Science, Art, Litt, Science based Art & Science Communication

Several people asked me this Q: Does Aroma Therapy work?

And this is my answer to all of them ...

According to scientists Aromatherapy or the science of essential oils is considered as a pseudoscience at the moment . It uses aromatic materials, including essential oils, and other aroma compounds, with claims for improving psychological or physical well-being. ... There is no good medical evidence that aromatherapy can either prevent, treat, or cure any disease.

These fragrant oils, such as lavender, peppermint, eucalyptus, orange and tea tree, are extracted from a plant's leaves, flowers, roots, barks, seeds or peels. Essential oils are used to produce perfumes and to add scent to cosmetics and cleaning products. They are also used as flavourings in foods and beverages . 

How are they extracted? In some cases, as for citrus fruits, the essential oil can be isolated just by mechanical expression, in other words, squeezing of the peel. Solvent extraction is another path to essential oils. Treating plant material with alcohol, hexane or liquid carbon dioxide extracts a mixture of organic compounds that are left behind as the essential oil when the solvent is removed by evaporation. However, the most efficient and widely used method to isolate an essential oil is distillation. Essential oils are mixtures, sometimes containing almost 300 substances, the oils contain both simple and complex chemicals.

People who practice this say either sniffing the right essential oil or rubbing it on the skin can support the immune system, enhance mood, promote sleep, cleanse the body’s organs, boost the libido, ease breathing, foster alertness, treat kidney stones, oxygenate the blood, relieve pain, reduce anger, prevent constipation and, of course, eliminate toxins. If that isn’t enough, essential oils are also reputed to readjust chakras, harmonize bio-electrical frequencies, cleanse negative energies, drive out evil spirits and promote sexual stimulation. The latter involves massaging the appropriate area with jasmine oil. That is likely to work whether you use an oil or not. Individuals make outlandish claims about using the oils to treat cancer, autism, Alzheimer’s disease, mononucleosis or arthritis. There seems to be an oil for any condition that potential customers have. 

The practitioners say essential oils must be composed only of naturally occurring compounds; synthetics need not apply for inclusion. Why? Because natural substances possess some sort of “life force” absent in synthetics, a claim that was buried two centuries ago with Friedrich Wohler’s demonstration that the urea he had synthesized in the lab was identical to the natural version isolated from urine.

People may turn to essential oils as part of alternative medicine approach  in which these highly concentrated, aromatic plant oils are used in small amounts in hopes of improving someone's physical or emotional health. The oils are sold online and in natural food stores.

Some consumers add essential oils to their baths, or use them as home remedies, such as inhaling eucalyptus vapors to relieve congestion.Others may place the oils in a diffuser to scent the air — peppermint is promoted for stimulating alertness, and lavender is often listed as a way to promote calmness, although there are no rigorous studies to support such claimsSmell plays a big role in how essential oils may affect the body: When breathed in, these plant oils stimulate smell receptors in the nose that send chemical messages through nerves to the brain's limbic system, which affects moods and emotions, and may have some physiological effects on the body. When used on the skin, the oils are absorbed into the bloodstream.

But although many essential oils have pleasant smells and some of their active ingredients are purported to have health benefits, there is limited scientific evidence that they actually improve people's health or mood. And even small vials of these concentrated oils can be pricey.

In fact some people feel repulsive to these oils like one of my friends who runs away if somebody is using fragrant oils. Some even say they get headaches if they inhale strong essential oils like lavender but some claim they have a calming effect on them.  Peppermint oil may be of some use in indigestion, but that is through ingestion, not inhalation. It causes heart burn in some! Unless they are diluted, essential oils can irritate the skin. Some are actually allergic to these oils.  Certain citrus oils when applied to the skin can increase sun sensitivity, and  some substances in essential oils may be risky for pregnant women. So the perception and also the truth depends on individuals and their biology and psychology.  

Research suggests that because some of the oils mimic the female hormone estrogen, they may have unwanted effects on males. Lavender oil and tea tree oil may cause enlarged breast tissue in prepubertal boys, according to a 2007 study in the New England Journal of Medicine.

One example of oil that shows some evidence of effectiveness is tea tree oil, which may be an effective treatment for acne. In one clinical trial, researchers compared gel containing tea tree oil to a benzoyl peroxide product, and found that the benzoyl peroxide worked slightly better but that the tea tree oil had fewer side effects. A few preliminary studies have suggested that peppermint oil may help with irritable bowel syndrome. Although the oil is touted for working as a decongestant and reliving headaches and muscle pain, "there is no clear-cut evidence to support the use of peppermint oil for other health conditions. Capsules of peppermint oil may cause heartburn. 

Some small studies on using lavender for anxiety have yielded mixed results, and some studies suggest the oil may work in combination with other oils to fight a hair-loss condition called alopecia areata, according to some people. However, "there is little scientific evidence of lavender's effectiveness for most health uses".

At the most you might feel a mood-lifting effect but aromatherapy  is not going to “align your DNA,” “repair your energy field” or “keep your nerves in balance.” That is humbug. 

According to some, essential oils are effective in treating viral, bacterial, fungal and parasitic infections, and in providing relief from sleep difficulties and pain. The oils may also improve moods, such as anxiety, depression, and reduce stress. But  physicians typically look to research from clinical trials to determine the effectiveness of medical treatments, and many of the existing studies on essential oils are small and inconclusive. They do not meet this "gold standard" criteria.

So the bottom line is -  there isn't enough evidence to show that Aroma Therapy works. 

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