Though the term “aromatherapy” wasn’t coined until 1928 (by French chemist Rene-Maurice Gattefosse), the use of aromatic plants likely dates back to prehistoric times. Various perfumed ointments were used in ancient Rome to reduce inflammation and might actually have provided some relief by functioning as a germicide. Such ointments were also highly prized, however, because they could offset the foul odors emanating from festering wounds!
Today, aromatherapy is an established medical field in, Japan, France, and various Western European nations. In those countries, aromatherapy is often used as an antiseptic, antiviral, antifungal, and antibacterial, with physicians in France and Japan using it to treat such conditions as diabetes and seizure disorders. Some essential oils are even regulated as prescription drugs in France and can only be prescribed by a doctor.
Dr. Andrew Weil, the Harvard-trained physician who founded and directs the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, feels that physicians and researchers here in the United States “have only a primitive understanding of [aromatherapy’s] potential to affect physiology and health.” In this country, aromatherapy is primarily associated with spas and, to a more limited extent, is embraced as an alternative medicine. But because of increased acceptance of alternative and complementary medicines—including massage!—more research is being done concerning the mechanism(s) of aromatherapy and its efficacy in a wide variety contexts.
The first question you or a researcher might have—assuming that aromatherapy does, in fact, have some impact on health—is, How does it work? But before I address that, it probably makes some sense to define our terms first. Aromatherapy uses essential oils, which are aromatic products extracted by steam distillation and other methods from plant parts, including flowers, leaves, fruits, barks, and roots. Because aromatherapy is not regulated in this country, the quality of these essential oils can vary greatly. In general, though, the best and purest essential oils are very concentrated—and very expensive.
To return to the question of the mechanism by which aromatherapy has an impact on you, it depends on how the essential oil is used. When used to target the sense of smell, the miniscule molecules of essential oils are absorbed into the bloodstream when inhaled and a signal is sent to the limbic system in the brain, which is the center of emotions and memory. When applied to the skin, they activate thermal receptors and destroy microbes and fungi.
The next question, though, is, What does aromatherapy actually do? One of the major complaints of physicians and scientists here and in the UK and Canada is that all too often authors of aromatherapy textbooks and aromatherapists more generally make a large number of extraordinary claims regarding its benefits with no systematic collection of data to support those claims. Studies are being done, though, that verify some benefits deriving from aromatherapy. There is, for instance, solid evidence that certain scents can help promote relaxation and enhance sleep.
Studies done in the past fifteen or twenty years have also shown such effects as reduced anxiety in patients undergoing MRI scans when presented with the vanilla-like smell of heliotropin; a reduction in agitation of dementia patients after lemon balm oil was applied to their faces and arms; and hair growth being induced among patients with alopecia areata (an autoimmune disorder that causes hair to fall out) after the application of a combination of cedarwood, rosemary, thyme, and lavender oils. A study done in April 2008 at Ohio state University, however, found that volunteers who had been exposed to lavender and lemon oil showed no effect, based on analysis of blood samples, on biochemical markers of immune and endocrine status, stress, pain control, and wound healing.
The upshot of all this is, for now, “If aromatherapy makes you feel better, by all means use it,” as Dr. Weil says. One just needs to be cautious not only about all of the claims made for treatment of ailments with essential oils but also about the credentials of your aromatherapist as improper use of essential oils can cause burns, allergic reactions, headaches, and nausea. And some oils may actually change the effectiveness of conventional medicine, making it a good idea to check with a qualified pharmacist or doctor if in doubt.
In my own practice, the only essential oil I currently use is eucalyptus oil placed near the face cradle to help open the sinuses of clients who tend to experience congestion during massage. But bear in mind what Associate Attending Research Methodologist Andrew Vickers (Integrative Medicine Service, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center) has concluded: “Aromatherapy probably reduces anxiety because it usually involves massage” [emphasis mine]. Now as to massage—that’s something I could do in my sleep. And actually have. But that’s another story.