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Let's talk scents

Does aromatherapy using essential oils work?

Scents are powerful. Closely linked with memory, a certain smell or fragrance can transport us to a different time and place. But can aromatherapy relieve pain or ease mood problems? Here's where the research lands on essential oils.

From stress reduction and headache relief to improved sleep, increased immunity and more, essential oils have been credited with an ever-growing list of health benefits. These small bottles of lavender, peppermint, rose, chamomile and other plant extracts commonly line shelves in natural food stores, and plenty of home-based businesses. The promises are big, but do essential oils live up to the hype? 

What are essential oils?

Essential oils are made from plant materials. The fragrant essences are produced in special cells found under bark, leaves or peels, and their scent is released when a plant is crushed. Once extracted from plants, the highly concentrated oils are typically distilled with water or steam. In aromatherapy, essential oils might be inhaled or heated in a diffuser that distributes the scent through the air. Oils are also used in lotions, soaps and bath salts, or applied directly to the skin through light massage.

Aromatherapy is thought to work when smell receptors in the nose respond to the fragrance of an essential oil. That trigger sends messages to the part of the brain that controls emotions and mood.



What does the research say?

In the United States, essential oils used for aromatherapy do not need Food and Drug Administration approval. While the oils are generally safe when used as directed, scientific research into their effectiveness is limited. Most studies have produced mixed results, as well. Here are a few recent findings.

  • Anxiety: Chamomile, frankincense, lemon and lavender are among essential oils said to ease anxiety symptoms. While some initial trials suggest that aromatherapy might make a difference, experts say those results need to be confirmed with more thorough, high-quality research. In a few studies, the calming effects of lavender oil were specific to individuals with dementia. 
  • Mood: Several oils have also been marketed as mood boosters, though research results are inconsistent. One study compared the effects of lemon oil, lavender oil and distilled water when inhaled. Lavender had little impact, but lemon oil showed some promise as a mood lifter.
  • Nausea: Peppermint and ginger essential oils are touted as remedies for upset stomach, but researchers say additional studies are necessary. At least two studies failed to find relief with peppermint oil, while others suggest that a whiff of isopropyl alcohol could better reduce nausea. 
  • Sleep: Several studies suggest a link between essential oils and improved sleep quality. Most of these focused on the use of lavender oil, and inhalation seems to be more effective than oil applied through massage.


The verdict

While studies show that essential oils might play a positive role for addressing some conditions, more research is needed to confirm their true impact. If youíre considering aromatherapy, be aware of possible side effects and consult a doctor or trained aromatherapy practitioner before using.

Play it safe

Though most essential oils are safe when used as directed, negative side effects are possible. For best results, keep these factors in mind.

  1. Follow dosage recommendations. Like medications or supplements, essential oils can cause harm in high concentrations and high dosages. Risks from improper use include sensitivity to sunlight, skin irritation and even organ damage.
  2. Pay attention to ingredients. Something labeled ìnaturalî isnít automatically safe. Quality can vary between manufacturers, so be on the lookout for added chemicals. 
  3. Avoid ingesting oils. Unless youíve consulted with an expert, avoid eating or drinking essential oils. Potential issues related to these highly concentrated essences range from digestive system damage to toxicity.
  4. Beware of drug interactions. Research exploring the potential interactions between medications and essential oils is limited. If you take prescriptions, discuss your plans to use essential oils with a health care provider.  
  5. One size does not fit all. Oils from different companies might have distinct chemical compositions; different varieties of lemon, lavender and other plants used to make oils might differ, too. Remember, your reactions to essential oils may also differ from those of other people.

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