A Quick History of Aromatherapy

The use of plants in medicine is probably as old as man. The 18,000 BC Lascaux cave paintings in France illustrate botanical medicine. 5000 years ago, the Sumerians of ancient Mesoptamia (present day Iraq) created the first written record of medicinal herbs found by archeologists on tablets made of clay. Herbal practices were being developed in China and India at the same time or earlier. In China, the earliest written herbal, Pen Tsao by the emperor Shea Nung (ca. 2700 BC) contained over 300 herbs including ma huang, or Chinese ephedra, which is still widely used today and is the herb from which Western scientists have derived the drug ephedrine. Also dating back 5000 years are the sacred writings of the Vedas which describe Indian medicine and includes many aromatic plants.

The use of perfumes and aromatic plants for their aesthetic and medicinal properties was central to Egyptian life. Records from 5000 plus years ago tell of perfumed oils, resins, spices and wines used in medicine, ritual, astrology, and embalming. Aromatic blends were used by priests and alchemist to make perfumes and medicinal potions including aromatic substances for treating manias, depression and nervousness. An example is Kyphi, a blend of 16 essences including myrrh and juniper that was inhaled to increase the spiritual awareness of priests. The Ebers Papyrus from 1500 BC is a 70 ft scroll of more than 800 medical remedies that are mostly herbal. Embalmers had extensive knowledge of the antibiotic properties of plants that resulting in the amazingly preserved "mummies" still around today. Galbanum resin, clove, cinnamon, and nutmeg are some of the plant materials that have been identified in their bandages.

In Greece, Hippocrates (60-370 BC) was well aware of the antibacterial properties of plants and recommended burning aromatic plants to prevent the spread of plague. Hippocrates taught that healthy living included an aromamatic bath and scented massage daily. In the 1st century, Dioscorides wrote De Materia Medica, a textbook on uses of medicinal plants with details on when a plant and its active properties will be at their most powerful. For example, poppy's yield is 4 times greater in the morning than in the evening and jasmine is strongest in the evening. Both Hippocrates and Dioscorides prescribe willow leaves, which contain salicylic acid, to cure pain. Salicylic acid is the active ingredient in aspirin.

By the middle ages, science was declining in Europe, but China and India were keeping inquiry alive. Arabs were explorers and travelers that spread their knowledge. The Arab Avicenna wrote Canon of Medicine (along with over 100 other books) in the 11th century and it remained a standard work until the 16th century. Avicenna is though to have invented distillation of essences from plants. Native Americans were also well acquainted with the benefits of plant materials and used white spruce to treat scury. Current uses of black cohosh root for musculoskeletal pain and hormone imbalances is also derived from Native American medicine. May apple resin was originally used for warts but is now used to treat skin cancer.

The 16th and 17th century saw a renewed interest in Europe with written herbals by many authors including recipes for working with essential oils and therapeutic oil blends. This was also a time of establishment of scientific societies, classifications schemes of Linnaeus, botanical explorations, and many medical advances. Aromatherapy principles were widely used at the end of the 18th century, but with advances in chemistry that synthesized plant cures, oils began to lose their place.

In the 20th century, Rene-Maurice Gattefosse rekindled interest in aromatherapy with scientific studies of the therapeutic properties of essential oils. He is credited with coining the term "aromatherapy". More recently, Dr. Jean Valnet, a French physician, used essential oils for treating wounds during the Indochinese War; Robert Tisserand, wrote one of the first popular English language books on aromatherapy; and Marguerite Maury introduced the idea of combining essential oils with massage.

Today aromatherapy is growing in popularity and is recognized as an alternative treatment by many people. The use of essential oils and plant materials, either for medical uses or for aesthetic uses, has increased greatly in recent years. It is generally considered a complementary therapy and is being increasingly recommended by nurses and other medical practitioners as a complement to traditional medical treatments. Dr. Andrew Weil has included it as a component of his theory of integrative medicine which includes traditional medical practices along with alternative medical theories to achieve and maintain general well-being. Aromatherapy may be associated with massage as a system of delivery for essential oils and is often used in this method. However, essential oils may also be delivered via inhalation, hand or foot massage or by dissemination throughout the environment via diffusers or room sprays. There is a growing body of evidence that aromatherapy treatments can have a positive effect on many medical conditions, either alone or in combination with traditional medicine.

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