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Aromatherapy: Science or fiction?

April 15, 2015
Aromatherapy definitely smells good, but does it actually work? Get the answer in this short primer on the topic and its efficacy.

According to the International Federation of Professional Aromatherapists, “aromatherapy is a treatment designed to help maintain physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing by the correct application of pure essential oils. The word ‘aroma’ means a fragrance or sweet smell and the word ‘therapy’ simply means a treatment designed to bring about a positive change in an individual.

“Since an aromatherapy treatment is concerned with creating balance and equilibrium within a person, its primary uses are to uplift, detoxify, de-stress and invigorate—in other words, to help the body to help itself to regain health or wellbeing.” (1)

A 2009 study published in the International Journal of Neuroscience found evidence that aromatherapies are helpful. The authors undertook “a systematic review of scientific experimentation addressing olfactory effects on mood, physiology and behavior. From this review, 18 studies meeting stringent empirical criteria were then analyzed in detail and it was found that credible evidence exists that odors can affect mood, physiology and behavior.” (2)

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Certified clinical aromatherapists (CCA) make custom-balanced essential oil blends for a client's problem. A custom blend is specific to the client and requires a great deal of knowledge of the chemistry and actions of the oils and their desired outcomes on the part of the CCA.

Aromatherapists need to take an in-depth assessment of their client to discover the issues for which essential oils may be helpful. That includes asking medical questions and writing down the history that is given by the client. This information is valuable in helping to decide which healing treatments and which essential oils to use in the healing session with the client.

The International Federation of Professional Aromatherapists also states that “essential oils are manufactured in the leaves of aromatic plants during the process of photosynthesis and then stored in a variety of places, such as in the flowers, leaves, fruit, seeds, etc., depending on the plant. They are extracted by a variety of methods, including distillation and expression. Each individual essential oil has its own chemical components and therefore, its own individual therapeutic properties.” (1)

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Therapeutic grade essential oils can work through inhalation, ingestion, and topical application; it all depends on the purpose and focus. Topical use is perhaps the best known, and oils are also used through massage, acupuncture, acupressure, warm compress, cold packs, bath and shower. Dietary use may be one of the most effective ways of unlocking their health benefits (e.g., antioxidant benefits). It is important to look for the “dietary supplement” on the label—then you know it can be taken internally.

A very popular and useful way to use therapeutic grade essential oils is by direct inhalation or by diffusing, as well as by adding to humidifiers and vaporizers. It is important to know your essential oil company and the purity and efficacy of the oils from the seed to the seal on the bottle.

1. What is aromatherapy? International Federation of Professional Aromatherapists. Accessed April 15, 2015.
2. Herz RS. Aromatherapy facts and fictions: A scientific analysis of olfactory effects on mood, physiology and behavior. Int J Neurosci. 2009;119:263-90. doi: 10.1080/00207450802333953.

Christine Charles, RDH, CCA is a certified clinical aromatherapist with 12 years experience using therapeutic grade essential oils in supporting wellness and balance.