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Is Aromatherapy a Proven Treatment?

Aromatherapy aims to improve an individual’s physical and/or psychological wellbeing with the use of aromatic plant-based oils or plant materials. Other aroma-producing compounds may be used as well.

Aromatherapy is often used in conjunction with treatments for many physical and psychological conditions, as it is considered a form of alternative medicine. Much research has gone into assessing its effectiveness. The underlying principle is the aromas contribute to a sense of wellbeing and help to stimulate physiological and psychological healing, which is important during the addiction recovery process.

In general, aromatherapy is used to relieve:

  • Pain
  • Stress
  • Insomnia
  • Inflammation
  • Spasms

It is also used to treat a wide number of conditions, ranging from arthritis and repetitive motion injuries to immunological conditions and cancer. Aromatherapy can be used to relax the nervous system, treat sprains, and help women during pregnancy and childbirth.

Aromatherapy Basics

A common term in the field of aromatherapy is essential oil. This name is derived from “quintessential oil” and refers to a fifth element, quintessence, in addition to the four accepted elements of fire, air, earth, and water that make up matter as suggested by Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. Quintessence was considered a force of life or a person’s spirit. In the early days, acquiring these essential oils was akin to removing the plant’s life force, or spirit. To this day, many distilled alcoholic beverages are called “spirits,” as the same distillation and evaporation processes on plants are used in their production.

Essential oils, however, are physical compounds and chemical in nature. They are extracted using a distillation process involving water or steam, according to the International Standards Organization. These oils can also be obtained from citrus rinds by mechanical means or by dry distillation, which separates the oil from an organic substance’s water source.

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Why Do Plants Store Essential Oil?

Plants secrete oil externally or internally. A person often just needs to touch a plant to smell the aroma on them, but sometimes, the aromas are contained within the plant’s seeds or leaves. The oils serve important biological roles and enable the plant to:

  • Attract insects that help to disperse pollen over a wide area
  • Release chemicals to stop other plants from growing nearby
  • Deter insects and animals that could otherwise harm the plants
  • Provide antibacterial and anti-fungal protection

Secretory structures called glandular trichomes, can be found on plants that emit oils externally. Such plants include basil, oregano, lavender, rosemary, and peppermint. Many other plants have internal cavities and ducts for secreting oils. Citrus oils are often secreted this way and include grapefruit, orange, lemon, lime, tangerine, and eucalyptus. Species such as cinnamon, ginger, citronella, nutmeg, and lemongrass contain essential oil cells within their tissues.

What is a Hydrosol

Hydrosols are what carry the microscopic droplets that make up an essential oil. These compounds, also called hydrolats, keep the oils in suspension. In each liter of hydrosol solution, less than 1 percent consists of the dissolved essential oil. It’s usually in the 0.01-0.04 percent range, according to the National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy. The actual ratio depends on the distillation process used to make the product and the plant’s water solubility.

Anti-inflammatory properties of many essential oils are due to the presence of carboxylic acids. Hydrosols are safe for infants in small quantities and also used as hydrating elements in many creams and cleansers.

How Is Aromatherapy Administered?

Diversity in the field lends itself to an array of methods that are used to apply essential, vegetable, and herbal oils. In the United States, people spend millions every year on aromatherapy products alone, according to Pharmacy Times, and over $30 billion is spent on complementary health practices, including aromatherapy, massage, and acupuncture, according to the National Institutes of Health. Many firms claim their products can empower individuals and improve their wellbeing.

