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Aromatherapy Benefits

Monday, January 22, 2018

aromatherapy flowers

Scents are strange.  They have the power to sooth and even conjure up memories.  Every once in a blue moon, I will pass by a woman wearing Chantilly perfume and immediately picture my grandmother.  This is odd since she passed away in 1972 when I was 8 years old.  Even so, my brain clearly remembers her favorite perfume and connects it with a warm memory.  Science is now investigating the scent, brain, and body link. In particular, they are looking at essential oils, which have gained popularity in recent years.  Many simply love the aromas and find them soothing.  Others swear by the healing properties of essential oils and aromatherapy.  While research is limited, some studies suggest that aromatherapy may indeed be beneficial. Further research is already underway to look at the potential clinical benefits of aromatherapy.

What are essential oils?  They are oils extracted from flowers, fruits, leaves, or seeds to capture the aromatic essence of the plant.  The resulting super concentrated oils can be breathed in, massaged on, or added to lotions or bath water.  Scientists believe aromatherapy may work by targeting smell receptors in the nose, which then send chemical messages to the part of the brain that affects moods and emotions. While research is just in its infancy, initial studies suggest that aromatherapy may promote healing.  According to National Institutes of Health, laboratory studies and animal studies have shown that certain essential oils have antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal, calming, or energizing effects.   Studies to date have looked at pain management, sleep, and indigestion and nausea.  

Possible Pain Management

According to the Mayo Clinic, researchers found that those who tried aromatherapy after surgery not only had better pain management, but also reported higher overall satisfaction with their care.  The authors note, however, that essential oils are just one part of a post-op management plan.  

Another study found women in labor reported positive results using scents such as rose, lavender, and frankincense.  Research indicates that these scents seem to help ease anxiety and fear, and reduce the need for pain medications.  

Sleep Help?

Some documented studies have shown that chamomile tea and lavender lotion at bedtime encourage relaxation and improve sleep.  

A 2017 study published in Nursing Oncology Forum reported that aromatherapy is a viable intervention for improving insomnia and other symptoms commonly experienced by patients with acute leukemia.  Patients were offered a choice of three scents to be used during the trial: lavender, peppermint, or chamomile. Most patients reported poor quality sleep before the trial began, but aromatherapy had a statistically significant positive impact.  That is, the majority of patients reported better sleep using aromatherapy.

Indigestion and Nausea

Studies suggest that essential oils may help with stomach discomfort.  At the Mayo Clinic, some patients are offered a cotton ball with a drop or two of ginger or spearmint oil to help with nausea.  

Other possible benefits

While research is limited, some smaller studies indicate a few other possible health benefits from aromatherapy.  They include relief from anxiety and depression as well as improved quality of life, particularly for people with chronic health conditions.  Studies suggest that lavender oil may help reduce pain for people with osteoarthritis of the knee, improve quality of life for people with dementia, and reduce pain for people with kidney stones.

While the science jury is out regarding the true efficacy of essential oils, most would agree that at the very least their pleasant scents are relaxing and enjoyable.  It is important to note that the Food and Drug Administration does not regulate essential oils.  They, therefore, may vary in potency and quality.  If used the right way, however, most essential oils are safe. If you decide to try essential oils, it is important to educate yourself.  For example, one oil may be safe to use in a diffuser but may not be safe to rub into your skin.  Some citrus oils can cause severe burns if you apply them directly to your skin and go into the sunlight.  Follow directions and dilute oils properly.  In general, a little goes a long way – a few drops added to water in an aromatherapy diffuser or a few drops into a neutral “carrier” oil such olive, coconut, or jojoba oil before applying to skin.  As with any supplement such as vitamins or herbs, it is always a good idea to check with your physician about any essential oils you plan on using.  

Lorraine Wichtowski is a community health educator at UR Medicine Noyes Health in Dansville, NY.  For article suggestions or questions, contact Lorraine at (585)335-4327 or lwichtowski@noyesehealth.org

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