Aromatherapy in health and healingAromatherapy in health and healing
    Aromatherapy in health and healing

    Although essential oil use has a very long history, it is only recently that it has emerged as a highly effective therapeutic tool – not only having an effect on the body, but also influencing the emotions and the mind. What are the areas in which these oils can be used, and who should one consult for advice and guidance?

    To appreciate the potential that essential oils hold for health and healing, let’s start by looking at what they are. Most essential oils used therapeutically are extracted from aromatic plants by means of steam distillation. They have a highly complex chemical composition, and like many other natural and unrefined substances, each essential oil has a number of different therapeutic properties. Being volatile extracts from aromatic plants, each essential oil has its own distinct perfume.


    Essential oils have been used in both perfumery and medicine for hundreds of years. Today the biggest users are the food and cosmetics industries and to a certain extent the pharmaceutical industry. So that they will be able to produce products of an unvarying quality, these industries use essential oils that have been ‘rectified’ to a specific standard. Standardising or rectifying an essential oil means that after it has been extracted it is processed further by adding or subtracting various natural or synthetic chemical compounds. Although these essential oils are chemically very close to an unadulterated essential oil they no longer contain the life force of an original oil. They are also more likely to cause allergic reactions.

    Some essential oils are produced specifically for their therapeutic properties. These oils are extracted from plants that have been organically grown, or as close to organically grown as possible. The more naturally a plant has been grown the stronger its life force will be. In fact, the whole process right through from how the plant was grown to how it was harvested, how the oil was distilled and finally how it was bottled and stored will have an influence on the therapeutic quality of the final product.


    Most essential oils have immune-balancing and strengthening qualities, whether they are applied via the skin, the lungs or the digestive tract. Some are particularly beneficial in treating digestive difficulties, while others will be more effective when dealing with problems relating to the respiratory tract. Even when only a single oil is used there will always be more than just one effect. The effects of the essential oils can often be deduced from their chemical composition, but our knowledge in that area is still far from complete and it is from clinical observation and experience that we have discovered how they are best used. Let’s look at some of the properties of just one essential oil, peppermint essential oil (Mentha x Piperita).

    • Peppermint essential oil is a stimulating oil; it strengthens the nervous system and is uplifting and refreshing. It also stimulates our attention and our mental faculties.
    • It is a cardio-tonic, utero-tonic, digestive stimulant, hepato-tonic, and supports regeneration of the liver.
    • It is anti-infectious and to a certain extent has bactericidal, viridical and fungicidal actions.
    • It is an anticatarrhal, helping to dissolve and expel mucus.
    • It is a cooling essential oil with pain-relieving properties, especially for headaches, nerve pains and superficial pains.
    • It also has anti-inflammatory properties, especially in the intestinal tract and the urinary system.

    Caution: Peppermint essential oil is contra-indicated for babies and children under the age of 6 years as it may cause reflex apnoea.

    Mint oil

    It can be very useful when treating a person with a cold, for example, where besides relieving some of the symptoms it strengthens the body’s natural defences.

    Many essential oils have antibacterial properties, but in contrast to the sorry situation with antibiotics, bacteria develop little or no resistance to essential oils. This may be because essential oils are chemically far more complex than synthetic drugs, and also because each batch of essential oils is chemically slightly different.

    As shown by the example of peppermint essential oil, essential oils do not only have a physical effect – they can also influence the emotions and the mind. By skilful blending their effects can be greatly enhanced. Like most unadulterated natural remedies, essential oils complement the healthy functioning of the body and stimulate its inherent healing capacities.

    When therapeutic-grade essential oils are used knowledgeably they usually do not cause any adverse reactions. However, some people may have allergic reactions, especially if the oil is used undiluted, highly concentrated or over a long period of time. There are also essential oils that can be neurotoxic, irritate the skin or have other unwanted effects when used incorrectly. For this reason it is important to either consult a practitioner qualified in the therapeutic use of essential oils or read up on their safe home use.


