By Laurie Casey
We hear the term aromatherapy everywhere. Avoid the electrical outlet plug-ins and petrochemicals. Real aromatherapy uses plant-based essential oils.
Gina Orlando, wellness consultant and coach, explains that essential oils are, "concentrated, distilled, aromatic, volatile molecules of certain plants. They are the essence of plant intelligence."
This intelligence has evolved over millions of years, as plants developed chemicals that help defend from predators or attract pollinators. Throughout human history, we have experimented by crushing leaves and other plant parts, processing them in some way, and using the essential oils to improve our own physical or emotional health.
"We have a symbiotic relationship with plants, a biological unity," says Orlando. "We benefit from their intelligence, healing power and beauty....There is brilliance in nature."
Current knowledge about aromatherapy draws from ancient practices. Today, science is evaluating individual essential oils, their many healing compounds and how they work.
"When we smell anything, the molecules travel through our nasal passages and hit our brain directly. And when we breathe in, compounds enter our lungs very quickly and can reach every cell in our body within seconds," says Orlando, who teaches holistic health science at DePaul University.
Two Safe Ways
The two safest ways to use aromatherapy are diffusing and direct palm inhaling. Through use of an ultrasonic misting diffuser, you can mix water with essential oils and let the molecules permeate the air you breathe. Orlando uses this method in her evening class to help students relax and focus after eight hours of workplace stresses.
With direct palm inhaling, you add two drops of essential oil with a neutral carrier oil in your palm, rub them and inhale at least twice. "For children, rub 1 drop of oil with the carrier oil onto the bottom of their feet, since they tend to touch their eyes and face a lot," says Orlando.
One caveat: Never directly ingest essential oils. That can be dangerous unless you work with a trained aromatherapy practitioner.
To find essential oils in town, we visited the Sugar Beet Co-op at 812 W. Madison in Oak Park. Allison, who is on the Sugar Beet Wellness team, showed us their terrific selection of essential oils, as well as misting diffusers for your desk, home or even car. "We have carrier oils for mixing, including almond and avocado oils. I especially like apricot oil, which is close to the pH of skin and absorbs quickly," says Allison.
Different essential oils address a variety of concerns. For calming, try lavender oil, a classic. Sweet orange, ylang ylang, sandalwood and Roman chamomile are others. The Sugar Beet also offers several pre-mixed combinations by local producers. We tried Kimberly's Kupboard wonderfully smelling "Peace," which includes tangerine, sweet orange, ylang ylang, patchouli and blue tansy.
Keep your essential oils in a cool, dark place. They have a long shelf life (viable essential oils have been uncovered in Egyptian tombs after thousands of years). The exception is cold-pressed citrus oils, which only last about a year.
Enjoy, experiment, add essential oils to your natural medicine cabinet to engage plant power.