Addressing the Growing Trend for Acceptance of Essential Oils in Mainstream Medicine

Perhaps you’ve noticed the rising use and availability of essential oils in your local health food store, grocer, or possibly even your neighborhood “Mart.” Maybe you’ve even stopped to smell a particular scent or read the label. Many of us have purchased essential oils in one format or another for hundreds of years, but why? What are they used for? What have been the accepted methods of use for essential oils in the past and what is the current trend? Are current essential oil usage practices just another “fad” or have they truly begun to emerge as an accepted form of Complimentary Alternative Medicine?

In order to further examine current usage, a basic knowledge of the definitions for Essential Oils and Aromatherapy are crucial:

Essential Oils: essential oils – (EO’s) – noun – Essential oils are the volatile essences extracted from the roots, bark, leaves, or flowers of aromatic plants by steam, distillation, expression, or solvent extraction. Essential oils are applied topically or inhaled, and may act on all types of physical, emotional and psychological systems of the human body in relation to mental, physical, and spiritual well-being.

Aromatherapy: aromatherapy: aro•ma•ther•a•py – noun – The use of distilled volatile natural plant essence oils, including essential oils, for psychological, physical well-being, and general health and beauty. Our sense of smell or “the olfactory system” plays an important and active roll in all therapeutic and commonly accepted uses of essential oils. Many feel the modern use of the word is slightly misleading. The term indicates healing through smell alone but has become the general description for all uses of essential oils including both aromatic delivery and physical external application by various means for both emotional and physical well being.

To understand the use of essential oils as part of mainstream medicine, it is vital to explore their past. The use of essential oils in practice is traceable as far back as the time of ancient China, Egypt, and Greece. Hippocrates, commonly called the “father of medicine” practiced fumigations for both aromatic and medicinal benefit. A Greek perfumer by the name of Megallus created a perfume called megaleion. Megaleion included myrrh in a fatty-oil base and served several purposes: (1) for its aroma, (2) for its anti-inflammatory properties towards the skin and (3) to heal wounds. The Chinese may have been one of the first cultures to use aromatic plants for well-being. Their practices involved burning incense to help create harmony and balance. “Cedarwood oil, clove, cinnamon, nutmeg and myrrh known to have been used by the Egyptians for embalming and hygienic purposes 5000 years ago, was probably the first ‘distilled’ oil to have been produced.

Plants and their extracts have been used since time immemorial to relieve pain, aid healing, kill bacteria and thus revitalize and maintain health. Both the lavender plant and its essential oil were used by the abbess Hildegard of Bingen as early as the 12th century, within the 13th century, the pharmaceutical industry was born. (Price and Price 2002). This event encourages great distillation of essential oils.

During the 14th century, the Black Death hit and killed millions of people. Herbal preparations were used extensively to help fight this terrible killer. It is believed that some perfumers may have avoided the plague by their constant contact with the natural aromatics. By the 15th century it is thought that essential oils of turpentine, cinnamon, frankincense, juniper, rose, and sage were also know and used (Pignatelli 1991).

Paracelcus, an alchemist, medical doctor, and radical thinker is credited with coining the term “Essence” and his studies radically challenged the nature of alchemy and he focused upon using plants as medicines. During the 16th century, one could begin purchasing oils at an “apothecary,” and many more essential oils were introduced. About 60 oils were known and used in perfumes and medicines by the beginning of the 17th century (Valnet 1980).

Early in the 19th century the term ‘aromatherapie’ was first uttered by a scientist rather urgently at a time of panic in France after severely burning his hand and plunging it into a vat of Lavender essential oil seeking relief from the nearest liquid. Gattefossé is credited with coining the term aromatherapy in 1928 within an article where he supports the use of using essential oils in their whole without breaking them down into their primary constituents. The 19th century also was important scientifically as major constituents of essential oils became isolated.

During the 20th century, the knowledge of separating the constituents of essential oils was used to create synthetic chemicals and drugs. It had been believed that by separating the major constituents and then using the constituents alone or in synthetic form would be beneficial therapeutically and economically. These discoveries helped lead to “modern medicine” and synthetic fragrances. This actually weakened the use of essential oils for medicinal and aromatic benefit. Other highly respected 20th century aroma therapists include Jean Valnet, Madam Marguerite Maury, and Robert B. Tisserand. Jean Valnet is most remembered for his work using essential oils to treat injured soldiers during the war and for his book, The Practice of Aromatherapy, originally entitled Aromathérapie in French.

Austrian Madam Marguerite Maury is remembered as a biochemist that avidly studied, practiced, and taught the use of aromatherapy for primarily cosmetic benefit. Robert B. Tisserand is an English aroma therapist who is responsible for being one of the first individuals to bring knowledge and education of aromatherapy to English speaking nations. He has written books and articles including the highly respected 1977 publication The Art of Aromatherapy. The Art of Aromatherapy was the first aromatherapy book published in English.

From the late 20th century and on into the 21st century, there is a growing resurgence to utilize more natural products including essential oils for therapeutic, cosmetic and aromatic benefit. The use of essential oils never ceased, but the scientific revolution minimized the popularity and use of essential oils in one’s everyday life. Today’s heightened awareness regarding the use of synthetics coupled with the increased availability of aromatherapy information within books and the Internet has refueled the use of essential oils for therapeutic, cosmetic, fragrant, and spiritual use. (Aromaweb 2005).

Complementary and alternative medicine, as defined by NCCAM, a division of the National Health Institutes, is a group of diverse medical and health care systems, practices, and products that are not presently considered to be part of conventional medicine. While some scientific evidence exists regarding some CAM therapies, for most there are key questions that are yet to be answered through well-designed scientific studies–questions such as whether these therapies are safe and whether they work for the diseases or medical conditions for which they are used.

The list of what is considered to be CAM changes continually, as those therapies that are proven to be safe and effective become adopted into conventional health care and as new approaches to health care emerge. Integrative medicine, as defined by NCCAM, combines mainstream medical therapies and CAM therapies for which there is some high-quality scientific evidence of safety and effectiveness.

Clearly the use of essential oils as complimentary alternative medicine is an area requiring further research but solidly based in historical and time-tested facts. So you decide. Are we simply repeating the 60’s era where it was commonly acceptable to some to burn patchouli oil and incense or have we, as a society, gone further in exploring our use, risks and benefits for essential oils and aromatherapy? How do we determine reputable practitioners and distributors of medicinal grade essential oils? What are some of the current accepted uses for essential oils and herbs? Find out in our next article entitled “Essential Oils and Herbs – The Real Deal.”


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