While the pleasant, uplifting effects of some odors have been known for centuries, modern, condition-specific aromatherapy based on essential oils is usually traced back to the work of French chemist Rene-Maurice Gattefosse in the late 1920s. Essential oils are volatile, aromatic products extracted from flowers, fruits, leaves, barks, and roots by various methods, such as steam distillation. The quality of essential oils varies tremendously, with the best and purest being very concentrated and very expensive. Aromatherapists may dilute essential oils with carrier oils and apply them to the skin, put them in diffusers so that people can inhale the vapors, or prepare them for ingestion.
In France and Japan, medical aromatherapy is an established field that treats medical conditions such as diabetes and seizure disorders. In the United States, aromatherapy is much less evolved and is mainly associated with the spa and beauty industries.
An increasing amount of research is delving into the questions of whether aromatherapy can improve sleep, ease pain and anxiety, reduce the respiratory congestion of colds and flu, relieve constipation, reduce post-operative nausea and even help grow hair. In most cases, further investigation will be needed before doctors here are convinced that aromatherapy works, but there is already good evidence that certain scents can help induce relaxation and improve sleep.
For example, a 1994 study at New York's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center found that the vanilla-like aroma of heliotropin significantly reduced anxiety in patients undergoing MRI scans. In England in 2002, researchers found that applying lemon balm oil to the faces and arms of patients with severe dementia reduced their agitation by 35 percent. The study was published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. At Wesleyan University in Connecticut, researchers found that the scent of lavender increased deep, restful sleep for both men and women; a Korean study published this year (2006) came to the same conclusion (but included only women). Another intriguing study, in Scotland, showed that a combination of cedarwood, lavender, rosemary, and thyme oils promoted hair growth among patients with alopecia areata, an autoimmune disorder that causes hair to fall out. The study was published in the November, 1998, issue of the Archives of Dermatology.
We may get a better fix on aromatherapy benefits after completion of a study sponsored by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine examining the effect of specific odors on immune, endocrine and autonomic system responses. Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, Ph.D., a widely-respected researcher at the Ohio State University Institute for Biobehavioral Medicine Research, is testing three odors, one selected for its reported sedating or relaxing effects, one for its activating or stimulant effects and one neutral control odor. This study is enrolling 60 volunteers and is expected to end in August of 2007.
If aromatherapy makes you feel better, by all means indulge. I would only caution against buying into dubious claims that it can treat everything from acne to yeast infections. And do make sure that your aromatherapist is qualified; in the United States, anyone can get a piece of paper attesting to "certification." For information on aromatherapy certification courses approved by the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy visit: www.naha.org
Aromatherapy is generally safe but improperly used oils can cause burns, allergic reactions, headaches and nausea, and some are toxic if ingested. Check with local certified massage therapists (their certification does mean something) who may be able to recommend a good aromatherapist.
Andrew Weil, M.D.