The Science of Aromatherapy

The Science of Aromatherapy – for the Healthcare Professional

The Science of Aromatherapy

By Barbara (Bobbi) Kolonay RN MS CCM   Aging Life Care Manager & Certified Clinical Aromatherapist in Pittsburgh PA

Aroma therapy and the elderly

What is Aromatherapy?

Aromatherapy is the use of therapeutic oils extracted from trees, bushes, flowers and shrubs from all over the world, recognizing each oil has its own unique chemical make-up. Recently,  aromatherapy tended to be viewed as an art rather than a science. This article has been written by a holistic registered nurse, certified in clinical aromatherapy, for the healthcare professional who wishes to acquire unbiased, scientifically based knowledge on the principals and practices of aromatherapy.

Origin of Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy is the use of therapeutic oils extracted from natural plant matter in
order to encourage good health, equilibrium and well-being . Essential oils are
naturally forming chemicals that are produced by plants as part of their defense
system. Some have antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal properties, others repel
insects and herbivores while others attract insects and birds for pollination. Some
will seal the leaf or stem if it is broken or damages while menthol, camphor,
cineole types produce a substance that drips off the end of the leaf to prevent
plants from growing around them. The aromatic oils can be found in various
parts of the plant including leaves, twigs, stems, roots, flowers, blossoms or fruit.
The clove tree, for example, produces different types of oils from its bud, stalk
and leaves. The material used, and the art of extraction has developed slowly
over the course of time, but the origins reach back to the heart of the earliest

Aromatic plants and oils have been used for thousands of years in various systems of traditional medicine in ancient civilizations. Plants were the most natural and easily obtainable source of nutrition and most likely, our ancestors noticed which plant juices helped wounds heal faster, abated abdominal cramps, helped you breathe easier or improve your mood. Knowledge of this nature was considered precious and handed down from generation to generation.


The Vedic literature of India dating to around 2000 BC lists over 700 plant substances used for healing including cinnamon, ginger, myrrh, and sandalwood. The Chinese system of medicinal plant usage is evident in the Yellow Emperor’s Book of Internal Medicine which dates back to 2000 BC, along with the great classic Pen ts’ao kang-mou, which lists over 8,000 thousand plant-based formulas used for healing and wellness even today. Perhaps the richest association concerning the first aromatic materials used for medicinal purpose are those surrounding the ancient Egyptian civilization. Papyrus manuscripts, dating back to 2800 BC speaks of ‘fine oils and choice perfumes, and the incense of temples, whereby every god is gladdened’. Aromatic gums and oils such as Frankincense, Cedar and Myrrh, are still detectable 1000 of years later when tombs were exhumed.  Even Hippocrates, the father of medicine, who was born in Greece about 460 BC, also prescribed fumigations and refers to a vast number of medicinal plants in his writings.

In 1928 a French chemist, Rene’ Gattefosse’ coined the phrase aromatherapie. His research was the result of an accident suffered when badly burning his hand while working in his laboratory. He reached for the nearest bowl of liquid, which happened to be Lavender, and was amazed at how quickly the hand healed with no sign of scarring. He realized the healing properties of Lavender were much greater than any synthetic, pharmacological preparation, he had been working on and began researching the healing properties of essential oils, taking into consideration their chemical properties as well as their smell.

How Aromatherapy Works

Essential oils enter the body in three ways; they can be:

  •  Absorbed through the skin and passed through the circulatory system
  • InAromatherapyapplicationhaled passing through the lungs or transmitted via the nervous system directly to the limbic system
  • Ingested (Oral ingestion of essential oils is NOT recommended for the general public because a great deal of essential oils knowledge and expertise is necessary for safe practice).

We have all experienced the undeniable power of aroma. For example, at some point in our lives most of us have all been greeted by a fragrance that triggered a powerful memory such as the smell of freshly baked bread or apple pie conjures up long-forgotten childhood memories of your mother.

The response to this type of stimulus is lightning fast; you don’t have time to stop and contemplate what the aroma reminds you of because you are catapulted back in time in a nanosecond, and will often feel a powerful emotional response that can even bring a smile or lead to tears. When this happens, you have just experienced the power of the limbic system in your brain, which mediates and controls all aspects of your emotions, memories, and even your very survival. It also explains how aromatherapy affects your emotions and can link them to memories.

Smell and the Limbic System 101


This complex v-shaped structure sits on top of the brain stem and is made up of the hippocampus, amygdala, part of the thalamus and the hypothalamus and several regions of the cerebral cortex. It is one of the earliest parts of the brain to develop in terms of evolution with 34 structures and 53 pathways, and since aromas, emotions, and memories all meet here you see why a smell can trigger specific memories and emotions.

Another way the hypothalamus takes control of your body is via its neural and chemical connection to the pituitary gland which in turn receives instructions to release hormones into the body that regulate metabolism and growth. These two organs are key to the way that aromatherapy works.

When used in massage the aromatherapy essential oils have a therapeutic effect through both inhalation and absorption through the skin. The molecules in the oil pass through the epidermis and into the bloodstream. Unlike chemicals or drugs, essential oils are typically excreted in 3-6 hours after application.

 The Mind-Body Connection


When essential oils are used in the treatment of certain conditions either through inhalation, via message, or used in the bath, they will cause various parts of the limbic system to spring into action. This triggers the release of neurochemicals and hormones that will slow the heart rate, regulate blood pressure, and stimulate the immune system making one less susceptible to disease or illness.

