Natural Oils Seen as Health BoonAromatherapy Becoming a Popular Home Remedy
by Kim Hoo-ran (Contributing Writer)
Just about anything natural is in vogue, with countless magazines proclaiming the benefits of herbs and other natural products. As part of this trend, aromatherapy is enjoying a boom as a natural remedy for some common afflictions. Skeptics may scoff at the idea that inhaling pleasant scents can cure illnesses, but using scents to seek relief from symptoms has caught the imagination of those who want to try home remedies.
The Body Shop, which sells a wide range of essential oils and related products, reports a three-fold increase in sales of aromatherapy products. "We introduced essential oils in 1997," said Oh Mi-kyung, in charge of planning at The Body Shop Korea. "Sales were virtually negligible until early this year when they began to soar."
While potpourri, room sprays and scented candles are mass-marketed as aromatherapy, real aromatherapy uses highly concentrated essential oils extracted from herbs with healing properties. Steam distillation or cold-pressing of flowers, leaves, branches, bark, rind, or roots produces the essential oils. Lavender, chamomile, ginger and mandarin are some of the more familiar sources. The oils are mixed with a carrier oil, usually soy, evening primrose or almond, or diluted with alcohol before being applied to the skin, sprayed in the air, or inhaled.
The most popular use of essential oils is in massage. Depending on the type of oil, the effect can be calming or stimulating. During an aroma-lymphatic drainage massage, for example, several oils are used, which have a variety of effects.
"Before the massage begins, different oils are applied to different areas of the back and the lymph nodes to stimulate circulation," said Park Shin-ja, who heads Aroma Feel Beauty Slim in Yoksam-dong, southern Seoul.
During the massage itself, a blend of five essential oils helps balance the hormone system. Blends of two to five oils produce synergy and enhance effectiveness, according to Ms. Park. After an hour of kneading, pinching, rolling and pressing, a hot pack is placed on the back. The pack is infused with a blend of two essential oils that promote circulation and calm the body. When the session is over, Ms. Park promises, one feels light as a feather. Gone are the aching back muscles and the stiff shoulders that made a person feel as if he were carrying a load of bricks.
"The feeling of lightness is achieved by promoting lymph drainage, which is basically ridding your body of toxic waste," Ms. Park said.
But is it the massage or the oils that are responsible for this relief? "The essential oils enhance the benefits of massage," Ms. Park explained. "The oils are absorbed into the skin and reach the bloodstream in about 15 minutes, bringing fast relief."
Although some people find relief in aromatherapy, medical science does not know why. "There are no scientific data that prove the effectiveness of aromatherapy," admits Cho Sung-jun, a neuropsychiatrist in private practice in Shinsa-dong, southern Seoul, who prescribes essential oils for some patients.
According to Dr. Cho, aromatherapy is a viable alternative to synthetic medications for some psychosomatic diseases, such as insomnia and fear of people. Aromatherapy does not have the unwanted side effects that may result from prolonged use of some medication. "About half of the patients will respond to aromatherapy after being in therapy for about three months," said Dr. Cho.
Although Dr. Cho acknowledges that aromatherapy is far from an exact science, with claims of effectiveness depending on patients' subjective evaluations, he is convinced the medical profession could benefit from studying aromatherapy.
"Aromatherapy, for example, could be used for patients with chronic illnesses for which there are no cures or ways to provide relief," Dr. Cho explained. An enthusiastic practitioner of aromatherapy, he founded the Korean Medical Aromatherapy Association last year, with the aim of bringing together aromatherapy and medicine. Members include obstetricians, dentists and dermatologists.
Just as nebulous as the issue of aromatherapy's effectiveness is how the reported effects are brought about. The most widely accepted theory suggests that fragrances work via the brain. When scent molecules enter the nasal cavity and stimulate the odor-sensing nerves, the impulses are sent to the limbic system, the part of the brain believed to be the seat of memory and emotion. The limbic system, when stimulated, finds emotional stability. This normalizes hormone production, resulting in balanced bodily functions.
Inhalation is the most effective form of therapy, according to Dr. Cho, because the scents reach the brain almost instantly. There are several methods of inhalation.
For insomnia, depression and premenstrual syndrome, Dr. Cho recommends lamp diffusion. "A lamp diffuser with four drops of oil should be left on for three to four hours while sleeping," he said.
Steam inhalation, effective for colds and other respiratory problems, involves adding two to four drops of essential oil to a large bowl of steaming water, draping a towel over the head and breathing in the vapors for 15 to 20 minutes. If you are very busy, adding a couple of drops to a handkerchief and sniffing it is an easy way to get relief. Bathing in essential oils combines absorption through the skin and through steam inhalation. Because the scents enter the system quickly, this method is very potent. No more than eight drops should be added to a tub of water.
Other simple ways of getting the benefits of aromatherapy include foot baths and bathing the hands. A few words of caution. Because essential oils are highly concentrated, they should never be ingested without a doctor's approval. Undiluted oils should not be used directly on the skin and care must be taken to keep the oils away from eyes. Asthma patients should consult their doctors before using any form of aromatherapy. Pregnant women, infants and young children should stay away from aromatherapy.
Here are a few recommendations from Dr. Cho's recent book, "The Miracle of Aromatherapy." These mixtures can be tried at home for some common ailments.
. Common cold: Steam inhalation. Blend hyssop, rosemary, peppermint, eucalyptus and lemon with a ratio of 4:3:3:3:3:3.
. Arthritis: Massage or bath. Blend lavender, rosemary, peppermint, and juniper 7:5:4:3. Massage the oil into the affected joint or place six to eight drops of the blended oil into a bath.
. Insomnia: Lamp diffusion. Blend lavender, marjoram and clary sage 7:2:1.
. Enhance memory: Lamp diffusion, steam inhalation. Blend lemon, basil, and rosemary 5:3:2.