by Maria Teresa De Donato, Ph.D., RND, CHom

Aromatherapy, the “study of scent,” can be defined as the use of essential oils for physical and emotional health and well-being.  Although this technique has been known for centuries, only recently has modern Western science started to acknowledge its efficacy.  The employment of Aromatherapy dates back, in fact, to the time of ancient civilizations such as that of the Chinese, Indians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, who used its essential oils in the form of cosmetics, perfumes, and drugs for both therapeutic and hygienic purposes and for spiritual and religious rituals.

This holistic methodology uses botanical compounds and aromatic plant oils, like essential oils and other aromatic ingredients that benefit our mood and psychological and physical well-being.  Essential oils are the essence of each specific plant.  They can be identified as the plant’s ‘fingerprint.’  Although each of them serves a specific purpose depending on the intrinsic properties of the plant it originates from, the therapeutic use of each oil can be issued through topical application, massage, inhalation, or water immersion to stimulate the specific and desired response.

Incense, for instance, has been used for millennia by most cultures and all major religions. Being composed of aromatic plants and essential oils, it has been burnt to release its fragrant smoke primarily in rituals. The fact that so many different cultures located in faraway lands, such as ancient Egyptians, Indus, Chinese, Japanese, Indians, the Jews, and Romans, all have been using it, or at least used it at some point in time, in their spiritual and/or religious ceremonies highlights an important aspect: the incense has always been seen as the element par excellence able to purify not only the air, environments, and clothes, but above all to restore peace and purity at a mind-body-spirit level along with balance and harmony between the individual and the Divine (you can call It/Him/Her, Life, Cosmo, Universe, Nature, God or as you like, according to your personal preference and belief). Hence, it’s no surprise that main religions, such as the Catholic and the Orthodox, just to name a few, are still using incense in their ceremonies nowadays.

The employment of aromatherapy and essential oils was also known in the Western Judaic and Christian traditions. In the book of Exodus (Bible, Old Testament), in chapter 30, we find references to mixtures of different herbs and essential oils. The first one we refer to was composed of myrrh, sweet cinnamon, sweet calamus, cassia, and olive oil, a combination which would have served as an ointment, perfume, and anointing oil and accompanied by the burning of incense. (Exodus 30: 1, 23-27) The second reference we find in the same chapter relates to a mixture of perfumes, that is, onycha, galbanum, and pure frankincense. (Exodus 30: 34-38)

Myrrh, quoted in the first reference we mentioned, has been used not only in ancient Judaism but also in Traditional Chinese Medicine (called by TCM Mo yao) and Ayurveda Medicine (known as Daindhava). Its intrinsic properties make myrrh an antiseptic, analgesic, astringent, and expectorant aid. It is aromatic, with a bitter, spicy taste and a cooling effect. It is very beneficial to heart and circulatory problems, liver, and spleen meridians and can facilitate the removal of stagnant blood from the uterus. According to TMC, it is also helpful in rheumatic and arthritic conditions, amenorrhea, dysmenorrhea, menopause, and uterine tumors.

Cinnamon (Cassia is also a kind of Cinnamon) is considered by TCM a Yang tonic herb, which is used in case of Yang deficiency or weakness. In TMC, Yang deficiency is characterized by “low back pain, impotence, diarrhea, and weakness in the four extremities” (Tillotson, 2001, p. 70) A Chinese research has shown that the endocrine system may also benefit from the use of Yang tonic herbs. (p. 70)

Calamus (Sweet Calamus) has been known for its medicinal properties in Judaism and by the Chinese and Indians. Calamus is considered to have sedative, laxative, diuretic, and carminative properties.

From the Greek Hippocrates, known as “the Father of medicine,” who used to prescribe perfumed therapies, to the Persian physician Avicenna, who discovered how to distill the essential oils from the rose petals, aromatherapy spread widely both in the East and West world as a means to fight all kinds of illnesses. In the Western world, after knowing a relatively short, dark period, aromatherapy reemerged at the beginning of the 20th century thanking the work of physicians and scientists, such as the French Dr. Jean Valnet, who started using essential oils in their medical practice in order to treat both physical and psychiatric conditions. (Balch & Stengler, 2004, pp. 651, 652) Today, from juniper to lavender, from rosemary to rose, just to name a few of the thousands of herbs and oils, aromatherapy and essential oils are amply used worldwide both as an alternative or as a complementary methodology to mainstream medicine.

Disclaimer: The information contained in the present article is for educational purposes only and not intended as medical advice. Whatever your situation, consult with your physician first. To know more about how Aromatherapy can help you and what kind(s) of essential oil(s) to choose from and/or to integrate into other conventional or holistic methodologies according to your personal needs, please write to

References:Tillotson, A. K. (2001). The One Earth Herbal Sourcebook. Chapter 6: The Language of Herbs: Essential Concept and Vocabulary. Understanding Yin, Yang, and Qi. (p. 70). New York, NY: Kensington Publishing Corp.
Balch, J. F. (2004). Prescription for Natural Cures. Aromatherapy. (pp. 651, 652). Hoboken, NJ: Balch Enterprises, LLC and Strenglervision, Inc.

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