Only a decade ago, the mainstream medical establishment scoffed at alternative healing techniques like acupuncture and massage, which were considered quackery by some doctors.


Now Americans spend in the ballpark of $30 billion annually (latest figures from the National Academies Institutes of Health) — much of that amount out of pocket — on what the federal government now calls complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), and a slew of research validating the healing power of some of these non-Western approaches has been published.


And perhaps the most difficult form of CAM to scientifically validate is aromatherapy, in which essential oils of plants are extracted for various uses, including:


  • Relaxation
  • Pain relief
  • Immune stimulation
  • Mood improvement
  • Constipation
  • Psoriasis
  • Beauty products

Does aromatherapy really work?
Ancient cultures certainly thought so. Aromatherapy has been used for centuries. Legend has it that Hippocrates — the so-called father of modern medicine and the namesake for the oath that physicians recite, ensuring they will do the patient “no harm” — used the oil of rose petals to cure disorders of the uterus.


Fast forward a couple thousand years and essential oils may have been proven to help those with serious mental disorders. In the British Journal of General Practice, an analysis of a dozen aromatherapy trials concluded that aromatherapy has “a mild, transient anxiolytic effect” on dementia.


The National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health concludes on its website that aromatherapy may result in positive effects on behavior and the immune system. (The Food and Drug Administration does not regulate aromatherapy products.)


In a review of small clinical trials published in Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 72 patients with severe dementia were treated with lemon balm essential oil and they demonstrated improvements in behavioral symptoms comparable with results seen in patients with less severe dementia treated with “neuroleptic agents”(i.e. tranquilizers).


Who doesn’t think aromatherapy works?
Oddly enough, aromatherapy’s biggest critics may be the authors of the aforementioned studies. Though some of the research proves the medicinal potential of essential oils, the authors say the findings are inconclusive. In the British Journal of General Practice study on dementia, the authors suggest that the findings are not strong enough to solely recommend aromatherapy. “Nor is [aromatherapy] effective for any other indication,” says the review’s hypothesis. 


The other study on aromatherapy’s potential to treat dementia, in Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, concludes that although aromatherapy can be beneficial as an adjunctive therapy, “the study cannot be used as evidence that it is a viable alternative to sedative drugs in people with severe dementia.”


The same authors suggest that aromatherapy oil should not be seen as a “safe alternative to existing pharmacotherapy until properly conducted safety trials have been completed.”


Why the mixed results?
There are several reasons why it’s difficult for modern medicine to unequivocally support aromatherapy’s benefits. For one, weather and geography can produce different yields and strengths of the same plant in two different locations. Also, funding for aromatherapy studies hasn’t exactly been pouring in. Although more widely accepted than even a decade ago, essential oils aren’t as high a priority for study as pharmacological compounds, though both contain plant extracts.


There may be too many variables and not enough money to properly conduct large-scale double-blind controlled studies.


How does aromatherapy work?
All plants contain molecular gases. Through the processes of distillation and evaporation, these molecular gases, which proponents of aromatherapy sometimes refer to as the plants’  “life force” or “essence” (hence the term essential oil) these gases break down into liquid form. It can take thousands of flower petals to create one small bottle of essential oil.


Vaporizers, sprays, diffusers, steam inhalation or breathing in a soaked cloth are some of the ways medical professionals or massage therapists administer essential oils.


Scented candles may also include essential oils, though candles may contain synthetic oils.


What else are essential oils good for?
Your teeth and gums might also benefit from essential oils. In a study in the journal of Periodontology, researchers concluded that essential oils could aid in the reduction of plaque and gingivitis.


And if you’re a bacteria-phobe, you’ll be glad to know that there is some scientific validity that essential oils help ward off unfriendly bacteria. It’s only been in the last 25 years or so that the oils’ potent anti-microbial properties have been clinically proven, such as this review in Current Medicinal Chemistry, which concludes that certain oils of spices and herbs — specifically thyme, oregano, mint, cinnamon, salvia and clove — are perhaps the strongest neutralizers of bacteria and fungus.


Is aromatherapy safe for everybody?
For the most part, yes. But certain populations should avoid  the practice or at least ask their physician if it’s OK to use essential oils as an adjunct therapy. This includes pregnant women, those with asthma and other respiratory diseases and allergies, as well as those with epilepsy and high blood pressure.


Have you received aromatherapy? Did it help you? Let us know in the comments below.


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Judd Handler is a frequent contributor to the Mother Nature Network and is a health writer in Encinitas, Calif. He can be reached via email at