Gail Ingram, an open-minded practitioner, explains why aromatherapy “works” depending on the definition and gives her professional opinion on essential oil treatments.
According to the CDC National Health Statistics Report released in February this year, one-third of Americans have used alternative therapies since 2002. This begs the question, if one hundred million Americans have been using natural remedies for the past 13 years, why haven’t more natural treatments emerged as the hard and fast cures that they claim to be? Let’s take a look at aromatherapy–the use of essential oils and fragrance for medicinal purposes. Lots of folks use essential oils in aromatic diffusers or rub the oils on their skin for relief from a myriad of ailments. But does it work? Depends on who you ask and their definition of the word “work.”
When determining if something “works,” researchers often look to see if a product or procedure will impact life expectancy. If it helps a person to live longer, it works. The question then becomes, can aromatherapy extend people’s lives? There isn’t any evidence to support that it does, but if aromatherapy can relieve symptoms associated with bad health outcomes, it might work in a round about way.
Consider pain. We know that chronic pain increases mortality and if aromatherapy can reduce pain, it might indirectly increase life expectancy. However, studies evaluating pain rely on participant’s personal opinions and everyone experiences pain differently. This makes studying pain difficult, however a group of midwives trained in aromatherapy used the treatment on 8058 of their pregnant patients going into labor.* Their goal was to reduce fear, anxiety, pain, nausea, vomiting, and enhance the patient’s sense of well-being. About half of the laboring patients found it helpful and the other half did not. 1% reported that the aromatherapy caused them to have side effects including nausea and headaches. This is the best study (despite being highly flawed)** on adult pain relief and aromatherapy and it shows that aromatherapy doesn’t significantly reduce pain and consequently won’t “work” using the scientific or medical definition of the word.
However, for many, aromatherapy works because it makes people feel better. The benefits of aromatherapy might be as simple as producing an overall feeling of enhanced well-being. If the pleasant aroma of certain essential oils makes someone smile or relax, that’s great. Smiling, laughing, and being happy are all good things that I can get behind. Relaxation improves health, quality of life, and possibly life expectancy. The placebo effect (or belief in aromatherapy) might also be enough to remedy an illness or, at the least, provide distraction in an uncomfortable situation.
But let’s be clear. To say that aromatherapy is clinically proven to work is inaccurate using any definition of the word. Consistent data to support it just doesn’t exist. In addition, there is a huge gap in reliable testimonials from the millions of Americans (referenced above) who use and support natural remedies. Because of this, I can only recommend aromatherapy as an adjunct treatment to enhance well-being. It’s probably not going to hurt you (unless you’re rubbing oil where it doesn’t belong), so go for it.
*Tiran, D., Massage and aromatherapy. In: Complementary Therapies for Pregnancy and Childbirth, 2nd ed, Tiran D., Mack S., (Eds). Balliere Tindall, New York 2000.
**Referenced in UpToDate.
Editor’s Note: A gold-standard review published in the British Journal of Psychiatry determined that aromatherapy was ineffective in treating dementia. A high-level review of studies using aromatherapy to treat anxiety was published in the Anesthesia & Analgesia Journal and it stated that “the efficacy of aromatherapy was inconclusive” which means that more research must be conducted.