People can receive aromatherapy in the following ways:

  • Massage oils: The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy lists massage as a very common method of application. Massage oils should be applied in specific dilutions based on use and the age of the person. Infants and young children should receive less oil than an adult. Common base oils include sweet almond, avocado, calendula, coconut, sesame, sea buckthorn, and St. John’s wort.
  • Creams, lotions, and oils: Essential oils are often added into creams and lotions. They can also be mixed together to create an aromatherapy solution that can help to heal wounds, slow skin aging, reduce scars, aid detoxification, and increase circulation. Some people use this method to improve skin tone and hydration, and to soften and soothe their skin.
  • Steam: Drops of essential oils, such as lemon, thyme, or eucalyptus, can be added to boiling water. They are inhaled through the nose and best acquired when a person covers their head with a towel. Steam inhalation is most often used to relieve respiratory congestion or sinus infections, and it may improve respiratory function.
  • Bath products: Aromatherapy products are often used in baths. Essentially, drops of essential oils, mixed with dispersing agents like bath gels, polysorbates, or coconut emulsifiers, are added to a full bathtub of water. Soaking in a tub with aromatherapy products can reduce stress and provide relief from muscle aches. Other applications include relief from fatigue (mental/physical), improved blood and lymph circulation, and better skin health.
  • Sprays: Dispersing essential oils using an aromatic spritzer may be used by individuals looking to improve their breathing, emotional state, or the freshness and odor of the room. Some people prefer an aromatic blend in their body spray. It’s not uncommon to find aromatic sprays that are used as air fresheners.
  • Electric diffusers: Diffusion is a variation of aromatherapy in which a device is used to introduce essential oils into the air. It is used to enhance environmental ambience, purify air, and remove pathogens. People often use diffusers to seek relief from stress, anxiety, and sleep problems, and to improve mood or alertness.
  • Direct inhalation: From stress reduction to relief from breathing issues, nasal congestion, or nausea, inhalation aromatherapy takes many forms. Some inhale essential oils from the bottle; others apply it to the palm of their hand first. The oils can be mixed with sea salts in a bottle and inhaled through the nose. Other means include inhaling them through a handkerchief or an inhaler tube, which has a cotton pad to absorb the essential oils.

Potential Side Effects

Essential oils should always be used as indicated. Swallowing them or putting them in the eye, nose, ear, or other body orifice can cause adverse effects. Skin reactions are the most common side effects. People may experience an allergic reaction or a headache in some instances. Aromatherapy-based oils and creams should never be used on sore or broken skin unless advised to do so by a qualified professional.

History of Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy is widely accepted to have existed for thousands of years. It’s often associated with traditional medical practices in China, but the use of essential oils was prevalent in ancient Egypt. The Egyptians developed one of the first machines capable of distilling and extracting oils from plants. Early practices, in civilizations as far back as 10,000 BC, involved burning wood, bark, and herbs as part of religious rituals performed on individuals.

The term aromatherapy was coined by Rene Gattefosse, a French chemist, who become noted for his 1937 publication on the subject. In this book, he proposed that aromatherapy could be used to treat many different diseases and had clinical significance associated with every organ in the body.

Father of Aromatherapy

Written in 2697 B.C., the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine describes more than 300 plants and how they can be used in medicine. It is China’s oldest surviving medical publication. Soon after, herbs and spices were being used in Egypt for embalming and mummification. These were transported across deserts to population centers, such as Greece, Babylon, and Rome. Trade was also boosted by the fact that fragrances were valued by Egyptians who refined aromatic compounds into early cosmetics, medicines, and perfumes. Asclepius, an early Greek physician, used herbs in surgery around 1200 B.C.

The supernatural attribution to the causes of illness, bestowed by the Egyptians, was debunked by Hippocrates. He believed there were natural explanations. Hippocrates was not a strong proponent of surgery and believed in treatments with infused herbs, such as parsley and fennel, among over 200 others, that could be used in the body.

Gattefosse and his colleagues spent 30 years studying the field. By the mid-1900s, popular interest in aromatherapy waned. Its rediscovery by Jean Valnet in 1982 was documented in his book, The Practice of Aromatherapy. He was also credited for helping to heal the wounds of World War II soldiers with essential oils, proving the oils had medical benefits.

The practice became more commonplace in the United States and Britain in the 1980s and 1990s. Since then, essential oils have been used by aromatherapy practitioners, nurses, and cosmetics companies. In the research world, the practice gained more attention in the mid-1990s, as nurses directly involved in patient treatment could monitor the effects of various types of aromatherapy.

