By: Jolene Hart For You Beauty.Com

Aromatherapy for Beginners

To ease tension and common health conditions, look no further than aromatherapy.

ShutterstockThe Basics: When a whiff of peppermint lip balm perks you up or the scent of a lavender sachet calms your frantic mind, give some credit to aromatherapy. More than just a collection of good smells, aromatherapy is an alternative remedy powerful enough to alter your brain chemistry in seconds, while improving your physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing.

Aromatherapy uses fragrant essential oils, extracted from flowers, leaves, bark and roots of plants and herbs. Inhaling essential oils directly influences the limbic system of the brain, the seat of memory and emotion that is directly connected to the parts of the brain that control stress, breath, heart rate, blood pressure and hormone balance.

Essential oil vapors enter the bloodstream about 20 to 60 minutes after they’re absorbed into the lung tissue. The effects of inhaling essential oils are nearly instantaneous when they reach in the brain. But sniffing these oils isn’t the only way to benefit from the therapy. Essential oils diluted in a carrier oil can be massaged into your skin or you can drink them in the form of an herbal tea.

Scientific Support: While aromatherapy is an alternative treatment, essential oils have found mainstream scientific support in many recent studies. A 2009 study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that linalool, which is a compound found in many essential oils including lavender and orange, reduced stress by altering blood chemistry and gene expression, while a 2010 study found that thyme oil reduced the activity of a key inflammatory enzyme in the body by 65 percent. For example, to alleviate indigestion, an aromatherapist might advise you to drink an herbal tea, inhaling the aroma as you sip, or to massage a particular essential oil on your abdomen to relieve discomfort. Keep in mind, there is a possibility of an allergic reaction or skin irritation from essential oils.

A 2011 systematic review of studies published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine concluded that aromatherapy is an effective complementary treatment for managing anxiety.

Complement to Western Medicine: While it’s good practice to keep your physician in the loop about any new treatments or supplements, particularly if you’re pregnant, aromatherapy is considered a safe alternative therapy that does not interact with traditional Western medicine. In many cases, aromatherapy can aid conventional treatments by easing stress and anxiety. 

“Scents have a powerful impact on the mind,” says Kathi Keville, aromatherapist and director of the American Herb Association. “They might not be as strong as antidepressant drugs, but the beauty is that they do not have side effects and can be used repeatedly during the day. We have no evidence that there is any conflict to using aromatherapy along with medicine.”

For pain management, aromatherapy can provide pain relief within 10 to 15 minutes after anti-inflammatory essential oils are massaged into an affected area, says Keville. To find a qualified aromatherapist, Keville recommends contacting the National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy.

What it’s Best For: Although aromatherapy isn’t an appropriate treatment for every health problem, it can be effective at treating conditions such as mild depression, anxiety, digestive problems, pain and bacterial, fungal and viral infections, says Keville. She suggests considering aromatherapy as a first line treatment for many conditions that are non-threatening.

“Once people start using aromatherapy, they often find that they don’t have to turn to prescription drugs, which may have side effects,” she explains. “And in cases where drugs are needed, aromatherapy can still be used as a complement without interactions, as far as we know.”

The Beauty Connection: As the evidence mounts that stress negatively impacts your looks, tension-taming aromatherapy can also be used as a beauty treatment. “The anti-stress essential oils tend to be the ones that are also used for skin care,” says Keville. Many common essential oils are also particularly powerful skin treatments. One reason is because they contain antioxidants, which prevent the signs of aging when applied topically, she adds.