Smelling Your Way to a Better Life A Guide to Essential Oils and Aromatherapy

Written by Leanna Serras

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Essential oils are natural oils that are usually distilled from plants and commonly used for aromatherapy. Essential oils are called essential because they are made of the essence extracted from certain plants. That means they're strong and should be used with caution and with appropriate research. Some people call essential oils alternative medicine, a type of medicine that's purported to help those with health conditions without proven scientific evidence. Essential oils are made up of plants' beneficial compounds that can be used to support our health and well-being. They're made from the flowers, bark, roots, and peel of some plants, which are either steam-distilled or cold-pressed to draw out an essential oil. Some companies sell plant extracts and market them as essential oils, but the extraction process is very different from that of real essential oils. It's important to buy from an essential oil company that you know tests their oils for purity: If you're using an oil from a company that doesn't do that, you can't be sure exactly what you're putting on your body or diffusing into the air, and you may not get the therapeutic benefits that you're hoping for.

Aromatherapy is the use of plant materials and plant oils to positively affect psychological and/or physical health. People use these oils for aromatherapy in three main ways. Diffusion is the spreading of an oil into the air using a special device called a diffuser. Diffusers might be electronic devices you plug in or a sort of cup that holds essential oils and is then heated by a candle to diffuse the smell throughout the air. One of the other ways to use an essential oil is topical application, which means applying an essential oil directly to your skin. However, it's important to note that some oils shouldn't be applied directly to the skin, as they can be irritants, and some should be diluted with other oils before they touch your skin. Some people also ingest essential oils, either by taking a straight drop in their mouth or in a glass of water or adding the oil to their cooking. When it comes to ingesting essential oils, do so at your own risk: Some essential oils are toxic and are not safe to be ingested in any form. Do your research and talk to your doctor if you don't know what's safe.

Essential oils have become popular, and while they aren't cures for any medical condition, research has shown some benefits from their use. Published animal studies have found stimulating and sedating effects from the use of certain oils as well as positive influences on the immune system and behavior. One of the most popularly accepted explanations for this is that essential oils impact the limbic system, which is the emotional center of the brain, thus accounting for reports of improved mood and diminished anxiety.

Different essential oils are said to have different properties and suitable uses. For instance, lavender has antibacterial properties and is used to calm the nervous system and fight anxiety. It helps combat insomnia, calm headaches, and diminish indigestion. Clove is useful for tooth and gum pain, and it can be used as an antiseptic for cuts, scrapes, and insect bites as well as for aches and congestion. Peppermint helps to soothe the stomach, decrease muscle soreness, and improve bad breath. Rose can lessen female hormonal problems and foster healthier skin. Lemon balm may have mild antidepressant properties and is an anti-inflammatory and antiviral substance useful for herpes. Eucalyptus is a common ingredient in cough and congestion remedies, repels mosquitoes, and is even used for athlete's foot. Oil of orange peel has been demonstrated in one British study to bring about significant improvements in anxiety and depression.