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3 Mar

No Advantages from Aromatherapy?

aromaStudy 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.

via The Ohio State University

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.

obo-bobolina Flickr Photo (CC)

Further Reading:

10 Forgotten Stress Relief Tips

Computer Stress Relief

That’s Fit: Create a Not-To-Do List

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  1. Does “bach flower remedy” fall under “aromatherapy”?

    I used “walnut oil” with great succes when my kids were in the teething stage. It supposedly helps people going through ” difficult transition periods”
    Placebo?

    Marc

    tatsujin wrote on March 3rd, 2008
  2. I really believe in the power of mind over matter. I think that if you believe something to be true, then that is your reality. Now, it says in this article that lemon nor lavender had any physiological impact on the volunteers. But, it did affect mood. I think that this is very interesting.

    bill wrote on March 3rd, 2008
  3. I’d never assumed that “aroma therapy” meant actual physiological healing. I’d always thought it was just mood enhancing and nothing more. But my argument for the physioligical benefits of aroma therapy are as follows…

    I use aroma therapy, ergo…
    I feel more relaxed, confidant, ergo…
    I walk more confidently, ergo…
    I improve my posture, ergo…
    I don’t develop back problems.

    Am I crazy for thinking this?

    Rose wrote on March 3rd, 2008
  4. There have actually been a sizable number of studies that at least found that essential oils have benefit as a complimentary therapy. The results of some can be found here:

    http://altmed.creighton.edu/Aromatherapy/Studies.htm

    Rich wrote on March 4th, 2008
  5. not surprising huh?

    to me at least.

    but I guess it is the nose’s version of the placebo/sugar pill.

    M.

    MizFit wrote on March 4th, 2008
  6. Ah… yet another bought and paid for study to prove that “alternative” medicine does not work…. what a bunch of BS. these studies are always unerlyingly funded by modern medicine in an effort to keep people running to doctors for perscriptions. a very sad state of affairs indeed. the public needs to wake up and realize they are being manuplated at the cost of their health and lives. Ive used aromotherapy for years… it posivitly, absolutly… works. Amazing stuff. you do have to use good quality oils though… such as those from Young Living or a similar company.

    Nancy wrote on March 4th, 2008
  7. Soft Baby Powder AND Cinnamon Stick Scent Candles are so relaxing to smell when you walk into the room!

    Donna wrote on March 4th, 2008
  8. Somewhere on Cafepress, you can find “aromatherapy stinks” t-shirts.

    Stinky Caveman wrote on March 4th, 2008
  9. Scientific findings may not agree with the human instincts. Aromatherapy has proven to be effective not just by thousands but millions.

    Beauty wrote on November 13th, 2008
  10. walnut oil is really good. I have used it for my children at home and they found it very useful. Just give that a try. I have found that to be very utile.
    Regards, Sony Walker

    aromatherapy wrote on January 2nd, 2009
  11. There’s a difference though, between imitation smells and high quality essential oils.

    To say they’re the same is like saying there’s no difference between a soy burger and an organic, grass fed burger, etc.

    I LOVE essential oils but I’ve always hated scented candles, perfume, etc. To me they all smell like bug spray.

    Candace wrote on May 31st, 2009
  12. Based on your description (or direct quote) of the methods used to monitor physiological responses of the subjects, I’m surprised it didn’t show their stress level rising! Having blood drawn multiple times and having tape ripped on and off your skin in the same spot? That’s gotta to put a subject on edge. I suspect I would find other flaws with the study were I to read it directly (like bright lights used or having the subjects in a clinical setting that is otherwise uncomfortable). Highschool students have done simpler experiments with electrodes and aromatherapy (Pennsylvania Jr. Academy of Science program) that does show a difference in response to Mint and Lavender scents. I wouldn’t hold this study up as proof of anything.

    Lynn S. wrote on November 16th, 2012
  13. Among other flaws in this study (as pointed out by Lynn S.), as far as I’m aware, aromatherapy generally involves heating the oils to release more of their beneficial constituents. Simply smelling the oils cold, it’s no surprise they didn’t get measurable results. I have personally used lavender oil to great (calming, stress-melting) effect when heated to 200 degrees Celsius.

    Frasier wrote on February 16th, 2013
  14. Mainly excellent loved Aromatherapy! It essential oil has a cooling, anesthetic quality because of its high menthol content. It can make your skin feel chilly or cool when applied during massage.

    WendellCartwright wrote on March 4th, 2014

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