Aromatherapy and science are starting to converge.
The benefits of aromatherapy have such a long and persistent history that they cannot easily be dismissed as quackery. However, modern (mainly Western) medicine has long scoffed at it as no more than folk medicine.
But aromatherapy is now beginning to get mainstreamed as a legitimate supportive treatment within holistic, integrative, and alternative medicine.
This post gets into the relationship between aromatherapy and science and provides online references as appropriate.
We also get into the beneficial uses of aromatherapy that now have scientific support. Plus touch on some of the dangers and contraindications of aromatherapy.
What is aromatherapy?
Aromatherapy originates in the ancient practice of herbal medicine. It uses essential oils extracted from aromatic plants to benefit the health of body and mind. Each oil has its own healing properties and is applied in specific ways, depending on the condition to be treated.
Aromatherapy in Europe and the US
For perspective, some parts of Europe have for some time brought aromatherapy into mainstream medicine as an antiviral, antiseptic, antibacterial, and antifungal therapy. In fact, the French regulate some essential oils as prescription drugs. However, the US and Canada lag behind this trend.
Our takeaway on aromatherapy and science
Our own take on aromatherapy and science is that, yes, science is indeed lending its support for aromatherapy as a legitimate treatment for the symptoms of many ailments. On the other hand, it is not necessarily a cure for everything that ails you.
In fact, when used improperly, essential oils can be dangerous. It is not for nothing that the French limit some essential oils as by prescription only.
The science behind aromatherapy
We have linked to an interesting industry site for the science behind aromatherapy. And here, in summary, is how they describe how the health benefits of aromatherapy are delivered.
Our sense of smell is said to be 10,000 times more potent than any other sense. So the olfactory system delivers the effect of an aroma to the brain quickly and powerfully. This has an effect on mood by causing the release of serotonin and endorphins.
Serotonin is a hormone that stabilizes mood and induces feelings of happiness and well-being. Endorphins are chemicals that the body produces to relieve stress and pain.
On top of that our sense of smell is strongly connected to memory. Pretty much everyone has experienced the mind-body connection of an aroma that has triggered a powerful memory.
Essential oils are exceptionally high in antioxidants as measured by the ORAC test. And antioxidants are well known for their importance in fighting the free radical damage that causes the oxidative damage behind many conditions. Such conditions include aging skin, cancer, and heart disease.
Energy, frequency, vibration
Biofield phenomena were studied by Bruce Tainio, as they relate to the human body frequency and the frequencies of things that support or interfere with the working of our bodies. This also relates to the principle of entrainment.
The concept of brainwave entrainment brings us the binaural beats and isochronic tones used in music for meditation. So our bodies and minds respond to the frequencies that are all around us
The point here is that essential oils have very high measured frequencies. This is compared to the low frequencies measured in a human body affected by disease.
And all of this relates in a way to the concept of Chi or Qi in traditional Chinese medicine. Chi is the vital energy that moves the body all the time. Of course, Chinese medicine includes the application of herbal remedies and exercises like tai chi. These herbal remedies are closely related to essential oils.
A professional Chiropractor, Jason Bergerhouse, provides an excellent overview of this frequency-vibration phenomenon. He applies it to foods and, by fair inference, to essential oils.
There is a distinction between life-giving high energy foods and disease-causing low energy foods. And essential oils, which are derived from plants, are in the high energy category. So, in a sense, the way we absorb the aromas from these oils is just another way of receiving high energy nutrition.
Now, in our humble opinion, the olfactory and antioxidant properties and beneficial effects of essential oils seem well established. However, the frequency effect, which is certainly fascinating and we don’t dismiss, seems a bit far out and needs more research. We’ll dig deeper into this in a later post.
For now, we’ll just add this supporting explanation of the science of aromatherapy.
Aromatherapy in modern medicine
As medicine in the Western world became more “established,” which started in the 19th century, the use of chemically created drugs came into greater and greater focus. But nonetheless, German and French physicians continued to accept the role of natural botanical medicine in the treatment of their patients.
And it was the French chemist René-Maurice Gattefossé who coined the term “aromatherapy” and published a book about it in1937. He had previously come across the healing power of lavender in the treatment of burns.
How essential oils and aromatherapy treatments work
Here we’ll take a look at what essential oils are and where there is evidence that supports the use of aromatherapy in the treatment of various conditions. We’ll also see where evidence is lacking, and where you should avoid using essential oils.
Essential oils are extracted from a large variety of plants, including trees. And the plant material used may be fruit, flowers, leaves or bark. The extraction is done in a number of ways, depending on the type of plant. All of them require a large amount of plant material to produce oil in usable quantities, which is partly why essential oils can be expensive..
Methods of extraction include the following.
The plant material is placed in a still through which steam is passed. The heat breaks down the oil storage chambers of the plant and releases it into a condenser. Here the water and oil are separated as they cool.
Pressing or expression
In this process the plant material is pressed or crushed in order to release the oil.
In enfleurage, the plant material is placed on sheets of glass and covered with purified fat. The fat absorbs the oils until it is saturated. The resulting compound is then dissolved in alcohol. The fat, which is insoluble in alcohol, gets separated out. The remainder is heated and the alcohol, which evaporates quickly, leaves the essential oils behind.
This process is similar to enfleurage. But here the plant material is crushed to rupture the oil glands. The whole is then placed in a vegetable oil, which will absorb the essential oil and the crushed material is filtered off.
