Aromatic plant material has been found in ancient tombs dating as far back as Neanderthal times, 60,000 years ago (1). Containers from King Tut’s burial chamber, sealed over 3000 years ago, still had the faint smell of frankincense and myrrh when the tomb was discovered in 1922 (2). Written evidence from China indicates an extensive reliance on herbal and aromatic plant remedies thousands of years ago, which included ginger, cinnamon, sandalwood and ginseng, herbs still in use today (3). Ancient texts from India, penned over 4000 years ago, contained detailed instructions for distilling and condensing volatile oils from hundreds of plants for healing purposes (4).
Through the millennia, herbal remedies were one of the primary methods for relieving most health conditions but, by the 1900’s, practices began to change. Modern chemistry provided the ability to identify and synthetically copy the biologically active parts of plants to produce drugs. Salicylic acid from the White Willow Tree was chemically tweaked, producing aspirin, and the first blockbuster drug was created. With the advent of World War II and the subsequent development of antimicrobial agents, commercial pharmaceutical production flourished and herbal remedies were pushed to the edges of mainstream medicine.
The profits made by the major drug manufacturers were instrumental in their role as a dominant force in shaping the medical landscape. Medical schools, the American Medical Association and most clinical research projects were heavily funded by the pharmaceutical companies (5), which all but eliminated traditional herbal and aromatic medicine from conventional medical care.
As more and more drugs are produced and prescribed in the US, and with their costs representing a significant percentage of healthcare expenditure, it is becoming clearer that medications may not always be the best choice in promoting health. Serious adverse reactions to prescription drugs result in approximately 2 million hospitalizations per year, and have become the 4th leading cause of death in the United States (6). Highly medicated, yet often no healthier, many frustrated consumers are beginning to look past the prescription pad to a more natural and gentle way of preventing and alleviating their suffering.
This has led to a dramatic increase in the interest in complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) and integrative therapies over the past several years. Over 60 million Americans spend as much as 30 billion out of pocket dollars annually, for treatments such as massage, acupuncture, and herbal based therapies (7).
In 1998, the National Institute of Health (NIH) launched The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) to provide funding and direction for evidence based research. Slowly and steadily, a growing body of research is accumulating for alternative treatments, such as essential oil therapy.
While the term, “aromatherapy” is often used interchangeably with the term “essential oil therapy”, some experts prefer to use the term “essential oil therapy” to further define the treatment modality that consists of the exclusive use of high quality essential oils (EOs), rather than merely fragrances that can contain chemical or synthetic constituents. While aromatherapy with EOs has long been associated with pleasant smells used for relaxation, it is also a credible, serious and highly effective therapy in its own right.