Research Reveals The Healing Powers of Aromatherapy

Smell affects everything that defines a human. It can even help us heal.

| January/February 1999

Our most primitive sense is smell. It directly affects the limbic system, that section of the brain ­involved with sex, motivation, and emotion—in short, almost everything that defines us as human. Yet mainstream physicians in North America debate the real value of scents, specifically the healthful benefits ­touted in the growing field of aromatherapy. The skepticism is based largely on the lack of rigorous, scientific study for the claims of aromatherapy, which are drawn mainly from anecdotal case studies and folklore.

However, good research on aromatherapy has been published during the past decade, primarily in Germany and Japan. It probes the effects, on both mind and body, of inhaling herbal essential oils or applying diluted forms of them to the skin, as well as the effects of individual essential oil components. The research shows that, indeed, there is something to healing through aromatherapy.

Before describing the most intriguing studies (all of which involve human use of various aromatherapies, unless otherwise noted), a word of caution is in order: Plants vary. People vary. And any living ­organism will react according to both ­genetics and environmental factors. It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that some people have strong reactions to some ­essential oils, while others have no reaction at all, and that sensitivities vary over time. Also, just because an oil is natural doesn’t guarantee that it’s safe—imagine the consequences of giving a massage using natural poison ivy! Add heat and light, and the likelihood of an allergic reaction increases astronomically.

The Body Electric

It’s difficult to interpret essential oils’ beneficial and harmful effects, and contradictory conclusions abound. But the easiest studies to interpret are those involving electrical rhythms of the brain known as alpha waves, dominant in meditation and other relaxed states, and beta waves, which are associated with alert states and a sign of anxiety and apprehension.

Japanese researchers have found that inhaling lavender and sandalwood oils increases alpha-wave activity (relaxation), while inhaling jasmine oil increases beta-wave activity (alertness, anxiety). Researchers at the Toho University School of Medicine in Tokyo supported this finding by measuring the upward shift of brain waves. The measurements show that inhaled jasmine produces a stimulating ­effect similar to that of coffee. In ­contrast, they found that East Indian ­sandalwood oil produces a calming effect. From skin-reaction tests, the Toho team also found that the scent of chamo­mile oil calms, while jasmine stimulates.

But Tyler Lorig, a psychologist now at Washington and Lee University in Virginia, examined these measurements in more detail and found that brain-wave patterns can be affected by the beliefs and thoughts about the stimulus, suggesting that the Toho team’s findings may be deceiving. To quote the cliché, more research needs to be done.



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