There are many evidence biased research studies that have scientifically proven that essential oils can change mood, behavior and productivity, along with determination of which neurotransmitters were released, thus the mind-body connection which occurs when utilizing aromatherapy. The results of this type of research open up a mirage of possibilities for future creative medicinal use of essential oils.

“Caveat Emptor” when Purchasing Essential Oils

According to the East-West School for Herbal and Aromatic Studies, important items to obtain on each essential oil you purchase include:

  • Common name, Latin name (exact genus and species),
  • Country of origin, Part of plant processed,
  • Type of Extraction (distillation or expression),
  • How it was grown (organic, wild-crafted, traditional)
  • Chemotype (when relevant).

Supplier qualities:

  • One who is dedicated to supplying essential oils to the aromatherapy practitioner market and educated public
  • Owned by an aromatherapy practitioner or essential oil specialist
  • Who has relations with his/her distillers, if possible
  • Who can readily supply a batch-specific GC/MS spec report on each essential oil it sells
  • Readily able to provide material safety data sheets (MSDS) as needed (*this is most often needed for individuals who are practicing in a medical facility)
  • Who has a strong ethical reputation in the field
  • Who has preferably been in the field for a number of years and is well known to other aromatherapy practitioners and/or educators  


Example of Common Usage of an Essential Oil in Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy-lavender1 (1)Lavender (lavendula angustifolia)

Herbal/Folk Tradition: Lavenders scent is a familiar and well-established folk remedy in ‘comforting the stomach’, ‘palpations of a nervous sort’, ‘spasms and colic’ and fatigue. Outwardly applied it relieved a toothache, neuralgia, sprains and rheumatism. The dried flower was carried during the plague to ward off disease.

Actions: Analgesic,
antidepressant, antispasmodic, antifungal, antiseptic, sedative, and skin regeneration

Dilution: .25% for children and the elderly to 100% (neat) in adults.

Aromatherapy Use:

  • Skin care: Acne, brittle nails, insect bites and repellent, warts, age spots, alopecia, scarring, burns
  • Circulation, Muscles and Joints: Arthritis, cellulitis, high blood pressure, PMS, poor circulation
  • Respiratory: Asthma, bronchitis, infections of the throat, hay fever
  • Digestive: Irritable bowel, dyspepsia, digestion issues
  • Immune System: Colds, flu, infections
  • Psychological: Anxiety, irritability, nervousness, sleeplessness, anger, exhaustion, dementia

 Examples of how we use this in an Aging Life Care Management Practice:

As an Aging Life Care Manager, we have implemented the use of Lavender to decrease anxiety and for our clients with varying types of dementia as an effective replacement for frequently prescribed anti-psychotic medications.  We use varying methods such as  massage of the hands with lavender essential oil mixed in an organic carrier oil or cream when stress is noted, to diffusing the lavender in their room at a time of day they are known to get anxious, or placing it neat (directly) on ourselves and the client pulse points/or acupressure points that correlate with calming when we note escalation occurring.

We also have made up an end-of-life formula which we call “Celebrate Your Life” that has proven to be beneficial to both the client and grieving family members. The essential oils specifically chosen are designed to combat infection, ease the symptoms at end of life and allow the transition to the next life. It also helps the family member have a positive interaction of touch with the person as they are passing, and allows them to experience the qualities of the oils themselves as the masseuse. It is a small that stays with the families forever and we have even been asked to send some years later as they want to “smell the remembrance of their time with their family member”.

Bobbi uses essential oils in many of her medicinal products available in Holistic Aging  on-line store .


My own interest in essential oils and traditional types of medicine derived from my frustration with a modern medical treatment of the older population with aggressive procedures, polypharmacology, dismissal of concerns, and the disease management model of care. Despite a medical systems intent to do the “best work”, it was at odds with my client’s wishes to “lessen pain”, “die at home”, and “avoid the suffering I have seen my friends go through.” Finding ways to empower elders and their families in assuring care of the mind, body, and spirit of all elders has become my mission. Aromatherapy is one of the ways we can nurture the wholeness of the older adult thereby inspiring peace and healing.

Scientific trials and clinical research has continued to confirm the potentials for using essential oils within the medical arena. Nowadays, aromatherapy treatments are widely available, safely and effectively implemented, and often offered in most major hospitals throughout the USA.

If you’re interested in implementing an aromatherapy program, please contact me at 412-486-6677 or . I have all the protocol to implement this in a hospital or assisted living setting.

Barbara (Bobbi) Kolonay RN, MS, CCM, Aging LIfe Care Manager & Holistic Nurse, is the President of Holistic Aging – Options For Elder Care – A Aging Life Care Practice in Pittsburgh PA .



 Damian, Peter and Kate. Aromatherapy Scent and Psyche. Rochester: Healing Arts Press. 1995

Dyer, J. McNeil S, Ragsdale-Lowe M, Tratt, L 2008, A snapshot survey of current practice: the use of aromasticks for symptom management. International Journal of Aromatherapy. 5 (2): 17-21

Lawless, Julia. The Encyclopedia of Essential Oils. San Francisco: Conari Press. 2013. Print

Lis-Balchin, Maria. Aromatherapy Science. London, UK: Pharmaceutical Press. 2006. Print.

Naves, Y.R. & Mazuyer, G. Natural Perfume Materials. New York. Reinhold Publishing. 1947. Print

Shutes, Jude. “The Quality of Essential Oils.” The East West School for Herbal and Aromatic Studies. Web. Sept 2014

Walters, Clare. Aromatherapy, An Illustrated Guide. Boston. ELEMENT BOOKS INC. 1998. Print.

Categories: Therapies