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Because the perception of odors - whether conscious or unconscious - can have a major impact on memory and emotions, and therefore on thinking and feeling, it stands to reason that the olfactory sense could be used more wisely in supporting wellbeing. Plant substances have been used for centuries to calm the nerves, aid digestion, or lift the spirits. Aromatherapy is the name for the contemporary practice of using essential plant oils - from flowers, herbs, grasses, shrubs, and trees - for their therapeutic effects. Similar to herbal therapy principles, essential oils are phytochemicals with particular biological properties. Lavender, for example, is calming and sedative; basil, rosemary, and peppermint are uplifting and stimulating; and jasmine and ylang-ylang can promote euphoria.

With aromatherapy, essential oils are used in a variety of ways. Some can be safely applied directly to the skin, like precious perfume. Warmed by the body's heat, soon their soothing or energizing aromas are inhaled. Certain oils can even cause vasodilatation, which in turn warms the underlying muscles. This is why analgesic balms for sore muscles are often so aromatic. Massage therapists commonly add a few drops of essential oil to their basic massage formula in order to enhance its effects. When added to a vaporizer or to steaming water and carefully inhaled, some oils - like eucalyptus - can help relieve respiratory congestion. Even a few drops of oil applied to a soft facial tissue and then sniffed offer an effective way to use essential oils while traveling.

Essential oils are frequently diffused into the air by adding two to five drop) to a small amount of water, then heating it. These methods employ a nebulizer, diffuser, or scent pot; many varieties of these tools can be found at your local health-food or department stores. Essential oils can also be sprayed into the air (five to eight drops to one ounce of water), or added to a bath (five to ten drops).

Because aromatherapy has become big business, the word is being used to sell many products such as highly perfumed soaps, lotions, room deodorizers, candles, and potpourri mixtures that contain mostly petrochemical-based ingredients, to which increasing numbers of people have become allergic. As with reading the labels on your foods, we recommend that you read the labels on your cosmetics and the other products that the body will absorb. Remember, if you inhale it or put it on your skin, your body is absorbing it and will be affected by it, for better or worse.

Approach aromatherapy with common sense and personal discrimination. Always start with a very small amount and determine your own tolerance. We recommend that you use only the purest-quality essential oils. This can be challenging to determine, because the practices of refining essential oils and then diluting them are so widespread. If you are unsure, ask a knowledgeable person at your local health-food store about the most reputable brands (which are rarely the less expensive ones) and educate yourself about this wonderful art and science.

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