With the stresses of the pandemic having taken their toll on us for the past 16 months, it’s no surprise a number of people are looking for new ways to relax and find comfort.  

Holistic therapies have seen an increase in popularity over the past year, with more people turning to techniques such aromatherapy to help enhance their day-to-day lives.

But what exactly is aromatherapy, and how does it work? 

Dating back thousands of years, aromatherapy is a healing treatment that harnesses natural plant extracts to promote health and wellbeing.  

These extracts can come from various parts of a plant, including flowers, leaves, fruit, and bark – with different plants having different therapeutic effects and benefits. 

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When inhaled, these extracts stimulate smell receptors within the nose, which then send messages to the brain’s limbic system via the nervous system. The limbic system is the part of the brain that controls emotions – and it is thought certain oils can help elevate your mood. 

Also known as essential oil therapy, aromatherapy has gained more mainstream recognition in recent years, and is recommended by the NHS as a complementary therapy. 

Heidi Sanders, a Suffolk-based aromatherapist

Heidi Sanders, a Suffolk-based aromatherapist

– Credit: Robin Dey

One woman who understands the importance and benefits of such holistic practices is Heidi Sanders, a Woodbridge-based essential oil therapist.  

Following a lengthy corporate career in London, Heidi eventually sought holistic therapy training to help her deal with the sensory stresses that came with such a fast-paced lifestyle. 

15 years on, and she’s now a recognised expert in clinical and holistic aromatherapy, utilising the therapy in both her personal and professional life.  

“We all have a symbiotic relationship with nature and it’s important to understand that aromatherapy isn’t just about smell, but the way the oils work. Understanding an oil’s chemistry is key to unlocking its true potential, enabling it to have physiological benefits that help support your emotional and general wellbeing.” 

Conditions that aromatherapy practitioners commonly treat with oils include stress, anxiety, PMS, musculoskeletal issues, menopause, allergies, skin conditions and many more. 

“I’m a complementary therapist, so I support traditional orthodox medicine completely – if someone is taking medication, I will work alongside them to find an essential oil that will also help their condition if they wish to bring in additional support. Especially as of late, more people have been looking to support their emotional wellbeing throughout lockdown.” 

If this sounds like something you wish to try, Heidi has a number of time-honoured favourites that she frequently uses with her clients, as well as her own wellbeing. 

“For my own personal use, it honestly depends on how I’m feeling and what I need to treat. There is a beautiful synergy within an oil which gives it the ability to provide many therapeutic actions, not just one. So it may be that I connect with one particular oil more than another. 

“If I need help with sleep for instance, I will use oils such as neroli and true lavender. Or if I’m feeling stressed, one of my personal favourites is black spruce, which is very grounding, protecting and is also a good respiratory tonic, helping to support deeper breathing. I also love sweet citrus oils – they’re good for supporting emotional wellbeing, with bergamot particularly beneficial for helping ease anxiety and nervous tension.” 

But aromatherapy isn’t one size fits all – and Heidi suggests experimenting to see which oils work best for you as you build up and understand your collection. 

“Smell is really subjective – it’s all about tapping into that memory and emotion that’s associated with a certain scent, so always err on the side of caution. An oil you love may not be liked by someone else. Perhaps start with aromas that you are familiar with, such as lavender, sweet orange or mandarin. Or maybe try something gentle such as Australian sandalwood, and a stimulating oil such as rosemary or peppermint. 

Lavender is a commonly used essential oil, often associated with sleep

Lavender is a commonly used essential oil, often associated with sleep

– Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

“It would be beneficial to have a variety of oils from different parts of a plant too, such as from petals, needles, fruit, peel, wood and resin. Experimenting with those different therapeutic benefits and their chemistry will give you a wider understanding and experience.” 

Before purchasing your oils however, it is important to ensure you are getting oils that are both safe for use and environmentally-friendly. “Many oils on the market, particularly those sold cheaply, can be at risk of adulteration, so it’s important to know your oils and buy from a reputable supplier.” 

