Aromatherapy and Unani Medicine (Greco-Arabic Medicine): Scope and Application

Every essential oil gets its uniqueness not just due to one of its components but because of its delicate and complex admixture. The individual perfume and therapeutic value of each essential oil depends on this balance. 

What is aromatherapy?

Aromatherapy is the practice of using essential oils, also known as volatile plant oils, for physical and psychological health. These essential oils and/or essences are concentrated liquids that are extracted from many different types of wild or cultivated plants. Essential oils can be obtained from different parts of the plant, such as the flower, leaves, fruits, bark, roots, and resins. Some examples of essentials oils are Agar oil, highly coveted for its wonderful fragrance, and Geranium oil, used in herbal medicine. As for essences, they can be obtained not only from flowers and resins but also from chemicals such as benzoins, and plants such as gaiacs and pines. Some examples of resins that can be used for their essences are Asafoetida, which is dried latex that certain Ferula plants exude from their tap root, and Myrrh, which comes from thorny plants of the genus Commiphora.

A brief history of aromatherapy

It’s hard to say when people first started using aromatherapy, partly because the practice of using plant-derived ingredients for medicinal (and other) purposes is as old as time. There is evidence that the Chinese may have used aromatherapy several thousands of years ago, with an emphasis on maintaining harmony and equilibrium. Some years after this the Egyptians were able to develop a machine that could distill cedar wood oil. Later on, the Greeks adapted aromatherapy from the Egyptians. “Istenshaque,” a form of aromatherapy, was first practiced in the Greek system of medicine by Hippocrates (460-370 BC). In the 11th century, the renowned Avicenna developed a coiled cooling pipe that made the essential oil distillation process much faster. The term “aromatherapy” was eventually coined by the French chemist and scholar Dr. Rene Maurice Gattefoss’e (1881-1950) in 1930 and thereafter practiced as a medical science for the treatment of various diseases.

What are essential oils composed of?

From a chemical analysis standpoint and by chromatography it is evident that essential oils are not single entities but can instead be classified as compounds. Additionally, essential oils are volatile in steam, which means they will turn into a gas in the presence of steam. They differ entirely in both chemical and physical properties from fixed oils, which are also known as non-volatile oils. Animal or vegetable oils are very common types of fixed oils.  Essential oils consist of many organic constituents which unite in a delicate and complex balance to produce a wide range of therapeutic and olfactory qualities. For example, the oil of the eucalyptus leaf contains no less than 250 different constituents. In one study, researchers were able to identify 40 different compounds in tea tree oil using chromatography methods (Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry). Every essential oil gets its uniqueness not just due to one of its components but because of its delicate and complex admixture. The individual perfume and therapeutic value of each essential oil depends on this balance.

Scope & methods

  • Olfaction (shamoom): Aromatic medicines either in dried or liquid forms are kept in a vessel and the fumes are inhaled. Rose oil is often used in this manner.
  • Inhalation (lakhlakha): Aromatic medicines or pungent medicines either dried or liquid forms are kept in a wide mouthed bottle and then inhaled. With this method the vapors of the medicines not only reach up to the nose but can reach down in to the respiratory passage as well. Camphor is a common choice for inhalation therapy.
  • Massage (dalak): Some treatments involve massaging the oil into the skin directly, and can be one of the more effective treatment methods.
  • Poultices: Essential oils used in poultices bring out impurities of the skin. These treatments sooth irritation and relieve congestion and pain. Most frequently, poultices are made up of linseed (Alsi) or mustard. These are particularly useful for chest complaints and skin diseases.
  • Compresses: Used externally, particularly on eyes. They can be either hot or cold depending on the effect required.

Base oils and carrier oils

Most essential oils are not used in their pure, undiluted sate. Rather, they are mixed into a fixed plant oil base, like almond, soya, or wheat germ. These base or carrier oils act as balancing and stabilizing agents. They are typically pure, have little to no smell, and are easy for essential oils to dissolve in. The ratio of essential oils to base oils differs for each oil. For example, 2 to 3 drops of essential oil to 5 ml of base oil can be used for the body, and 1 drop essential oil to 5 ml base oil can be used for the face.

