As you stroll through an herb garden, it’s hard to resist the temptation to pluck a few leaves, crush them between your fingers, and enjoy the rich, pleasant fragrance. We now know these scents are not only pleasant but often therapeutic. Captured in essential oils, the fragrances pass directly to the nerve centers of our brain, where they produce a wide range of responses. Essential oils can help relieve anxiety and depression, tame our physical reactions to stress, induce sleep, and enhance energy. Research shows that the scents of certain herbs — such as lavender, bergamot, marjoram, and sandalwood — actually alter brain waves, helping to induce relaxation and sleep.
Today we can get these benefits from commercially prepared, highly concentrated essential oils. A plant may contain as little as one percent fragrant oil, but when that oil is extracted and distilled, the scent is intense. To make one ounce of Bulgarian rose oil, for example, requires 600 pounds of rose petals. One drop of herbal oil holds the equivalent of two cups of tea.
You can enjoy the healing benefits of essential oils in several different ways — inhaling the fragrance, soaking in water that contains an oil, or massaging it onto your skin. To inhale the fragrance, just put a drop or two of essential oil on a handkerchief or several drops on a lightbulb or lightbulb ring. Or, if you want to be surrounded by the scent, you can purchase a vaporizer or diffuser and follow the directions.
When you’re using an oil for bathing or massage, you need to dilute it with a “carrier” oil. To create a massage oil, add 8 to 12 drops of essential oil to 8 teaspoons of a cold-pressed plant oil such as sweet-almond, grape-seed, or sunflower oil. For bathing, the usual mix is 10 to 30 drops of essential oil in 20 teaspoons of an unscented white lotion. Simply add this mix to the bathwater.
Because essential oils are so highly concentrated, they should not be taken internally. Some people have an allergic reaction to oils, so you’ll want to take some care when trying out a new oil, Also, since essential oils can pass through the skin into the bloodstream, they should not be used by pregnant women. Talk to a qualified practitioner before applying essential oil if you have sensitive skin, epilepsy, high blood pressure, or if you’ve recently had an operation.
To make sure you purchase high-quality essential oils and store them properly, you may want to get some advice from an aromatherapist. Many of these oils can be stored for years without losing their fragrance, though some citrus oils — like orange and lemon — need to be refrigerated. Store them in dark bottles, tightly sealed, preferably in a cool place and always away from the sunlight.