Aromatherapy – Tradition, Art or Science?


This article is the subject of a current discussion on linked in.

This is part of one of the comments.

Ayurveda is based on tradition, not evidence, and some of the practices are downright harmful. For instance, many Ayurvedic remedies contain toxic levels of heavy metals and have led to instances of heavy metal poisoning. One study that tested samples of various remedies, formulated in India and sold in the Boston area, found about 25% of them contained worrisome levels of lead, cadmium, and other toxic heavy metals.

Given with a link to the study that found the problem.

This led me to think about the interplay between the different strands that make up the profession. I was unable to find out if the remedies being sold under the name of Ayurveda were genuine or not. Some years ago skin preparations being sold under the banner of Chinese Herbal Medicine were found in UK to have high levels of prescription only steroids in them. To me this is clearly fraud and I would expect any practitioner knowingly using those preparations to be struck off.

I also found the comment about Ayurvedic preparations being contaminated with heavy metals to have little or no relevance to the article which is about three carrier oils and three essential oils.

To return to the subject! I see tradition as a good starting point. Frankincense for instance has been used for thousands of years as an aid to meditation. Some of it’s other therapeutic properties anti-depressive, anti-inflammatory etc also appear in ancient texts but we have to accept the caveat that so do practices such as blood letting which served to weaken patients further!

I advocate looking at the traditional uses of plants but also looking to see what the science behind them is.  In this way we can see if what we are doing is most importantly safe. (Do no harm!) Then we can look at whether the agents we are using are effective or not. This is where things get complicated.

Just as with conventional medicine where for the same complaint some drugs work for some patients but not others the same is true of complementary remedies, especially essential oils where psychological factors such as memories associated with the oils can often be a factor. Also most of the time, I am giving massage at the same time as using the oils. How do we distinguish between the effect of the oils and that of the massage?

For the last point, I rely heavily on feedback from my clients. If it seems an oil isn’t helping or I learn more information suggesting a change in oils used might be helpful I will change what I am using, just as I will alter the massage in response to the feedback I get.

Finally, I always record the feedback I get from clients and their perceptions of how effective my treatments are. I also record which oils are used and anything which differs from the standard massage routine I use. If I give any credence to science this recording of information becomes all important. It is potentially of use not just to myself but to multi-practitioner studies which are essential for some conditions as they are rare enough that no single practitioner is ever going to work with large numbers of them.

Remember that what is done today by practitioners using whatever synthesis of tradition, art and science they choose goes towards making up what will come under the heading of, “tradition” in the future.

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