I don’t know if you have noticed but lately, every time you turn around someone is suggesting aromatherapy. Your friend suggests that you use a lotion infused with peppermint essential oil to help combat your nausea. Your cousin insists that she has never slept so well since starting to springle a little lavender oil on her pillow at night. Your co-worker swears your airways open more whilst diffusing some peace and calming essential oil. Essential oils are a $1 billion dollar industry, but are they effective?
By now you are probably wondering, what the heck is aromatherapy? Well, essential oils are oils, typically fragrant ones, that have been extracted from the roots, flowers, leaves, or seeds of plants using steam or applied pressure. The qualifier “essential” refers to the fact that the oil contains the “essence” of the plant (i.e., the natural chemicals that provide a distinct odour or flavour). In the practice of aromatherapy, these oils, once diluted, are applied to the skin, smelled, dabbed on a pillow or in a bath, or heated so that their aroma is dispersed into the air. Some soaps and lotions can also be made with essential oils and used as aromatherapy products.
Some studies indicate that there’s a benefit to using essential oils while others show no improvement in symptoms. Clinical trials have looked at whether essential oils can alleviate conditions such as anxiety, depression, nausea, insomnia, low appetite and dry mouth. Currently, there is no evidence-backed research showing any illnesses that can be cured through the use of essential oils or the practice of aromatherapy. The results on the other possible benefits of essential oils as, for example, mood elevators or stress relievers, are more mixed. But most are still inconclusive.
One of the scientific studies that have revealed positive results from essential oils involves patients with dementia. There is evidence that balm from lemon oil reduces agitation in patients with dementia according to a study in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. There are other proven success stories for essential oils, such as the treatment of acne with tea tree oil, and the treatment of alopecia areata or hair loss with oils like thyme, rosemary, lavender and cedarwood.
Research into the use of essential oils found in citrus fruits is particularly intriguing due to their natural antibacterial qualities. For example, citrus oil, particularly when combined with Dead Sea salts, was shown to inhibit bacterial growth in mice and act as an anti-inflammatory agent. The citrus essential oil bergamot could help fight the growth of common causes of food poisoning like listeria, e coli and staphylococcus.
However, most of these studies have not yet extended to clinical trials, meaning there is still much more work to do before essential oils would be potentially prescribed by physicians. So, if you’re looking to relieve stress, adding a few drops of diluted essential oils to a warm bath probably doesn’t hurt. But before you spend $40 on a 15-ml bottle, you might want to try a scented candle first.