Study results released just today from the Ohio State University Medical Center suggest that, while people may “feel better” with the use of aromatherapy, the physical evidence doesn’t stack up. A team of scientists from the medical center traced heart rate, blood pressure, stress hormones and immune function in a group of 56 study volunteers. Following “mild stress” administered by the scientists, subjects were then exposed to one of three substances: lavender, lemon or distilled water. The result: to the scientists’ surprise, “no measurable benefits” were observed with either of the aromatherapy scents.
Scientists intended to observe the physiological effects, if any, of aromatherapy to discern potential for its “positive medical impact.” The study is published online through the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.
Each person took part in three half-day sessions where they were exposed to both scents. Participants were monitored for blood pressure and heart rate during the experiments, and the researchers took regular blood samples from each volunteer. The researchers tested volunteers’ ability to heal by using a standard test where tape is applied and removed repeatedly on a specific skin site. The scientists also tested volunteers’ reaction to pain by immersing their feet in 32-degree F water. Lastly, volunteers were asked to fill out three standard psychological tests to gauge mood and stress three times during each session. They also were asked to record a two-minute reaction to the experience which was later analyzed to gauge positive or negative emotional-word use. The blood samples were later analyzed for changes in several distinct biochemical markers that would signal affects on both the immune and endocrine system. Levels of both Interleukin-6 and Interleukin-10 – two cytokines – were checked, as were stress hormones such as cortisol, norepinephrine and other catacholomines.
Following analysis of the study’s tests and observations, the scientists found no sign that either the lemon or lavender had any physiological impact on the volunteers. In terms of psychological impact, results showed that only the lemon aroma had measurable effect on subjects’ reported mood. Subjects’ previous opinions of aromatherapy had no bearing on observed effects.
Though we’ve been highly skeptical of the grander claims made by the now burgeoning aromatherapy industry, we’d delayed judgment on the more moderate claims like tension relief. Of course, we’re always on the lookout for truly legitimate complimentary therapies (and the research that makes or breaks their claims to that legitimacy).
The study, though small, is the most comprehensive research yet on the physiological effects of aromatherapy (or, in this case, apparent lack thereof). Yet, there’s still the nagging question about why many people appear to “feel better” with at least some applications of aromatherapy. As one of the scientists explained, “[T]he human body is infinitely complex. If an individual patient uses these oils and feels better, there’s no way we can prove it doesn’t improve that person’s health. But we still failed to find any quantitative indication that these oils provide any physiological effect for people in general.”
Pure placebo effect? The study results suggest, as we mentioned, that the lemon aroma had “clear” psychological impact beyond that of the distilled water; however, the lavender actually had less effect than the water. Is it a case in which we should simply apply the law of averages? Is there something more promising (albeit vaguely so) about lemon? The scientists are already planning future follow up research.
And what about that placebo effect anyway? Is it a bad thing? Who is most likely to experience it? How can I get me some? Sure, there’s an important distinction to be made between feeling better and “getting better” in some physical way. However, if people earnestly report that they feel better, doesn’t it stand to reason that something of some sort has happened in them physiologically speaking? We intend to roll up our sleeves and eagerly dig into the subject in the coming weeks.
In the meantime, though there appears to be little reason to restock the lavender oil supply, there’s no sense wasting any you’ve already got. Looking for tension relief? Grab some tea, close the bathroom door, dim the lights, and enjoy the oil in a nice hot bath. A bit of indulgence, we say, is still gratifying in its own right.
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