Unraveling Facts and Myths on Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy—the use of essential oils that come from plants—has been part of human culture for about 6,000 years. It’s been put to work by the Chinese, Egyptians, Greeks, Indians, and Romans in applications from cosmetic to spiritual. Chances are you’ve heard of more modern aromatherapy uses yourself, perhaps from a friend who sells the oils for a multilevel marketing company.

Some of these companies have claimed aromatherapy can do everything from fight Ebola to treat Alzheimer’s. In 2014, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration warned two companies in particular that only healthcare practitioners can legally diagnose and treat illnesses. Because the FDA categorizes these products as cosmetics, companies cannot market them as drugs. That may leave you wondering how much of aromatherapy’s benefits are proven. Here at HealthMarkets, we’ve combed through the current research so you don’t have to.

This article will delve into concrete scientific studies, but first, let’s get one thing out of the way. Aromatherapy has lots of subjective benefits. Some people find lavender provides a calming sensation. Others say using their favorite oils improves their quality of life by easing stress and helping them relax. Because our sense of smell is connected to emotions and mood, it makes sense that aromatherapy would provide these effects. But these anecdotal reactions are difficult to concretely track and verify, unlike the benefits we’ll discuss next.

Orange oil has a proven calming effect on women.

Researchers at the University of Vienna piped orange oil into a dental waiting room. Women in the study experienced less anxiety, felt calmer, and had a more positive mood. This effect wasn’t observed from the men in the study. “Our data support the previous notion of sedative properties of the natural essential oil of orange,” the authors wrote.

Warnings to Consider Before You Try Aromatherapy

  • No one should take essential oils by mouth without a doctor’s supervision. Certain oils can be toxic when taken this way. There’s also the potential for interactions with prescribed or over-the-counter drugs.
  • People with allergies or asthma, pregnant women, and those going through chemotherapy should only use aromatherapy when it’s directed by their doctors.
  • Experts don’t recommend that people who have seizures or are pregnant use hyssop oil.
  • Those who have high blood pressure shouldn’t use stimulating oils, such as rosemary or spike lavender.
  • People with ovarian or breast cancer should avoid oils with compounds similar to estrogen, such as those found in fennel, aniseed, sage, lavender, and tea tree oils.

Citrus aromatherapy helps treat depression.

In a follow-up to a study on mice, scientists working at the Mie University School of Medicine reported that depressed people who used citrus oil in aromatherapy needed lower doses of antidepressant medication. They found the treatment helped regulate the immune system and hormone levels and “was rather more effective than antidepressants,” according to the authors. A more recent study on aromatherapy didn’t replicate the finding that citrus boosts the immune system. However, lemon oil did cause a more positive mood for their participants.

Eucalyptus oil is effective for fighting illness.

Your grandma knew what she was doing when she broke out the Vicks VapoRub to treat a cold or flu. Eucalyptus, one of its active ingredients, is a proven antimicrobial that fights bacteria, viruses, and fungi—even going head to head with tuberculosis. A study in Alternative Medication Review found plenty of other effects, such as stimulating the immune system, battling inflammation, relieving pain, and treating muscle spasms. They also reported it worked against respiratory problems that go along with asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and bronchitis.

Peppermint oil enhances your memory, and ylang ylang promotes tranquility.

Researchers working to find out the effects of peppermint oil and ylang ylang discovered that peppermint strengthened memory, according to the results of a computerized test. The ylang ylang had the opposite effect, though, also slowing down participant response time. Peppermint made people more alert, while ylang ylang relaxed them.

The bottom line is this: A lot of aromatherapy is personal and subjective. Some people argue that aromatherapy works because of the placebo effect. The truth is, one study found aromatherapy was, in fact, an effective placebo. People who were told a scent would make them better able to do math believed it—so they were better able to do math. Expectations and benefits can be powerful. Proven or not, if you like aromatherapy and believe it’s working, keep following your nose.

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References

Bauer, B.A. What are the benefits of aromatherapy? Mayo Clinic. http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/consumer-health/expert-answers/aromatherapy/faq-20058566

Deng, C. (2011, Nov. 16). Aromatherapy: Exploring olfaction. Yale Scientific. http://www.yalescientific.org/2011/11/aromatherapy-exploring-olfaction/

Halcón, L. How do essential oils work? University of Minnesota. https://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/explore-healing-practices/aromatherapy/how-do-essential-oils-work

Holland, E. Aromatherapy may make you feel good, but it won’t make you well. The Ohio State University Research News. http://researchnews.osu.edu/archive/aromathe.htm

Komori, T., Fujiwara, R., Tanida, M., Nomura, J., & Yokoyama, M.M. (1995, May-June). Effects of citrus fragrance on immune function and depressive states [Abstract]. Neuroimmunomodulation, 2(3). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8646568

Komori, T., Fujiwara, R., Tanida, M., & Nomura, J. (1995, Feb. 15). Application of fragrances to treatments for depression [Abstract]. Nihon Shinkei Seishin Yakurigaku Zasshi, 1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7750015

Lehmer, J., Eckersberger, C., Walla, P., Pötsch, G., & Deecke, L. (2000, Oct.). Ambient odor of orange in a dental office reduces anxiety and improves mood in female patients [Abstract]. Physiology & Behavior, 71(1-2). http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0031938400003085

Mitchell, L.M. (2014, Sept. 22). Warning letters: dōTERRA International, LLC. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. http://www.fda.gov/iceci/enforcementactions/warningletters/2014/ucm415809.htm

Mitchell, L.M. (2014, Sept. 22). Warning letters: Young Living. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. http://www.fda.gov/ICECI/EnforcementActions/WarningLetters/2014/ucm416023.htm

Moss, M., Hewitt, S., Moss, L., & Wesnes, K. (2008, Jan.). Modulation of cognitive performance and mood by aromas of peppermint and ylang-ylang. International Journal of Neuroscience, 118(1). http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00207450601042094?journalCode=ines20

National Cancer Institute. Aromatherapy and essential oils. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/cam/patient/aromatherapy-pdq

National Institutes of Health/U.S. National Library of Medicine. Drug label information: Vicks VapoRub camphor (synthetic), eucalyptus oil, and menthol ointment. https://dailymed.nlm.nih.gov/dailymed/drugInfo.cfm?setid=e69a7c9b-fd04-4109-a7c8-6edfd83855fc

Sadlon, A.E., & Lamson, D.W. (2010, April). Immune-modifying and antimicrobial effects of eucalyptus oil and simple inhalation devices. Alternative Medicine Review, 15(1). http://www.altmedrev.com/publications/15/1/33.pdf

University of Maryland Medical Center. Aromatherapy. http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/treatment/aromatherapy

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