Aromatherapy, Fact or Myth?

AromatherapyAromatherapy, a branch of herbology, is one of the fastest growing complementary therapies in the world. Depending on the oil used, it is reported that some individuals feel invigorated, stimulated and uplifted or relaxed and calmed.

Aromatherapy is the use of pure essential oils from various parts of a plant, such as the blossoms, leaves, or roots to help improve physical or mental health, or quality of life. Oils such as a rose, lemon, lavender and peppermint can be added to a bath, massaged into the skin, inhaled directly or diffused to scent an entire room.

Essential oils were humankind's first medicine. It is reputed that the concept of therapeutic aromas is approximately 6,000 years old. According to Hippocrates, "The way to health is to have an aromatic bath and scented massage every day."

Our ancestors inhaled and wore fragrances to cure, sooth and stimulate the sick. The "Aromatherapy" was actually coined in 1928 after a French chemist severely burned his hand. He plunged his hand into lavender oil and was startled to find that it helped to heal it very quickly.

Even prior to the term "Aromatherapy" being formally used, the use of essential oils was reported as early as 1923 when two Italian doctors used plant essences to relieve anxiety and depression. Through the measurement of pulse rates and cardiovascular rates, they developed a list of sedatives for anxiety.

Our sense of smell is one of our most primitive and acute senses. Some researchers believe that long-term olfactory memory is so powerful because the olfactory bulbs are directly connected to the limbic system, or "primitive brain", which is the seat of memory and emotion. This helps to provide a reason as to why we react so quickly to scents. The obvious link between smell, feelings and thoughts is clear to most individuals. When we smell certain aromas, they may immediately remind us of pleasant or unpleasant moments in our past.

Though studies are quite scant, some studies have suggested that essential oils are quite powerful. A study in 1988 demonstrated that the essential oil of an orange peel prevented the formation of mammary tumors and reduced preformed cancerous tumors in rats. A Japanese study found that the vapors of some essential oils have been shown to kill mites. The French found oils to have antibiotic and antiviral qualities.

Aromatherapists claim that aromatherapy helps premenstrual syndrome, stress-related conditions, moderate anxiety or depression, sleep problems, minor aches, digestive problems, skin problems and infections.

Nursing journals in England report small, poorly controlled studies. Nevertheless, these studies showed that aromatherapy helps to lower patient anxiety and improve patient's ability to cope. Others demonstrated that patients who were massaged with lavender oil needed fewer drugs and had less pain. Seizures were reduced among epilepsy patients using ylang-ylang, lavender, chamomile, rosemary, Melissa and marjoram. Patients with sleeping problems had better sleep with air freshened with lavender oil.

Many nurses in England are convinced that aromatherapy soothes anxiety for the pre-operative patient and speeds recovery after surgery. They feel that aromatherapy provides a more home-like environment for the elderly in long-term care.

In a study by Dunn and Associates, 122 patients admitted to an ICU were randomly chosen to receive massage, aromatherapy using lavender oil, or bed rest. Results showed that patients who received the aromatherapy reported significantly greater improvement in their mood and perceived less anxiety.

A study in The Journal of Experimental Psychology found the smell of chocolate helped college students. Those who smelled chocolate while they studied did better during the exam than those who did not.

A study by Dr. Toril of Toho University in Japan showed that the smell of jasmine increased alertness and attention by stimulating beta-wave activity and that lavender as a sedative increased alpha brain wave activity, mental concentration and cerebral blood circulation. The Japanese have instituted worksite fragrancing to influence worker behavior and mood. Other researchers are looking for ways to use fragrances to reduce violence in subways.

One of the most recent studies found that aromatherapy combined with light therapy successfully helped patients suffering from dementia.

Nevertheless, many aromatherapy studies were not able to arrive at any clearly defined conclusions regarding aromatherapy effectiveness at all. Due to this lack of sound evidence, any use with patients should be done only with appropriate, and sound knowledge. Due to the enormous amount of anecdotal evidence, certainly more double-blind studies are needed.

Although we may not have enough "scientific" information to evaluate the effectiveness of aromatherapy, if a bath with rose oil helps us to relax, sleep or feel less depressed, we should feel free to indulge ourselves!

Robert Lawrence Friedman, M.A.

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