Acceptance

To ensure the safety of aromatherapy, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has set laws that prevent organizations from claiming essential oils will definitely treat or cure any disease. Regulation, however, is highly dependent on a product’s intended use. Product labeling, marketing, and advertising should be in line with what a customer can expect from it.

The FDA also clearly defines product types. For example, it is labeled as a cosmetic if made to cleanse a person’s body or help them look or smell better. The product is legally considered a drug if it’s being sold for therapeutic use. Massage oils and soaps or lotions, even if made of plant-based ingredients, are regulated by law as drugs if they are indicated for therapeutic treatment of pain, sleep problems, muscle aches, or depression or anxiety.

Fragrance products that fall under the category of air fresheners, detergents, and even scented candles are regulated as well, even if not considered a drug or cosmetic. These are tightly managed under the umbrella of the Consumer Product Safety Commission. It has issued several recalls in the past, including for aromatherapy kits that were found to be explosion hazards. Gas buildup and defective heating elements were the cause, so it is important to check labels and research the safety of a product before using it.

Aromatherapy, in addition to complementing treatments, such as massage and acupuncture, is often used with standard medical treatments. Cancer Research UK says that aromatherapy is provided by aromatherapists to cancer patients to relieve anxiety, depression, pain, stress, and fatigue. It has become acceptable to receive aromatherapy from an experienced professional who can dilute the concentrated essential oils to avoid skin irritation when treatment is combined with traditional modalities, such as cancer drugs and radiotherapy. They are also equipped to choose the type of oils that may best relieve the symptoms in question.

Research and Psychology into the Usefulness of Aromatherapy

The sense of smell, or olfaction, is very powerful in humans and other mammals, especially dogs. Smell is actually a form of chemoreception. Organisms are able to recognize aspects of their environment via chemical stimuli. Smell is important for animals to find food. Both physiological and psychological processes are involved in how the brain perceives any given smell, whether it triggers pleasure, fear, repulsion, or another type of emotion. Smells can even invoke specific memories from the past. National Institutes of HealthThe Physical Effects of Aromatherapy in Alleviating Work-Related Stress on Elementary School Teachers, 29 elementary school teachers in Taiwan participated. Bergamot essential oil was used to see whether it relieved work-related stress. Researchers noted significant changes in the automatic nervous systems of the participants, but variations in age and body-mass index could affect how aromatic compounds performed. In looking at the effects of aromatherapy in individuals under different types of workloads, the research indicated that physical and psychological stress symptoms may be alleviated by aromatherapy. In the study, older individuals with heavy workloads exhibited better results than younger participants. It also compared the effects of natural and synthetic essential oils. Participants couldn’t tell the difference between the two by their scent, but more relaxing effects were seen with the natural substance.

A variety of research studies, however, are inconclusive on the benefits of aromatherapy. Mayo Clinic, however, states that there is research suggesting it does have benefits, such as relief from depression, reduction of anxiety, and improved quality of life in individuals with chronic illnesses. From helping hospital patients sleep to reducing the pain of dialysis needles, lavender oil is one compound that has medical potential. Certain scents, such as lemon, can improve concentration, and individuals can more quickly see cold and stress relief with lavender, one of the most popular essential oils.

Aromatherapy and Drug Addiction and Alcoholism Treatment

Since aromatherapy can be used to support a feeling of wellbeing and instill emotional balance, it can be helpful during the recovery process. In addiction treatment and ongoing recovery, aromatherapy, especially the use of citrus essential oils, can:

  • Lower the intensity of discomfort, nausea, and other withdrawal symptoms
  • Promote relaxation, allowing the person to better adjust during the recovery process
  • Improve mental clarity in people going through withdrawal
  • Make it easier to sleep during the early stages of recovery
  • Put one in a more relaxed state during mediation, another helpful practice during recovery

It is believed that essential oils, such as chamomile and basil, can help with alcohol addiction recovery, and basil and grapefruit oils may aid in drug addiction recovery. While it’s not a treatment on its own, aromatherapy can be used as a supportive measure during addiction treatment.