The Nose Knows Good Health
The best part is, these treatments are relatively inexpensive when compared with traditional medical visits, and they can help you achieve and maintain a state of total wellness naturally. Even better, they're the type of treatments that can fight specific ailments or administer whole body support to help you achieve and maintain the optimum health you've been looking for. If nothing else, the sheer wackiness of some of what's out there might pique your interest. Let's dive in! (P.S. Please leave your comments below if you know of any especially interesting alternative therapies that I should cover!)
Let's start off with something very basic that you can practice in the comfort of your own home: aromatherapy.
So what is aromatherapy anyway? Well, the name pretty much says it all—it's the practice of using aroma, or smell, as therapy to treat the entire person (not just the symptom or disease). Though the term aromatherapie only evolved in the early 1900s, the practice of scenting air and body with natural plant extracts for medicinal purposes dates back to ancient China, India and the Middle East. According to the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy , "Aromatherapy can be defined as the art and science of utilizing naturally extracted aromatic essences from plants to balance, harmonize and promote the health of body, mind and spirit."
Basically, while each individual might have a unique physical, emotional or spiritual response to a certain scent, there are a set variety of plant essences that have been seen to effect particular states of mind. These scents can be used either as preventative or active therapy by balancing and regulating the body's processes—thereby promoting the natural healing innate to an individual.
The essential oils used in aromatherapy are extracted from plants, grasses, fruit peels, wood, roots and leaves. The manufacturers use water and steam or expression (cold pressing) that gathers only the most potent elements of the organic materials, giving you all the benefits in the convenience of a tiny glass bottle that goes a very long way.
Aromatherapy is often a hands-on practice, as it can be used in massage or at pressure points around the body to complement the practice of acupuncture (which I'm going to cover next) and other body treatments. However, it can also be used simply as an environmental stimulant, giving scent to the air and allowing the oils to take effect simply through your sense of smell. Using single scents or scent combinations—you can buy pre-mixed essential oil combinations—will affect the result of the aromatherapy, and the art of mixing different scents (five is the max generally recommended) to achieve combined results is something that takes years to perfect. But as long as you're not drinking them or putting them on your skin, there's no harm in experimenting!
What isn't it good for? Aromatherapy can be used as a mood-enhancer (think of all the creams scented with lavender that are meant to relax you, and the "energizing" face washes scented with citrus), as a healing agent (my mother uses lavender to heal any burns, and it works wonders—just make sure you get Lavandula angustifolia, and not Lavandula vera, which is better for balancing female hormones), as a cleanser (tea tree oil is one of the best antiseptics around) and even as a pain reliever (peppermint) and anti-depressant (geranium).
Whether you're looking for clarification (eucalyptus oil), awakening (try orange or grapefruit oil in a little dish in your shower or over a flame in your bathroom), calming (lavender and vanilla are soothing) or sexyfying (yes, I made that word up, but try ylang-ylang or jasmine in massage or a bedside diffuser and see what I'm talking about), aromatherapy can help.
Here's a quick list of some more popular scents and their uses:
Uplifting and relaxing, it can be used as a purification agent in skin cleansing, taken internally to soothe indigestion or as a home deodorizer.
For pain and insomnia relief, and it can be helpful for balancing hormones. Should be used topically on the skin.
Relaxing, soothing to muscle aches. People often drink chamomile tea for the same reason, but you can drop this essential oil in a cup of hot water or apply it topically to your skin.
Stimulating and uplifting. Taken internally, it helps to promote good digestion and immune health.
Used as an antiseptic, this is my family's secret weapon against canker sores. Simply swill a mouthful of water plus a drop or two of myrrh in your mouth for 30 seconds twice daily and watch them disappear!
Massage, bath, shower, drink—you name it, and essential oils can help you get the most out of it.
Essential oils are usually sold with something called a diffuser, which is basically just a little ceramic dish that sits over a flame or other heat source. As the oil heats up, it begins to evaporate into the air, releasing its divine scent and setting the mood for you.
I add a few drops of roman chamomile to a cup of Epsom salts (you can buy these at any local pharmacy; they are great for sloughing away dead skin cells and highly effective both for detoxification and for soothing any muscle stiffness) and dissolve into my bath water for a great post-workout treat. You can also dilute oil in a carrier oil and add to your bath water, though you want to be sure to rinse any concentrated oil that may be left on your skin as you're getting out of the bath to avoid irritation.
Bring water to a boil and add a few drops of essential oil, or a combination of oils, to the water after it has cooled for a few minutes. Inhale the vapors, but remember to keep your eyes closed to avoid irritation!
You can also add some essential oils to a glass of water and ingest them for internal healing. Make sure you read up on any specific oil before doing this, since it's not advised for all oils out there. I love to put a drop of lemon essential oil in an 8-ounce glass of water with lunch every day. It makes all the difference when there's nothing but tap water on hand, and it's a great stomach soother because it helps to alkalize the acids in your stomach.
On the Go
Dab a few drops of essential oil onto a tissue to inhale from on the run (just cup it in the palms of your hand and the heat will help release the vapors and help you get the most from the tissue). You can even use this on your pillow case, though it will require more frequent washing.
In a pinch, you can use essential oils as perfume, and carry the scent (and the sense of well-being) with you through the day!
Aromatherapy can be used for just about anything, and there are tons of books out there on combinations of oils that are meant to achieve different results. One of my favorite tomes on the subject is The Complete Book of Essential Oils and Aromatherapy: Over 600 Natural, Non-Toxic and Fragrant Recipes to Create Health, Beauty and a Safe Home Environment by Valerie Ann Worwood.
Be sure that when you're using essential oils on skin, you dilute them with carrier oils (jojoba oil is a nice, light oil that won't mask the scent at all—though any light oil will do). Essential oils have been distilled down to their most potent form and often will have alcoholic content, which can burn your skin if not adequately buffered with a carrier oil. These additional carrier oils will also help make sure that your essential oil lasts you a long time—a little bit of scent goes a long way in terms of achieving results!
Also, whenever you're ingesting an oil or putting it on your skin, make sure you're using quality stuff. Some companies have been known to dilute their oils, which you don't want. Your local health food store clerk can help you pick out the top-quality essential oils. When purchasing online, make sure you stick with established brands. I love Young Living essential oils, though any top-quality brand will do.
Daphne Oz is the author of the national best-seller The Dorm Room Diet and The Dorm Room Diet Planner and creator of the Dorm Room Diet Workout DVD. She is the daughter of Lisa and Dr. Mehmet Oz.