Aromatherapy: Real or Bunk?


You've seen it on everything from shampoo bottles to skin lotions, teas and throat lozenges, candles, salons and spas, and now even gum: Aromatherapy, a term which has often been associated with helping to treat and heal a variety of human ailments, from mild to severe -- yet for most people conjures vague notions of relaxing in nice-smelling bathtub with candles. 

But Aromatherapy is actually a very serious area of practice, a fusion of holistic medicine and art, for the many worldwide proponents who believe that it should be considered with equal standing alongside any other medical treatments. And on the brain front, Aromatherapy is becoming increasingly cited as an exciting, viable and "risk-free" way to boost one's mental performance and overall well-being. 

So is Aromatherapy real, or is it bunk? Can one really boost brain performance, help stave off mental decline, and even cure a variety of ailments just by smelling something? And what about all those shifty marketers putting "Aromatherapy" on their skin & hair care there any scientific basis to any of this?

The answer is actually quite interesting, while being complex. As with many things in the larger area of holistic health, the devil is in the details, details which are often hard to quantify, particularly with any consistency.

First, what is Aromatherapy, really? 


Originating in Europe in the early 1900's (but with origins throughout many cultures spanning thousands of years), Aromatherapy is the therapeutic use of "essential oils" -- oils extracted from flowers, trees, leaves, stems and roots. To create essential oils, steam distillation, expression (squeezing the oil from peel), maceration (immersing the plant in hot oil to release the essence) or enfleurage (pressing flowers between oiled glass plates) techniques are used in order to extract a resulting highly concentrated, potent oil (or essence). 

The traditional practice of Aromatherapy usually involves massaging these essential oils are into the body, to be absorbed through the skin, or inhaled by means of vaporisers. The oils will be diluted in a carrier oil, such as almond or grape seed, and then massaged into your neck, shoulders and upper back, or given as a full body massage, or a facial. Various massage techniques may be used although Swedish massage is the most common.

They may also be added to steam inhalations or baths, added to compresses or spread throughout a room with diffusers. Some prefer to experience this process in a quiet room with candles, by themselves, while others may go to clinics or spas in which nurses, doctors, massage therapists, osteopaths and, yes,  aromatherapists may facilitate or apply the treatment. Most commonly, Aromatherapy is used to relieve stress, headaches, insomnia, tension and pain, and to aid relaxation and general well-being. 

Practitioners of aromatherapy believe that fragrances in the oils stimulate nerves in the nose; those nerves send impulses to the part of the brain that controls memory and emotion. Depending on the type of oil, the result on the body may be calming or stimulating.The oils are thought to interact with the body's hormones and enzymes to cause changes in blood pressure, pulse, and other body functions. Another theory suggests that the fragrance of certain oils may stimulate the body to produce pain-fighting substances. 

Aromatherapy is now increasingly being cited and utilized for brain health: some practitioners combine oils from plants long believed to promote healthy brain function and improved cognitive performance, particularly peppermint, rosemary and sage (you may recall our BrainReady Blog article regarding the surprising brain-boosting benefits of fresh sage). These common scents are added to so many shampoos, lotions, and soaps and other products these days that they may sound like obvious choices -- but Aromatherapy believers (and now, an increasing number of scientists and doctors) point to a growing body of scientific research to support these claims. 


So, does it work? Ah, the answer we all love to hear: yes and no. 

As with other areas of natural and holistic medicine, the combination of lack of large-scale scientifically-sound studies, marketers trying to make a buck, and the power of belief all intersect to make it hard to discern the real from the fake, the good from the bad, despite usually good intentions. For some, merely believing in the power of Aromatherapy is enough -- and it's likely that the resulting placebo effects are real enough to (ironically) justify the therapy. 

But it's safe to say that there is little to no credible existing evidence that Aromatherapy alone can cure or treat truly serious underlying diseases, so anyone looking for a hopeful cure would be best advised to look elsewhere when it comes to serious medical conditions, and to steer clear of any marketers or practitioners or self-appointed gurus who make claims unsupported by solid evidence. 

Even if most people mean well and truly believe in the power of Aromatherapy for treating significant medical conditions, remember that people around the world believe all kinds of often dubious things, so don't mess around when your health is concerned. Sorry, but there is just simply no good evidence that Aromatherapy as a medical practice can "cure" anything. It can even do harm, for those sensitive or allergic to any of the oils used, particularly if applied to the skin (more on this later).

