The Effectiveness of Aromatherapy

Health experts discuss how aromatherapy can be used as complementary medicine



Illustration by Emma Moreman

You might have noticed, during recent shopping outings, a number of products in stores that carry an aromatherapy label, or claim to provide some sort of aromatherapy benefit. Aromatherapy’s roots stretch back to ancient times — think Roman baths scented with oils — but the practice is having a bit of a moment these days as more people seek natural and safe ways to deal with pain, insomnia and other ailments.

Aromatherapy uses what are known as “essential” plant oils to alleviate symptoms and aid healing. Most often, the oils are inhaled from a vial or from diffuser-scented air. Other times, essential oils are massaged directly onto skin, putting their antibacterial or antiviral properties to work to help heal minor cuts, sunburns, bruises or excema, says Matthew M. Hand, DO, a pediatric nephrologist and integrative medicine specialist at Elliot Hospital.

No matter how you might intend to use essential oils, you should know what you’re doing before you load up the diffuser or apply the oils to your skin. And while shopping for aromatherapy products, you should be skeptical of manufacturers’ claims, warns Ami Sarasvati, CMP, certified aromatherapist at Concord Hospital. “Probably about 95 percent of products that advertise aromatherapy benefits do not contain true essential oils,” Sarasvati says. Authentic essential oils are 100 percent pure, harvested through compression or distillation from flowers, leaves or plant bark, and bottled without additives or chemical processes. However, aromatherapy products are not FDA-regulated the way that pharmaceutical drugs are, so even oils advertised as “medicinal” or “therapeutic grade” might be of questionable quality.

“Many aromatherapy enthusiasts stress that only unadulterated essential oils can be used for aromatherapy, but the question of whether synthetic plant aromas can also produce therapeutic results is a hotly debated topic,” Hand says. Some neurologists and other experts — while not necessarily asserting that all aromatherapy-related marketing claims are true — argue that the brain cannot discern natural from man-made scents. Still, Hand says, “most of us will say it’s really important to use the essential oils, and I think in general most people would prefer to use the essential oils [rather than a synthetic substitute] just for overall health reasons.” Hand especially recommends sticking with authentic essential oils for topical use, at least, since man-made products are more likely to produce an adverse reaction on the skin.

What is more consistently agreed upon is that with its ability to benefit body, mind and mood, aromatherapy can help many people in a variety of situations. But it is meant to be used as a complementary therapy, not as a replacement for conventional medicine. Cancer patients, for example, might use ginger essential oil to ease nausea during chemotherapy. A hospital patient who can’t sleep due to anxiety about an upcoming medical procedure could try lavender for its calming effects.

And while some individuals who want to stock up on oils for at-home use might balk at the idea of spending hundreds of dollars for say, a couple of teaspoons of rare agarwood oil, some high-quality versions of commonly used essential oils, such as lavender, cost closer to $10-20 per teaspoon. That might still seem pricey, but a little goes a long way, and the price tag is a bargain compared to the expense of many pharmaceutical alternatives.

Plus, using something like lavender essential oil rather than risk-laden medications appeals to many of us, Hand says. Adverse reactions to the essential oils used in aromatherapy are rare, Hand says, although topical use of the oils requires more caution. “As a general rule,” Hand says, using essential oils for aromatherapy “is viewed as being very safe for almost all ages.” He stresses, however, that essential oils should not be taken orally, a mistake he says people commonly make.

Anecdotal evidence of aromatherapy’s effectiveness abounds. Feedback from Concord Hospital patients, for example, indicates that aromatherapy can instantaneously alleviate symptoms of stress and nausea, Sarasvati says.

One former patient, Sally Zankowski, a 55-year-old registered nurse from Stewartstown, heartily endorses aromatherapy, describing how it helped her deal with the perpetual pain she experienced while severely ill in intensive care. Complications related to her physical condition limited the medications she could take, but after finding no relief from the various pharmaceutical options that were available to her, she found that aromatherapy worked “like magic” to instantly ease her headache and nausea. While there is no doubt in her mind that conventional Western medicine saved her life, aromatherapy brought her significant comfort when she was in serious need of it, and, she says, helped her heal faster.