    The following are some of the main areas for the therapeutic use of essential oils.

    • To offer relatively quick symptomatic relief
    • To facilitate long-term balancing and strengthening of the immune system
    • To offer support in stressful situations, both emotionally and physically
    • To aid recuperation after illness and disease
    • In palliative care
    • As an aid when working on personal growth and development
    • To enhance long-term health and well-being.


    Home use of essential oils

    Essential oils are available at most health shops and pharmacies and even in some supermarkets. It is important to realise, however, that most readily available essential oils are NOT of therapeutic quality. This means not only that they may not have much therapeutic potential but that at worst they may cause some adverse reactions, even when used correctly. Nevertheless these essential oils can be fun to use for fragrancing home-made hand creams and suchlike.

    A good book to help learn about and recognise good-quality essential oils is Essential Oils: 2000 Years of Aromatology Discoveries: the Medicine of the Future, by Dr Dominic Baudoux.1  This book also suggests interesting ways of using essential oils to cope with day-to-day health problems. There are many other books available that can guide one in how to use essential oils for fun and wellness.

    Aromatherapy in health and healing

    Most spas and wellness centres offer aromatic massage or aromatherapy. In this context the oils are usually pre-blended for relaxation, rejuvenation, detoxification or stress management. The essential oils are seldom of therapeutic quality and the treatment does not usually aim to treat health problems. However, even without therapeutic-grade essential oils massage has great healing potential. It is relaxing and de-stressing and also stimulates the blood and lymph circulation of the body – all in all, a pampering and beneficial experience!

    The natural health therapist specialising in therapeutic aromatherapy

    Many therapeutic aromatherapists are registered with the Allied Health Professions Council of South Africa. With a basic knowledge of anatomy, physiology, pathology, microbiology and so on, these practitioners will start the consultation by taking a medical history and generally getting to know you. Various techniques of therapeutic touch, massage, acupressure and reflexology are often used as part of the treatment. Basic dietary and nutritional advice may be given, and advice on therapeutic essential oil use at home may be included. An increasing number of therapeutic aromatherapists have completed workshops on the scientific use of essential oils and will be able to give advice and guidance on their internal use.

    The aim of the aromatherapist is to strengthen and balance the body’s inherent healing capacity. Depending on your constitution, temperament, life situation, symptoms and possible medical diagnoses, the treatment and essential oils used will differ. The aromatherapist cannot make a medical diagnosis and does not treat life-threatening and acute conditions on her own. However, she has a lot to offer in these circumstances if she can work together with a physician.

    The physician specialising in aromatic medicine

    Physicians who have specialised in aromatic medicine are unfortunately few and far between. Using essential oils medically is very much a French speciality, so practitioners with these skills are mostly found in France. With their medical diagnostic skills they can make a precise diagnosis, and they are capable of treating acute and serious medical conditions. They will usually do so in a holistic way that includes dietary, nutritional and lifestyle advice.


    Although essential oil use has a very long history, it has only recently emerged as a highly effective therapeutic tool. How one uses essential oils and who one consults for advice and guidance will depend on one’s needs. However, when intending to use these oils to alleviate or treat disease, especially in the case of babies, children or pregnant women or when the illness is serious, it is always advisable to consult a therapist or physician qualified in their therapeutic use.


    1. BaudouxD. EssentialOils: 2000 Years of Aromatology Discoveries: the Medicine of the Future. Luxembourg: Inspir Development, 2000.


    1. Franchomme P, Jollois R, Penoël D. L’aromatherapie Exactement. Roger Jollois, 2001 edition.

    2. PriceS,PriceL. Aromatherapy for Health Professionals. Churchill Livingstone, 1995.

    3. FosstvedtG.Naturens Duftende Apotek. En Innføring i Aromaterapi. Grøndahl og Dreyers Forlag AS, 1998.

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