Aromatherapy and Herbology - what is the difference?

This article looks to examine the ‘root’ of herbology and the ‘essence’ of aromatherapy and shows how these two fields of natural medicines are related yet unique. First, we will introduce aromatherapy, examine its uses and effects, then compare this to the practice of herbology.

Aromatherapy is the practice of using essential oils to heal the body, mind and spirit. Essential oils are natural liquids pressed from plants, rich in many bio chemicals, each having its own profile and therapeutic effect. They are natural medicines able to ease stress, uplift your mood and nourish your body. Essential oils enter the body via inhalation and by absorption into the skin.

Aromatherapy vs Herbology Of the 110,000 aromas found in nature, the human nose can perceive approximately 100-300 of these. When we inhale, the aroma molecules hit receptors that sit in the nasal cavity. These receptors (called olfactory bulbs) are actually a part of our brains. This gives us a direct and quick access to the brain through aroma. The part of the brain that most directly responds to olfactory stimulus is the limbic system, which corresponds to our feelings, memories, and emotions. The limbic system is the most ancient part of the brain evolutionary speaking. When aromatic messages hit the brain they are processed instantly and instinctively.

This is why they are so powerful. Each of us builds up a unique memory bank of sentimental associations with certain fragrances and this is why some are pleasing to some and not others. For example, I get the feeling of comfort and relaxation when I smell a camp fire as it reminds me of family vacations at the lake where we sat around the campfire talking and laughing until late at night.

When applied to the skin, usually diluted in creams and oils, essential oils permeate through the capillaries and cell tissues. The small molecular size of essential oils allows them to penetrate the skin. In general, aromatherapy can improve the skin by encouraging toxin removal, stimulating cell growth and improving circulation. Each essential oil has ‘specialties’ in improving specific skin conditions. For example, sandalwood is excellent for healing broken veins and treating mature skin.

All essential oils help to balance emotions to some degree and are known for their stimulating, uplifting and relaxing properties. Working directly with the brain, they can revive a tired mind and stimulate memory. All essential oils appear to be antiseptic and anti-bacterial which helps in the treatment of viral infections. And further, all essential oils have the ability to reduce stress and boost the immune system.

Essential oils are often described by their “notes”. The three categories of classification are top, middle and base notes. These terms relate to the rate at which they evaporate, or how long the fragrance will last.

Top notes are the most stimulating and uplifting oils. They are strongly scented but the scent lasts only for approximately 3- 24 hours. Examples of Top note oils are: Lime, Bergamot, Clary Sage, Ginger, Lemongrass and Peppermint.

Middle notes are the next longest lasting at about 2-3 days, and affect the metabolic body function. The scent is less potent to that of top note essential oils. Examples of Middle note oils include: Lavender, Neroli, and Geranium. Base notes are the slowest to evaporate, lasting up to one week. They have a heady, soothing scent and a relaxing, comforting effect on the body. Examples include: Rose, Sandalwood, Jasmine, and Frankincense.

At Scents of Peace, my speciality is in creating unique scent blends using different essential oils for application into bath, body and home care items. I chose this line of products so that people can easily enjoy the experience aromatherapy every day. When blending, it’s important to point out there are certainly no fixed rules. It is an art that requires not only knowledge of the oils and their fragrances but much experimenting through trial and error to design a harmonious scent.

Aromatherapy can be seen as part of the larger field of herbal medicine, using the same theory of harnessing the energy or vital life forces found in the natural world. Plant-based remedies are considered the oldest form of medicines and have been in use in nearly all cultures around the world.

EgyptianSources cite that the Egyptians were the first to discover how to extract the plant ‘sprit’ in its purest form. Egyptians believed that life started from the nose. Whatever one could smell, had life force. Therefore, fragrance was related to divine power. As a dehydrated herb is significantly more aromatic than the fresh herb, it was believed to be richer in spiritual power. The dried herb then, was merely in an intermediate state. Although its spiritual power was greater than that of the fresh herb, it was not at its fullest strength. There was still a lot of matter, such as fibre and organic material, left in the herbs. By experimenting with animal fats, the Egyptians first discovered enfleurage, the process of capturing the fragrant compounds exuded by plants.

Today essential oils are mainly produced by steam distillation and solvent extraction. Different parts of the plant including leaves, roots, buds, twigs, resin, fruit or flower petals can be used to create essential oils.

The amount of material required to create specific essential oils, along with transportation costs and growing conditions, determines the huge variation in the price of different essential oils.

For example, It can take over 100 pounds (45 kilograms) of lavender flowers to make one pound of Lavender essential oil. This may seem high, until you consider that it takes over 1,000 pounds (450 kilograms) of Jasmine to make just one pound of Jasmine essential oil. Further, pure Jasmine essential oil requires the tiny jasmine petals to be hand-picked unlike other plant materials which can be cut down using advanced machinery.

In herbology it is the physical part of a plant which is manipulated to treat ailments, whereas in aromatherapy, only the extracted oil of the plant is concerned. The difference between the two schools of natural therapy is in the matter used (herb or oil) and the effect of the relative concentrations. In comparison to dried herbs, essential oils are 75-100 times more concentrated.

Not all plants contain essential oils; less than 20% of all plants have essences. Although the majority of plants which yield essential oils are used in medicinal herbalism, it is important to distinguish the therapeutic qualities of a particular oil from those of the herb form.

To show this in another way, most of us are familiar with chamomile, which when used as a tea is effective for treating insomnia, nervousness and digestive problems of a nervous nature. When you brew your chamomile tea, chances are that it does not turn the colour blue. The German chamomile essential oil has lovely rich blue colour due to the presence of chamazuline, which has been reported to give the oil its excellent anti-inflammatory properties. The chamazulene is not a water soluble form of the herb so it will not be extracted when an herbal infusion is made.

So what this means is that although the aromatic component of the plant plans a central role in its overall characteristics, the herb form also contains bitter components, tannins and other matter.

Therefore, essential oils usually represent the water insoluble components of the plant. Another example is peppermint oil which is recommended as an inhalation for the treatment of respiratory conditions (coughs and sinus congestion). However, for digestive disorders it is better to use herbal infusion where the action of the oil is promoted by the presence of bitters and tannins naturally occurring in the herb itself.

The practice of aromatherapy is only one component of the larger field of herbal medicine. It is my belief and desire that the interest and use of aromatherapy, like all alternative medicines, will increase over time as its clinical value catches up with what natural therapists have proven for centuries.