it is more beneficial to use a herbal medicine which provides a range of active ingredients that are proprtional to each other and produce a balanced effect in the body than a single isolated chemical compound that has one targeted activity and often producing an imbalanced effect. It is also argued that the chemical constituents that make up a medicinal plant are more easily assimilated and utilised by the body due to their organic form.

Synergism occurs when individual and separate parts work together harmoniously to produce a unique whole. Some examples of synergism are listed below.

1: The body is made up of different tissues, organised into organs and systems, working together SYNERGISTICALLY to form an integrated and harmonious whole.

2: Plants are capable of working synergistically with body chemistry, when used as foods and medicines.

3: The complex chemical structures in medicinal plants have been put together in such a way that they balance and complement each other.

In contrast, orthodox medicine and modern chemistry analyse, isolate and then SYNTHESISE what they consider to be the most "valuable" chemical component of a plant; usually the one that is most chemically active in the human body.

An example of the complementary relationships that exist between the compounds in plants can be seen in the herb Valerian ( Valeriana officinalis ). The herb Valerian contains many chemical components, including a substance called valerianic acid. This compound has been identified as having a pronounced effect on human physiology, being anti-depressant and having anti-anxiety effects. Unfortunately, valerianiac acid, when extracted from the herb or when synthesised and used in isolation, has the potential to become an addictive drug. 
Herbalists know well that the herb Valerian is not addictive or in any way harmful to the human body. This is because the many compounds contained in the herb Valerian have a buffering effect on the actions of valerianic acid thus reducing and eliminating any potential harmful side-effects.

4: Individual essential oils, when mixed together harmoniously, will form by SYNERGISM, a totally new and separate therapeutic substance.
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