Aromatherapy is a type of alternative medicine that uses essential oils and other aromatic plant compounds which are aimed at improving a person’s health or mood. Many consider this type of treatment as unscientific and wishful thinking – however, scientific evidence of its effectiveness is growing. This study acknowledged that aromatherapy makes you feel good although there was no evidence that it makes you well. The essential oils used in aromatherapy have a different composition compared to other herbal products because the distillation used in aromatherapy recovers the lighter phytomolecules.
Aromatherapy is a widely used term for a range of traditional therapies that use essential oils. These may include massaging oils, or any topical application that uses pure, essential oils – the essential oils are either absorbed through the skin or inhaled. We are not completely sure what the source of the benefit is – the massage, the smell or both.
The theory behind aromatherapy
It is believed that the inhalation of essential oils stimulates the part of the brain connected to smell – the olfactory system; a signal is sent to the limbic system of the brain that controls emotions and retrieves learned memories. This causes chemicals to be released which make the person feel relaxed, calm, or even stimulated. If the aromatherapy includes massage the effect is to further relax the person.
The essential oils are said to have a direct pharmacological effect. Aromatherapists claim there is a synergy between the body and aromatic oils; however there is no scientific proof that this is the case. Nevertheless, some preliminary clinical studies have revealed positive results.
Essential oils, phytoncides and other natural volatile organic compounds (VOCs) work differently. When targeting our sense of smell they activate the limbic system and emotional centers of the brain. When applied topically (onto the skin) they activate thermal receptors and destroy microbes and fungi. Internal application may stimulate the immune system (generally in prescribed form).
The modes of application of aromatherapy include:
- Aerial diffusion: for environmental fragrancing or aerial disinfection
- Direct inhalation: for respiratory disinfection, decongestion, expectoration as well as psychological effects
- Topical applications: for general massage, baths, compresses, therapeutic skin care
Some of the materials employed include:
- Essential oils: Fragrant oils extracted from plants chiefly through steam distillation (e.g., eucalyptus oil) or expression (grapefruit oil). However, the term is also occasionally used to describe fragrant oils extracted from plant material by any solvent extraction. This material includes incense reed diffusers.
- Absolutes: Fragrant oils extracted primarily from flowers or delicate plant tissues through solvent or supercritical fluid extraction (e.g., rose absolute). The term is also used to describe oils extracted from fragrant butters, concretes, and enfleurage pommades using ethanol.
- Carrier oils: Typically oily plant base triacylglycerides that dilute essential oils for use on the skin (e.g., sweet almond oil).
- Herbal distillates or hydrosols: The aqueous by-products of the distillation process (e.g., rosewater). There are many herbs that make herbal distillates and they have culinary uses, medicinal uses and skin care uses. Common herbal distillates are chamomile, rose, and lemon balm.
- Infusions: Aqueous extracts of various plant material (e.g., infusion of chamomile).
- Phytoncides: Various volatile organic compounds from plants that kill microbes. Many terpene-based fragrant oils and sulfuric compounds from plants in the genus “Allium” are phytoncides, though the latter are likely less commonly used in aromatherapy due to their disagreeable odors.
- Vaporizer (Volatized) raw herbs: Typically higher oil content plant based materials dried, crushed, and heated to extract and inhale the aromatic oil vapors in a direct inhalation modality.
Some benefits that have been linked to aromatherapy, such as relaxation and clarity of mind, may arise from the placebo effect rather than from any actual physiological effect. The consensus among most medical professionals is that while some aromas have demonstrated effects on mood and relaxation and may have related benefits for patients, there is currently insufficient evidence to support the claims made for aromatherapy. Scientific research on the cause and effects of aromatherapy is limited, although in vitro testing has revealed some antibacterial and antiviral effects. There is no evidence of any long-term results from an aromatherapy massage other than the pleasure achieved from a pleasant-smelling massage. A few double blind studies in the field of clinical psychology relating to the treatment of severe dementia have been published. Essential oils have a demonstrated efficacy in dental mouthwash products.
Aromatherapy has been also promoted for its ability to fight cancer; however, according to the American Cancer Society, “available scientific evidence does not support claims that aromatherapy is effective in preventing or treating cancer”.
- Lemon oil is said to be uplifting and to relieve stress. In a Japanese study, lemon essential oil in vapour form has been found to reduce stress in mice. Research at The Ohio State University indicates that Lemon oil aroma may enhance one’s mood, and help with relaxation.
- Thyme oil
- Peppermint oil is often used to deter ants, by applying a few drops on their trail.
- Lavender, Jasmine, Chamomile and Peppermint are used for anti-stress, anti-anxiety and as an anti-depressant.
- Sage oil has been suggested to boost short-term memory performance in many using it as a dietary supplement.
- peppermint – digestive disorders
- rosemary – muscular pains, mental stimulant
- sandalwood – depression, anxiety and nervous tension
- sweet orange – depression and anxiety
- tea tree – respiratory problems, antifungal, antibacterial and antiviral
- lavender – headaches, insomnia, burns, aches and pains.