This method uses chemicals to extract the essential oil from the plant material. But unfortunately some chemical residue gets left behind. And this can cause skin irritation.
Carbon dioxide extraction
This is a relatively new process that extracts the oils at low temperature but high pressure. The process takes place in a sealed container and leaves the whole oil behind as the carbon dioxide evaporates.
We have already seen that aromatherapy works through inhalation and skin absorption. And it is delivered to us through a variety of products. These are mainly diffusers for inhalation and creams and lotions for topical applications.
However, one also finds inhalers, jewelry, facial steamers, bath salts, compresses and masks. They can be used alone or in combination.
Essential oils are everywhere. They are online and in health food stores. In fact they are so widely available that we should point out that the FDA does not regulate essential oils.
So, since these essential oils directly affect our bodies, we need to be sure that we get them from a reputable source. We want to make sure that we get a quality product without additives. Here are a few tips:
- Evaluate the supplier. You want to deal with an aromatherapy company that has been around for a long time.
- Check the label for the Latin name of the plant, country of origin, any added ingredients.
- Check for purity (100% essential oil).
- Choose oils in dark colored glass containers that will protect the quality of the oil.
And, if you are serious about this, find an aromatherapist certified by a recognized school for advice.
How to select an aromatherapy provider
First, before you go finding an aromatherapist, consult your physician. After all, aromatherapy is a supplementary not primary treatment. There may be some coordination of treatment required.
You may even be able to get a referral from your doctor, depending on how far he or she is into integrative medicine. Otherwise, go to an online directory, or talk to a local yoga studio or spa.
A certified clinical aromatherapist (CCA) will make a detailed assessment of a client’s problem and then create a custom blend of therapeutic grade essential oils to address the issue. This requires considerable knowledge of the chemistry and application of the oils.
Popular aromatherapy oils and how they are used
Clary sage essential oil Salvia sclarea
- Relieves anxiety/stress
- Relieves Menstrual Cramps
- Labor pain management
Cypress essential oil Cupressus sempervirens
- Muscle Pain
- Respiratory complaints
- Menstrual Pain
Eucalyptus essential oil E. radiata, E. globulus
- Beneficial for cold/flu season
- Refreshes the mind
Fennel essential oil Foeniculum vulgare var. dulce
- Menstrual issues
Geranium essential oil Pelargonium x asperum sn. graveolens
- Indicated or hormonal imbalance
- Nerve pain
- Premenstrual syndrome
Ginger essential oil Zingiber officinale
- Pain relief
Helichrysum essential oil Helichrysum italicum
- Wound Healing
- Bruises and Swelling
- Cell regenerative
Lavender essential oil Lavandula angustifolia
- Reduces stress and anxiety
- Burns (it was this treatment that was so instrumental in introducing the whole concept of aromatherapy)
- Wound healing
- Cell regenerative
- Insect bites
- Skin care
- Very good with children
Lemon essential oil Citrus x limon
- Strengthens immune system
- Home cleaning
Lemongrass essential oil Cymbopogon citratus
- Insect repellant
- Used for cleaning
Mandarin essential oil Citrus reticulata
- Good with children and you can combine it with lavender
Neroli essential oil Citrus aurantium var. amara
- Premenstrual syndrome
- Postpartum Depression
Patchouli essential oil Pogostemon cablin
- Soothing to nervous system
Peppermint essential oil Mentha x piperita
- Nausea relief
- Muscular aches and pains
Roman chamomile essential oil Chamaemelum nobile
- Menstrual cramps
- Soothing for children
Rose essential oil Rosa damascena
- Relieves stress and anxiety
- Cell Regenerative
- Premenstrual syndrome
Rosemary essential oil Rosmarinus officinalis
- Sinus Congestion
- Good for respiratory congestion
- Colds and flu
Tea Tree essential oil Melaleuca alternifolia
- Immune support
Vetiver essential oil Betiveria zizanioides
- Varicose veins
Ylang Ylang essential oil Cananga odorata
Essential oil safety and side effects
Essential oils are derived from Nature and are not pharmaceutical drugs. Nonetheless, there are precautions to take in their use and there are potential side effects. Any kind of therapeutic needs to be taken with care.
Precautions to take with essential oils
So, while in no way discouraging people from using essential oils, here in no particular order are some precautions to take.
Use them safely. For example::
- Never ingest an essential oil, unless under close medical supervision.
- Be wary of using essential oil diffusers in a household of multiple people, especially if some are very young.
- Use essential oils directly with an aromatherapy accessory like a necklace or bracelet. These incorporate an absorbent material that one can infuse with an essential oil.
- Be careful if you have hay fever, asthma, eczema, psoriasis, epilepsy, or high blood pressure.
- Use a body oil or cream applied directly but in the correct concentration.
- Keep essential oils away from children.
- Be aware that some essential oils can cause allergic reactions in some people.
Go to aromatherapy safety for additional reference.
Conclusion on aromatherapy and science
There is an excellent analysis of aromatherapy here in Science Direct. And this piece from the University of Michigan Medical School outlines some of the studies done on aromatherapy.
While we have been using essential oils through well more than a thousand years of recorded history and a thousand years before that, evidence of their effectiveness has been mainly anecdotal. But in the past 10 years or so, there has been more scientific research into essential oils than in all of the past 500 years.
There is now abundant objective and reassuring evidence, supported by clinical trials, that aromatherapy, properly applied, is efficacious. It basically supports what we humans have experienced and known for a very long time. Except, now we know how to do it better. And we better understand how it works.