Walk into Noel Gilligan's house in Albany Park at any given moment, and it's likely your olfactory senses will instantly perk up.
A registered aromatherapist, Gilligan is almost always diffusing a new scent through his home – whether he wants to relax, enliven or just relieve stress.
"Aromas from essential oils make people feel good, they reawaken our sense of smell," Gilligan said. "And aromatherapy is sexy."
Aromatherapy has been around for ages but has recently made its way into the mainstream—and into the homes and workplaces of many Chicagoans. Many manufacturers have picked up on the increasingly popular trend with items like Glade Plug-ins and Downy Simple Pleasures Sheets, created with essential oils.
Using naturally extracted aromatic essences from plants, aromatherapy is used to balance and harmonize the mind, body and spirit. Depending on which essential oils are being used, aromatherapy can help ease anger or anxiety, relieve depressive feelings, or even help you get a better night's sleep.
"It's not just a fragrance or good smell," said Dr. Angelique Mizera, board certified in physical medicine and rehabilitation at Swedish Covenant Hospital. "Aromatherapy is therapeutic because of the plant's specific chemistry. It's like choosing the right medicine for an ailment."
It's no wonder the use of essential oils from plants have elicited such healing power – the plant world has been the source of our medicine for centuries, Gilligan said.
"Aspirin is made from willow bark. Morphine is made from poppies," he said. "The plant world is also the home of most of our healing remedies, and we need to respect the environment or we'll be in danger of losing a lot of what can aid us and heal us."
Gilligan said it's unlikely anyone would have a negative reaction to the pure essential oils because they are unadulterated, free of the chemicals found in most items. However, women who are pregnant or those who typically have reactions or allergies should use caution or consult their doctor before using essential oils.
"People can have reactions to imitations," Mizera said. "Some people are offended by certain scents and can experience watery eyes, sneezing or skin reactions. Inexpensive oils are like inexpensive perfumes – you get what you pay for."
Aromatherapy can be used simply and effectively in many aspects of home life, Gilligan said. You can find essential oils inexpensively at specialty food stores and pharmacies, including Whole Foods Market Sauganash, Merz Apothecary or Scents and Sensibility in Lincoln Square.
Getting started in your home
Here are some of Gilligan's suggestions for getting started with aromatherapy in your home:
If you need help sleeping
Add a few drops of lavender to a cottonball and place it in your pillow case, or add lavender to water and spray it on linens. Lavender has a great ability to help restore balance in the mind or body, especially when mixed with mandarin.
To get in the mood for romance
Diffuse ylang ylang in the bedroom. Its sweet, soft, flowery fragrance has made it a romantic favorite. It also helps calm and release tension.
When the kids need a boost
Mandarin orange is a great oil for children, especially when mixed with vanilla, because it reminds them of the smell of a creamsicle or the candy store, Gilligan said. It has an uplifting, euphoric effect.
To help get rid of a cold, flu or infection
Add eucalyptus or tea tree to your humidifier or facial tissue. Studies have shown that such essential oils kill harmful bacteria and have an anti-viral affect.
When tensions run high
Geranium helps relieve family tensions. It's also great to diffuse during social gatherings. Lavender, ylang ylang and chamomile have calming properties. They can be used alone or mixed.
Cleaning countertops and other surfaces
After cleaning the surface with soap and water, wipe the surface with a paper towel that has been sprinkled with lemon rind or pine. Lemon is antibacterial, antiviral and antiseptic. "It's safe, and it cleans just as well," Gilligan said.
Other aromatherapy tips
The oils shouldn't be applied directly to the skin, but instead added to moisturizing lotion, bath salts, shower gel, shampoo, cotton balls or a spritzer bottle with water in it.
If diffusing the oils, Gilligan recommends using electric diffusers rather than candlebased diffusers, which can burn away the oil. Or, you can use a cold air nebulizer, which gives the best results but can be expensive at $60.
Be wary of purchasing oils from a place where they all cost the same. The prices of essential oils should vary depending on where they come from and how rare they are.
This article was originally printed in Well magazine, the precursor to this site, in May 2007. Written and edited by the editorial staff of Well magazine and Well Community.