Now for the good news, particularly on the brain health front: there is a growing body of research that Aromatherapy, or more specifically, the smelling of certain plant-derived materials, can impart helpful, healthful effects on the brain...and hence, to one's overall health. We're not talking about cures or serious diseases here, we're talking about enhancing, optimizing, complementing via the usually pleasurable act of inhaling specific smells. Let's look at some of the supportive findings:

- Clinical trials have confirmed that aromatherapy can aid relaxation and help relieve anxiety. A randomised, controlled trial of 288 cancer patients, in four UK cancer centres and a hospice, showed that aromatherapy helped to provide short-term relief of anxiety and depression in those patients undergoing chemotherapy.

- A 2003 study found that "air scented with peppermint has been shown to reduce careless errors and to improve performance during clerical tasks such as typing and alphabetization."

- Another study on the long-believe brain boosters such as rosemary, sage and cinnamon "produced a significant enhancement of performance for overall quality of memory and secondary memory factors”.

- Numerous studies have shown the calming & relaxing qualities of certain flower-derived scents including lavender.

- Thousands of people around the world routinely cite how Aromatherapy sessions have relieved headaches, stress, muscle tension, anxiety and depression.


So does Aromatherapy work for everyone? 

No, and that's part of why this is a difficult area to quantify with empirical evidence: smells, much like music and food tastes, are often highly personal. While lavender or calendula may promote happy relaxation in one person, it may trigger a bad childhood memory for another and produce the opposite effect. And while such smells as peppermint are viewed as widely universal in appeal, not everyone will react the same way, as everyone's brain, simply put, is wired differently. 

Some people are highly sensitive to smells in general and can smell the most minute trace of a given odor from far away, while others can be nearly inundated with an odor and barely register its presence. As such, Aromatherapy is highly personal -- your mileage may vary. 

Risks and side effects: the risk of allergic or other negative reactions to the oils & scents used in Aromatherapy, particularly when at the concentrations usually given, should be taken seriously -- particularly if one has any known allergies to plants, nuts or even foods. Trained Aromatherapists usually screen for such allergies or contraindications before applying treatments, but one would be advised to take precautions and make sure you won't have any problems before attempting any Aromatherapy treatments or trying any related products. That being said, the oils commonly used in Aromatherapy are generally quite safe when inhaled as a dispersed vapor or applied in small amounts to skin.

The BrainReady opinion on Aromatherapy? We believe that the growing evidence supporting both the calming, relaxing qualities of smelling certain concentrated scents -- as well as the brain function-enhancing properties of rosemary, sage and cinnamon (in that order...with rosemary strongest, followed by sage, followed by cinnamon) is significant enough for us to feel that adding these scents, whether to calm or stimulate, can be a pleasant addition to one's lifestyle and may even provide significant calming and boosting effects depending on strength of scent and one's sensitivity (and agreeability) to them.

The simple "proof" of using a rosemary & mint oil-containing soap or shampoo product in the shower or bath can serve as a starting point; for many, the results are immediate and real enough to serve as proof right there as to the subtle but real benefits of inhaling such scents and the effects on the brain. When combined with massage and a relaxing environment, the synergistic effects of a relaxing Aromatherapy session are hard to dispute, so in the area of relaxation (as well as mental stimulation) Aromatherapy has been clearly shown to provide the benefits cited, which of course can lead to greater overall health by reducing stress (which in turn can help prevent significant diseases linked with chronic stress). 

So in these capacities, we believe Aromatherapy is beneficial, and understand why many swear by it for stress reduction and other similar uses. 


But we remain skeptical about broader claims, particularly claims that Aromatherapy can treat or cure serious diseases, as there is simply little to no evidence nor is there a logical basis for such claims. 

Further, it's important to remember that the term Aromatherapy is increasingly used by product marketers, spas and clinics as a buzzword, without medical or scientific basis for many related claims, so keep this in mind before spending money. 

Want to experience a little bit of aroma-therapy without spending hardly anything, at home? Buy an inexpensive liquid soap made with organic (if possible) essential oils of your preference, light some candles, and take a rich bath after adding a few squirts of the soap to the running bath. Sit back and relax, breathe in through your nose and exhale through your mouth, think of a relaxing beautiful place, smell the wonderful scents of the oils, feel your whole body relax, and...enjoy. 

Want to stimulate your brain and senses? Add some fresh rosemary and sage to your salad, or rub some rosemary into your hands and smell it before taxing mental activities. Take a peppermint breath mint, or one of the many natural sugar-free lozenges which contain oils of rosemary, sage and peppermint. 

Aroma "therapy" is great! ;)

What do YOU think about Aromatherapy -- is it real, does it work for you? Discuss below by clicking the 'Comments' link...

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