Guide to aromatherapy

It was the ancient Egyptians that first began using essential oils for healing but its popularity has grown throughout the western world in recent decades. Using highly concentrated oils extracted from plants, herbs and spices, aromatherapy stimulates the sense of smell, thereby affecting the brain's limbic system (the part of the brain connected with instinctive behaviour, emotion and memory).

Aromatherapy oils and burner
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Oils are added to baths, compresses, heated in a burner to release the vapours or used in massage and, though there is little evidence to suggest that aromatherapy is effective at combating or preventing illness, it is thought to act on the body in a variety of different ways, with a relaxing, energising or uplifting effect on the user.

Some even find essential oils useful in treating arthritic pain, headaches and pre-menstrual tension.

Many of the commonly-used oils will be familiar - essential oils are regularly added to bath products, scented candles and massage oils - but each is said to have its own specific properties.

For example, lavender, neroli, patchouli and chamomile are all used to soothe and relax which may be useful for those suffering from anxiety, headaches or, in some cases, insomnia.

At the other end of the essential oil scale, the likes of rosemary, lemon, jasmine and bergamot are reputed to uplift and refresh, while eucalyptus, manuka and tea tree are believed to strengthen the body's immune system and help to fight infection.

The list of aromatherapists in the UK continues to grow and if you are looking to explore this kind of complementary therapy, it is worth checking this online Therapies Guide for a practitioner near you. According to Bupa, an aromatherapist should have some training in anatomy and physiology as well as the use of oils and massage and it is worth checking that your chosen therapist belongs to a professional body, such as the Aromatherapy Council.

Before treating you, an aromatherapist will first go through a detailed consultation, asking questions about medical history, diet, lifestyle and health problems. This will enable your practitioner to find the best mix of essential oils to suit your needs. They will then massage you using the required oils and may advise on home treatments.

Should you decide to use aromatherapy at home, it is important to remember that there are some hard and fast rules - essential oils are highly concentrated and can be toxic so should always be diluted (often with a carrier oil such as sweet almond) and never used neat on the skin. Always follow the product instructions.

It is also worth remembering that some oils may cause temporary side-effects such as nausea, headaches or allergic reactions.

Most importantly, aromatherapy isn't for everyone - those with allergies, hay fever, epilepsy, high blood pressure and women who are either pregnant or breastfeeding should be especially careful as the effects can be harmful.

Above all, both Bupa and the NHS advise that if you are taking any kind of conventional medication, you should check with your GP who will be able to advise you as to the dangers.