Some commonly used oils

  • Almond oil: Oil extracted from bitter and sweet almond.
    Constituents: Olein is the chief constituent. Other constituents are glyceride and linoleic acid.
    Action: Skin softening agent, lubricant, nourishing and revitalizing.
    Uses: Wonderful for dry, wrinkled hands. Very beneficial for eczema and skin irritation of any kind.
  • Castor oil:
    Constituents: Major constituents are palmatic, fatty acids, ricinoleic acid and glycerine.
    Uses: as soothing agent for skin rashes, in embalming, eczema, dryness of the skin.
  • Soya oil:
    Constituents: Oleic, linoleic, stearic and palmitic acid.
    Action: Lowers cholesterol levels.
    Uses: To be taken every day in salad dressing or with rice dishes.
  • Sage leaf (Salvia officinalis)
    Action: Antiseptic, astringent.
    Uses: Mouth washes and gargle, Alzheimer’s disease, memory loss.
  • Thyme & thyme oil (Thymus vulgaris)
    Action: Antiseptic, anti-tussive, expectorant, spasmolytic.
    Uses: Cough cold, spasmodic pain.
  • Lavender oil (Lavendula angustifolia)
    Action: Masks disagreeable odors, heals skin burn and acts as relaxant in premenstrual tension.
    Uses: In ointment, rheumatic pain.
  • Aniseed (Pimpinella anisum)
    Action: Carminative, appetizer, hepto-tonic, stomachic, diuretic, emmenogogue, galactogogue, analgesic.
    Uses: flatulence, loss of appetite, liver disorders, indigestion, renal disorders, to stimulate lactation, for pain.
  • Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)
    Action: Carminative, stomachic, diuretic, emmenogogue & galactogogue and vermicide.
    Uses: flatulence, loss of appetite, indigestion, renal disorders, to stimulate lactation and worm infestation.
  • Cumin (Cumin cyminum)
    Action: General tonic, digestive, antiseptic, bactericide, carminative, detergent (Jaali)
    Uses:Indigestion, loss of appetite, infections, flatulence, skin disorders.
  • Cinnamon oil (Cinnamomum zeylanicum)
    Action: Rubefacient, carminative, powerful germicide, anti-rheumatic, digestive, analgesic, detergent.
    Uses: Skin disorders, flatulence, infection, arthritis and indigestion.
  • Camphor (Cinnamomum camphora)
    Action: externally: rubefacient, internally-mild antiseptic, carminative, antipyretic.
    Uses: skin disorders, infections, flatulence and fever.
  • Caraway (Carum carvi)
    Action: Carminative, antispasmodic, galactogogauge and emmenogogue.
    Uses: Flatulance, colic, stimulate lactation and dysmenorrhea.
  • Myrrh (Commiphora)
    Action: Antiseptic, antibiotic, stomachic, emmenogogue, diuretic, anti-inflammatory, wound healing properties.
    Uses: as an essence and in perfumes, mouth wash, in anti-ulcer treatment and is cytoprotective.
  • Clove oil (Eugenia caryophyllus)
    Action: Stimulant, antiseptic, stomachic, expectorant, sedative, carminative, antispasmodic, digestive.
    Uses: Mouth and tooth infection, flatulence, rheumatic pain, bronchitis, cold.
  • Eucalyptus oil (Eucalyptus globus)
    Action: Decongestant.
    Uses: Internally: Mixtures, inhalations, lozenges. Externally: In ointments and liniments.
  • Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla)
    Action: Antiseptic, anxiolytic, digestive, disinfectant, carminative antipyretic.
    Uses: Insomnia, headache, migraine, facial neuralgia, sinusitis, dermatitis, acne, eczema, abscesses, boils, amenorrhea, pre-menstrual tension, cystitis, colic, loss of appetite.
  • Sandal wood (Santalum album)
    Action: Calming action on dry skin, aphrodisiac.
    Uses: For dry and chapped skin.
  • Rose oil  (Rosa domascena)
    Action: Cardio tonic, resolvent, anti-inflammatory.
    Uses: In perfumery, palpitation, inflammation.

Precautions while using essential oils

Although essential oils are useful for treating a number of ailments you should still take the necessary precautions before using them. For example, you should always perform a skin test before using an essential oil, since everyone is unique and reacts differently to different oils. Body size, age, and sex also makes a difference. As for storage, essential oils should always be stored in dark glass bottles away from sunlight.

In our era that is characterized by stressful environments and ever-changing life styles, essential oil aromatherapy offers an optimal answer to the emerging health burden of degenerative diseases. It not only offers therapeutic but also preventative and restorative health benefits, without most of the side effects of modern treatment schedules. Hence aromatherapy with its wide scope and application potential offers a therapeutic solution for not only diseased body systems but also soothes the soul and the spirit, thereby taking care of the stress component that is prominent in many illnesses.

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