Humans have been using plant oils as a remedy for disease and pain since the time of early civilizations like Saudi Arabia, Greece, Egypt, and Rome. Since then, however, it’s been largely relegated to the “folk” medicine category in modern literature. But does it actually work? The answer is a bit complicated.
What is Aromatherapy?
Aromatherapy is the usage of essential oils to improve mind/cognitive memory, health, and generally boost the immune system. (Essential oils include eucalyptus or grapeseed oil, oils extracted from rose, butters or pomades, etc.) It’s truly an alternative medical practice, and one that hasn’t really been proven to heal medical conditions (except via anecdotal, personal evidence.) The term “aromatherapy” was coined in 1928 by chemist René-Maurice Gattefossé, who badly burned his hand after a lab explosion in 1910 and successfully treated it with lavender oil. The practice was revived in the 1960s by French biochemist Madame Maury, who was the first to incorporate oils into massage. Micheline Archer joined her later and the two developed the modern method of aromatherapy.
Aromatherapy treatments are marketed under a number of products, including lockets/pendants for holding oils, candles and incense, massage oils and shower gels, aftershave, conditioners, bath salts and soaps, moisturizers, lipsticks, lamps, etc.
Aromatherapists claim that certain oils possess contain antibiotics, antiseptics, hormones, and vitamins and can reduce stress, improve energy, and induce relaxation in their patients. Some even claim that the inhalation or massaging of oils into the skin can “heal problems of the ovaries, kidney, and veins.”
Some essential oils have been found to possess antibacterial properties — Cinnamon, clove, geranium, lemon, lime, orange and rosemary oils, particularly. Lavender oil can help treat burns and insect bites, basil can act as an anti-inflammatory agent, and lemon and rosemary oils, in addition to being anti-bacterial, can also act as anti-oxidants. And a report from the Royal College of Psychiatrists showed that lemon and lavender oil can soothe patients with dementia, “improving sleep, agitated behaviours and resistance to care.” A study at The Ohio State University confirmed these properties, indicating that lemon oil can significantly enhance mood, but didn’t find any other effects. And a Japanese study discovered that essential lemon oil can act as a stress reducer in mice.
Interestingly, aromatherapy can work in conjunction with memory cues: “Memory is enhanced when learning takes place in the presence of a novel odor, and is further facilitated if learning occurs during a heightened emotional state,” claim researchers at the Monell center, and the Smell/Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago found that “mixed floral smells” can enhance learning by the same token.
The Placebo Effect
Still, many scientists maintain that aromatherapy merely causes a “placebo effect” — that is, by believing that an expensive, rare oil will treat a disease or improve a mood, patients actually become healthier. In a study conducted at the University of Munich, researchers sprayed oil extracts from peppermint, jasmine and ylang-ylang into some face masks — and plain water into the others. People wearing the masks sprayed with water and the masks sprayed with essential oils showed no significant difference in reaction times.
In addition, there are safety concerns with some aromatherapy oils. High dosages of certain extracts can be toxic. Citrus oils — like lemon or lime — can cause bizarre phototoxic reactions, leaving strange “sunburns” and other hyperpigmented marks on the skin. Ingesting low dosages of eucalyptus oil can be lethal. Sage and cedar oil have been shown to cause some liver damage, and adulterated oils — oils “laced” with chemicals or other substances — can cause problems when taken with conventional medicines, as well.
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