What is Aromatherapy?
Aromatherapy – sometimes called essential oil therapy – is an ancient practice and holistic healing treatment that uses highly concentrated plant oils to promote well-being and health.
Let’s first define essential oils.
Merriam-Webster defines essential oils as “any of a class of volatile oils that give plants their characteristic odors and are used especially in perfumes and flavorings, and for aromatherapy”.
The oils capture the plant’s flavor and scent, also called “essence” (hence the name). Different plants have always been used for thousands of years for various ailments, and many modern medications today are based off the chemicals in plants. Today, most essential oils are obtained through distillation, either through steam or water, or cold pressed, which makes them extremely concentrated (as in 30 pound of lavender in one bottle) and thus very potent, so a little goes a long way.
The name might be slightly misleading, since essential oils aren’t oily like a vegetable oil. They are hydrophobic (water-hating) and lipophilic (fat-loving), which means they dissolve well in oil or fat, but do not mix well with water. Also, they are volatile, meaning they evaporate easily.
Aromatherapy, a term that combined aroma and therapy, means essential oils are usually either inhaled or diluted and then applied to the skin.
Inhaling essential oils can stimulate the limbic system, which is a part of the brain that is responsible for emotions, long-term-memory, and behavior(1). This is why the smell of your mom’s cooking or your grandma’s favorite perfume can transport you back in time and make you feel good.
Essential oils have a very light molecular weight and are transdermal, which means when applied to the skin, they can get absorbed and penetrate into your cells (2).
So all that being said, what is an aromatherapy massage?
Aromatherapy massage is when essential oils are mixed in the massage oil that is then applied to the skin. As I said, those tiny oils are very potent, so they are usually diluted to 2-4%, which is considered standard in aromatherapy. During the massage, you inhale the oils, but also get the benefit of the absorption and all the effects the oils have on your body. What those effects are depends on the oils.
Here’s a brief summary of the most common uses and treatments. To really get into the effects of each oil on a physiological and chemical level, I could fill a book (and people have!), so as an introduction:
Just breathing in the gorgeously relaxing scent of lavender essential oil can calm you down if you’re having a stressful time. Lavender essential oil is great for pain relief and widely used in stress-busting massage treatments. Other relaxing oils include chamomile, orange, rose, spruce and cedarwood(3;4).
Other oils are more uplifting and energizing and increase focus and concentration, such as rosemary, lemongrass, eucalyptus, grapefruit.
Pain relief and sports massage
Using essential oils in a massage is ideal if you’re experiencing symptoms like inflammation or pain. The aromatherapy adds an extra layer of benefit to a soothing massage and seems to magnify the effects of a treatment which can give you even more relief than a basic massage. Also amazing after a hard workout to prevent or ease any soreness. Some great oils for this use include peppermint, wintergreen, thyme, oregano, lemongrass(5).
(This also happens to be the most popular blend for guys, since it’s the least “perfumy” smelling. But like I said, it’s not just about the smell, it’s the effect on the body 😉 ).
So what is an aromatherapy massage like?
The first thing you’ll need to do is have a talk with your therapist about what you are hoping to get from your massage, and tell her about any existing health conditions so that she can choose the best combination of oils for you (and which ones to avoid). There are pre-blended mixes of essential oils for general use, but many therapists also make up their own mixes for each session. (We do, but if you have something specific in mind it’s recommended you call ahead and we prepare it before the session, so none of your precious massage time is spent on that 😊).
When therapists are putting together a custom blend, they will often ask you to pick a blend that makes you feel good and you feel drawn to. There’s not much point in creating perfectly-blended massage oil for if you can’t bear the smell of it and can’t wait to get off the massage table, whether it’s great for your body or not!
After an aromatherapy massage you’re likely to feel absolutely amazing – not only have you had the physical benefits of a relaxing massage but the psychological boost that you’ll get from all the delicious essential oils will keep you coming back for more…