Be sure to look out for sellers that are registered with the Aromatherapy Trade Council and can provide GC-MS testing. 

“Sustainability has also become an increasing issue, due to the overuse and overharvesting of certain essential oils, particularly in industries such as perfumery, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. Therefore it’s important that we as aromatherapists have an awareness of sustainable management.” 

Check to make any oils you’re buying are not extracted from plants that could be classed as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered.  

Once you’ve found your oils – there are a number of ways you can put them to practice.  

Commonly, essential oils are inhaled directly via an inhalation stick or nasal spray, steam mask, skin patch, used as a balm, a compress, massaged onto the skin or used in a bath.  

“If you have a stress headache, you can use an inhalation stick and breathe in the oils, allowing the molecules to work their way up into the nasal cavity and into the brain’s olfactory system. The oils will then make their way through the limbic part of the brain, which deals with mood and emotion, eventually helping you to rebalance and relax. 

“Diffusers are also a great way to use essential oils to help support the whole family – why not try burning some lavender before bed to help everyone sleep easier at night?” 

However, it should be noted that essential oils should never be ingested, applied directly onto the skin or poured undiluted into a bath – they must be mixed with a base oil first. “Essential oils are volatile and can be an irritant. Without proper blending, they can cause burning of the skin, irritation or skin sensitisation. Always blend your oils with a vegetable base oil first before using directly on the skin.” 

Caution should also be taken when using essential oils with children, the elderly, when you’re pregnant, epileptic, or on certain medications. Always check with a healthcare professional or qualified aromatherapist first. 

Essential oils have long been used to treat a variety of ailments, including insomnia, PMS and back pain

Essential oils have long been used to treat a variety of ailments, including insomnia, PMS and back pain

– Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

How to make a digestive blend 

Start with 20ml of a base oil such as sweet almond, sunflower, or jojoba oil.  

Add four drops of black pepper essential oil with four drops of cardamom essential oil, and two drops of sweet orange essential oil.  

Blend together before massaging onto the abdomen in a clockwise direction to help ease digestive troubles. 

Heidi’s top 12 essentials oils 

Black pepper (Piper nigrum)

Black pepper supports muscular aches and pains, and skeletal conditions such as arthritis. 

Clary sage (Salvia sclarea) 

Beneficial for balancing anxiety, stress, nervous tension, clary sage is also a fantastic support for your menstrual cycle, childbirth and menopause.  

Eucalyptus radiata 

This oil supports respiratory conditions and relieves headaches, and is also good as an insect repellent. 

Everlasting (Helichrysum italicum) 

This helps alleviates arthritic conditions, skin conditions such as eczema, and respiratory conditions. It is also good for skincare thanks to its anti-inflammatory properties, and helps with bruising.  

Frankincense (Boswellia carterai) 

Frankincense supports nervous tension and stress, helping alleviate anxiety. It is also a good respiratory support, helping with asthma and bronchitis. 

Peppermint (Mentha piperita) 

A great digestive support, peppermint helps with pain relief particularly headaches. 

Rose (Rosa damascena) 

Rose connects to the heart and soothes anxiety, fear, irritability, grief. It is also excellent for skincare. 

Roman Chamomile (Anthemis nobilis) 

One of the gentlest essential oils and particularly good for children, Roman Chamomile helps with anxiety and stress, headaches, insomnia, and asthma. It is beneficial for digestive support and menstrual cycle symptoms. 

Australian sandalwood (Santalum spicatum) 

Australian sandalwood alleviates skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, and dermatitis. It also has a relaxing effect on nervous tension. 

Sweet orange (Citrus x sinensis) 

A great remedy for children with sleep and tummy upsets, sweet orange also helps with anxiety and nervousness. Its regenerative properties mean it is also good for the skin. 

Tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia)  

Tea tree is recommended to support respiratory conditions such as asthma, bronchitis, sinusitis and coughs.  

True lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) 

True lavender supports anxiety, insomnia, and asthma. It is also a great skin tonic, beneficial for burns, cuts, skin irritation and inflammation.

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