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May 23, 2018  |  Login
Aromatherapy Basics
By James F. Balch, M.D. and Mark Stengler, N.D.

The term essential oil is misleading. Essential oils are not oily or greasy; they ­ evaporate readily, leaving no residue. As they evaporate, their aromatic molecules ­ permeate the air. When we inhale the aroma, these molecules travel into the nose and to the olfactory receptors where our sense of smell originates. These receptors then transmit information about the odor to the limbic system in the brain.

The limbic portion of the brain not only processes smells, but also handles emotions, which may be one reason why smells can so easily trigger our feelings. In addition, the limbic portion of the brain influences the production of hormones, the immune system, and the nervous system. As such, aromatherapy can affect basic bodily functions and mental fitness.

The essential oil molecules do not stop in the nose, however. They travel on into the lungs and, from there, into the bloodstream, where they can improve health by acting on individual cells. They are also readily absorbed into the skin, but they are most often diluted in a carrier oil-such as almond oil-before application to prevent skin irritation.

Once the tiny essential oil molecules penetrate the skin, they can stimulate circulation and encourage cell regeneration. Some oils relieve muscle soreness, while others can help release tension and spasms. They can enter the bloodstream here, too, and go on to the internal organs and the lymphatic system.

Whether inhaled or absorbed through the skin, essential oils can fight bacteria, fungi, viruses, and other microbes inside the body and can stimulate the immune system to help renew health. Essential oils can also be taken internally, but this must be done only under the supervision of a qualified aromatherapy practitioner. Never ingest essential oils on your own, and make sure to keep your supply out of reach of children. Many essential oils are extracted from their plants in stills.

No, this isn't the kind of still used in the back woods to make moonshine. It's a specially constructed piece of equipment for distilling essential oils that uses pressurized steam. Fresh or dried plant material is placed in a special compartment, and steam is circulated through it. The heat forces open tiny pockets in the plants to release the essential oils, which evaporate and move into a condensation chamber. As the mixture cools, the steam condenses into water and the essential oil-which does not dissolve in water-floats on top. The oil is then skimmed off and packaged for sale.

Some plant materials don't lend themselves to steam distillation, so their essential oils are extracted by other means. Citrus oils, such as orange, lemon, and bergamot, are obtained by cold pressing.

Flowers with low concentrations of essential oils, such as jasmine, are put through a complex process called enfleurage. Their petals are placed in animal fat, which absorbs the essential oil; alcohol is then added to separate the essential oil from the fat. The alcohol evaporates, leaving the essential oil-more properly called an absolute, in this case-behind.

Alcohol is also used in solvent extraction, with tree sap that's too thick to use otherwise or with flowers when enfleurage is considered too inefficient. more

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