There is also hard scientific data to support claims of aromatherapy’s effectiveness. When we breathe in plant-based scents, smell receptors in our nose send signals to the brain, stimulating the limbic system and kicking off a response that can influence us physically, mentally and emotionally. “It’s not just a placebo effect,” Hand says.

As evidence mounts and more patients benefit from aromatherapy, “we now have doctors calling our department and asking for aromatherapy for their patients [as an adjunct treatment],” says Alice Kinsler, MA, ATR, manager of therapeutic arts and activities at Concord Hospital. “I don’t know that we would have had those requests 15 years ago.”

Even though not every person who tries aromatherapy will be helped by it, it offers great value and potential, Kinsler says. Aromatherapy is affordable, often effective and empowering — particularly in a hospital setting, where patients can choose on their own to reach for a small bedside vial of essential oil rather than call a nurse to request medication.

It is not the cure for all ills or a replacement for modern medicine, but aromatherapy can be considered another tool in the medical toolbox. Indeed, “it is rare that we use essential oils as the only treatment in the true integrative medicine approach,” Hand says. “It might be the only treatment people use to help them sleep or maybe lower their anxiety a little bit, but for the most part it’s really an added therapy” to conventional approaches.

Follow Your Nose To Better Health

You know that following a plant-based diet is good for you, but did you know that inhaling the oils of certain plants can also benefit your health? Aromatherapy is a low-risk, noninvasive approach to wellness that is gaining followers who want to expand treatment options beyond pricey and potentially side effect-inducing medications.

The healing potential of various essential oils, which are used in aromatherapy and are derived directly from plants, covers a wide spectrum. One oil might be used to aid digestion, while another might boost a weak appetite, sharpen mental focus or soothe a sunburn.

Lavender essential oil, one of six essential oils that Concord Hospital keeps on hand to address symptoms that are common among hospital patients, is known for its calming effects, so it might, for example, be offered to a patient who is anxious about upcoming surgery or a scheduled procedure. Lavender essential oil can also be used to treat minor cuts, scrapes and burns, although Concord Hospital does not use it for those situations.

The goal of using aromatherapy is not to “cure” patients of anything, says Alice Kinsler, MA, ATR, manager of therapeutic arts and activities at Concord Hospital. “We use it in the hospital,” she says, “to help comfort — not to treat an underlying problem, but to alleviate suffering to some degree.” Kinsler adds that “we have many examples” of patients who have been helped by aromatherapy.

Thinking aromatherapy might be for you? Although aromatherapy carries little risk of producing adverse effects, it is still best to be educated before you try it. In the meantime, here are a handful of popular essential oils to consider, from the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy:

Eucalyptus

  • A good expectorant and decongestant
  • Beneficial for colds/flu
  • Mind-clearing
  • Energizing
  • Helpful for bronchitis

Ginger

  • Aids digestion
  • Alleviates constipation
  • Lessens nausea
  • Combats inflammation
  • Relieves pain

Lemon

  • Has antimicrobial and antioxidant properties
  • Uplifts mood
  • Helps combat stress
  • Enhances the immune system

Peppermint

  • Relieves nausea
  • Alleviates muscular aches and pains
  • Relieves and reduces migraines
  • Energizes
  • Calms muscle spasms

Rose

  • Promotes cell regeneration
  • Nourishes emotions
  • Acts as an aphrodisiac
  • Relieves and reduces stress and anxiety
  • Alleviates PMS symptoms

Rosemary

  • Relieves respiratory congestion
  • Helps treat bronchitis, colds and flu
  • Acts as an expectorant
  • Energizes
  • Clears the mind
  • Aids sinus congestion
  • Provides circulatory benefits

Tea Tree

  • Supports the immune system
  • Has antimicrobial, antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral properties

For more information, see the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy website naha.org

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