What is Aromatherapy?
Our sense of smell is powerful, but can it heal? The science says, in some cases, yes. While the therapeutic use of essential oils dates back to ancient civilizations, it only became popular in the United States in the 1980s. Since that time, research has demonstrated that aromatherapy, inhaled or used topically, can have many beneficial health effects.
How does aromatherapy work?
Aromatherapy is a plant-based therapy that uses aromatic essential oils from a variety of plants to promote wellness. The mechanism of action is complex because these plants have different chemical properties that contribute to their therapeutic activity. When the aroma from the plant oils are inhaled, they interact with receptor cells in the body that send signals to the limbic and hypothalamus parts of the brain. Essential oils used topically, such as during a massage, may also be absorbed through the skin to produce a therapeutic effect.
It’s clear that the health benefits of aromatherapy are diverse. Let us examine the evidence.
Aromatherapy for stress
The use of aromatherapy in anxiety is common practice. Perhaps the most well-known and studied medicinal herb in aromatherapy for anxiety is lavender. An added benefit, research shows that lavender oil provides calming effects without sedation, dependence, tolerance, or symptoms of withdrawal.
Bergamot is another essential oil that has demonstrated calming properties. In a 2017 pilot study, a bergamot essential oil diffused in a mental health waiting room significantly improved positive feelings compared to those who did not receive the bergamot fragrance. These results are consistent with a 2013 randomized controlled trial demonstrating that patients in a surgery waiting room who were exposed to the scent of bergamot felt calmer compared to patients in the control group who had water vapor circulating in their room.
Aromatherapy for sleep
Essential oils are also commonly used to help improve sleep. In one study of night-shift nurses, aromatherapy massage using sweet almond and marjoram essential oils improved sleep quality compared to the group of nurses who were not exposed to the oils.
Another randomized controlled trial demonstrated that diffusing lavender and peppermint oil prior to bedtime improved sleep quality in cancer patients experiencing sleep difficulties compared to the patients who did not inhale the oils.
Aromatherapy for headaches
Aromatherapy has also been shown to improve migraine headaches. A placebo-controlled trial demonstrated that inhaled lavender essential oil significantly reduced the number of headache attacks compared to placebo.
Topical aromatherapy can also be helpful for this application. A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled crossover trial showed that topical rose essential oil helped reduce migraine pain intensity.
Effect of smell on Mood, Behaviour and Dreams.
Mood influences thinking, which often leads to observable behavior. A positive mood often means higher levels of creativity - including creative problem solving - increased productivity, performance, and the tendency to help others. Pleasant ambient odors also enhance attentiveness during tedious tasks, stimulating higher self-efficacy and spurring people to set higher goals, and to make more efficient work strategies compared to those in a no-odor condition. Conversely, negative moods and bad smells impair judgments, diminish a tolerance for frustration, and decrease prosocial behavior.
Research conducted by sleep disorder centers has tested the theory that the smell of flowers can induce more positive dreams. Men and women were exposed to either the smell of flowers, hydrogen sulfide, or to no smell at all. Whatever they smelled produced the emotional content of their dreams. Those who inhaled the pleasant smell experienced significantly more pleasant dreams than those who had no smell. Those who smelled Sulphur had the most negative dreams. These insights have led researchers to begin an investigation into the ability of pleasant smells to reduce nightmares.
Aromatherapy for skin
Many essential oils have soothing effects on the skin and are often used in integrative dermatology. A 2017 review reported that there were at least 1,500 essential oil combinations featuring at least 90 different oils that were being recommended for a variety of dermatologic uses. The oils highlighted in that review included:
- Lemon balm
- Tea Tree
That same review also mentioned that in addition to soothing skin, many of these oils have antimicrobial properties that may help promote healing of wounds, ulcers, and acne.
The bottom line
Aromatherapy essential oils offer many therapeutic benefits. There are numerous high-quality essential oil products available that can help address a variety of health concerns. If you’re a patient, be sure to speak to your integrative healthcare professional for guidance on choosing the essential oils best suited to your individual needs.