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What are essential oils?

pH and acidity

Learn about and make the most of aromatherapy

Essential oils  are highly volatile substances, which, thanks to this feature, can easily reach our nose. Precious fluids, pleasantly-scented, are extracted from many varieties of plants. Their value is increasingly appreciated by researchers and doctors (C. Valnet, Oli essenziali e aromaterapia, Rifreddo 2014).

Aromatherapy is based on the principle that every plant has a "healing spirit". This notion according to which from plants one can extract volatile substances capable of supporting our general well-being derives from very ancient traditions.

The beneficial properties of essential oils can be exploited in several ways:

  • by topical application (massages, foot baths, dilution in bath tubs). For massage, essential oils are often combined with creams, neutral lotions or vegetable oils;
  • environmental diffusion, to purify and scent rooms, or fumigation / inhalation;
  • internal use. Some essential oils can also be added to foods to flavour them, or ingested, diluting a few drops in a teaspoon of honey or putting them on a sugar cube.

What is the mechanism of action of essential oils?

Essential oils, evaporating at room temperature, stimulate nerve endings in the nose, which send a message to the limbic system (which presides over memory and emotions) and then to the hypothalamus, which regulates hormonal system.

For example, to deal with some typical respiratory complaints, you can benefit from the essential oil of eucalyptus which promotes "the solution and expectoration of phlegm and at the same time calms excessive irritation [...] In diseases of the respiratory system, the essence is used in the form of inhalation, atomisation, in aroma lamps..." (Suzanne Fischer-Rizzi, Profumi celestiali. Uso delle essenze naturali e loro azione su corpo e sulla mente, Tecniche Nuove, 2005).

An essential oil that is suitable for many uses is the essential oil of lavender, which can also be used for preparing small bags to put in closets to scent linen (it can also be useful for keeping moths away, as they hate its smell).

The range of essential oils, however, is very wide, as well as their different uses and fields of action and those provided are only two simple examples.

From Ancient Egypt to Avicenna, up to nowadays:
history of aromatherapy

Egyptians, Greeks and Romans knew already about the usefulness of essential oils, and used them not only for embalming, but also for cosmetic and healing purposes, as evidenced by some tablets found in the temples of Aesculapius (god of medicine), whereon some recipes of medicinal herbs were incised!

The first to describe the properties of essential oils in more detail was the philosopher and physician Avicenna, while in the fifteenth century Paracelsus introduced the term in reference to the concept of "quintessence", or fifth element, considered to be the spirit of a plant, its thinner and purest component.

According to the theory and practice of the famous physician and alchemist, eliminating the densest matter, distillation releases the energy information of the plant; the oil made from it is therefore "essential", capable of reaching the same part of a human being: its spirit and the energy structure that supports its body.

The term aromatherapy was instead introduced in the '20s by Rene Maurice Gattefosse, a French chemist who, studying the cosmetic applications of essential oils, noticed significant effects of the essential oil of lavender on burns.

Another Frenchman, Christian Valnet, carried on the therapeutic use of essences, using them during World War II to heal the wounds of the soldiers who got injured on the battlefield.


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