Alternative Medicine

Does Aromatherapy Work?

| by Kate Wharmby Seldman

Today’s market is flooded with aromatherapy products promising relief from every possible ailment you can think of. Can burning a candle or applying essential oil really help treat physical or emotional conditions, or is it all a bunch of sweet-smelling nonsense?

There’s no doubt that smells affect the emotions. Here’s how smells reach the brain: first, the smell permeates your nose or the roof of your throat area. Next, the nose’s olfactory neurons send the smell to your brain. Your brain labels the smell and often assigns it an emotional meaning – when you smell it again, the part of the brain involving emotion is activated, and you have what’s called an olfactory memory. Depending on what a particular memory contains, a smell can calm you, excite you, make you nervous, or provoke any number of emotional reactions.

Can these sense memories be used therapeutically through aromatherapy – and is there scientific evidence to validate this alternative treatment? In some cases, aromatherapy seems to have medically significant benefits. One clinical study indicated that essential lemon balm oil could ease agitation in elderly patients with severe dementia. However, this result could have been due to its effect on the patients’ caregivers, not the patients themselves, since dementia sufferers often lose their sense of smell. The lemon balm oil may have calmed the caregivers, and in turn, their relaxed demeanor might have soothed their elderly wards.

If aromatherapy does indeed have perceivable benefits, candles, sprays and other commercial aromatherapy products may not pack the punch of pure essential oils. For maximum effect, aromatherapy practitioners advise applying essential oils to the skin, to allow them to be absorbed into the bloodstream. Don’t just slap it right on your skin, though: most essential oils need to be mixed with a carrier oil, otherwise they’re so strong that they can irritate skin. Carrier oils include sweet almond oil, grapeseed oil and apricot kernel oil. These carrier oils have their own therapeutic properties. For example, pomegranate seed oil is said to work as an anti-inflammatory, and so can be extra beneficial when used to dilute an essential oil used for anti-inflammatory purposes, such as Roman chamomile.

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Essential oil’s calming properties can be combined with traditional medicine to create remedies. This, in fact, is what many aromatherapists view as aromatherapy’s purpose - to complement, not replace, traditional medical treatments. “Boo-Boo Juice” is one recipe you can make at home – it combines witch hazel with lavender oil to create an antiseptic, calming treatment for kids’ minor cuts and scrapes.

Before diving straight into DIY aromatherapy, it’s wise to consult an expert, or at least read up on the risks of this alternative treatment. There are certain essential oils you should never use: mugwort and wormwood, for example, contain a substance called thujone, which has been reported as possibly causing convulsions and liver damage.

Watch out for fictitious claims on product packaging – the words “therapeutic grade” or “aromatherapy grade” don’t mean that an oil has been graded or certified as such, since there’s no government agency that regulates aromatherapy. In the same vein, be cautious of products whose labels say they’re made with essential oils, or made with natural ingredients. Always look at the labels to make sure a product contains pure, natural essential oil, and make sure it doesn’t contain synthetic oils or other unnecessary additives.

Many more clinical trials are needed to ascertain whether aromatherapy can really be said to work, and if so, exactly what physical and emotional conditions it can aid in treating. Since we do know that smells can evoke such powerful emotions, however, it can’t hurt to have a sniff of some lavender or lemon balm oil the next time you feel anxious – it may well help calm you down.

Originally published at GrannyMed