By Dr. Mercola
Aromatherapy is the use of essential oils or other aromatic plant compounds for healing and wellness. Such oils may be inhaled, applied to the skin and in some cases even taken orally under professional guidance for a variety of purposes intended to balance your mind, body and spirit.
“[Aromatherapy] seeks to unify physiological, psychological and spiritual processes to enhance an individual’s innate healing process,” according to the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA),1 which states that the term “aromatherapie” was coined by Rene-Maurice Gattefossé, a French perfumer and chemist, in 1937.
It’s said that Gattefossé first became interested in essential oils when he healed a burn on his hand using lavender oil, which caused him to look into its uses for treating wounds, skin infections and even gangrene among soldiers during World War I.2 In Gattefossé’s book on the topic, he described using essential oils for many therapeutic purposes, a practice that has been done for close to 6,000 years.
Many ancient cultures, including the Chinese, Indians, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans used essential oils in cosmetics, perfumes and drugs for purposes ranging from spiritual to therapeutic.3 In the modern day, aromatherapy is used in health care settings, health spas and homes, both by professional aromatherapists and amateurs, while accumulating research backs up its many potential uses and benefits.
What Are Essential Oils?
Aromatherapy is based on the use of essential oils, which are also known as volatile oils. They’re typically the fragrant essences from the plant, which are extracted into essential oils. Specifically, according to the Physician Data Query Aromatherapy and Essential Oils information summary:4
“These essences are made in special plant cells, often under the surface of leaves, bark or peel, using energy from the sun and elements from the air, soil and water. If the plant is crushed, the essence and its unique fragrance are released … [Essential oils] may be distilled with steam and/or water, or mechanically pressed. Essential oils that are made by processes that modify their chemistry are not considered true essential oils.
… Each plant's essential oil has a different chemical composition that affects how it smells, how it is absorbed and how it is used by the body. Even the essential oils from varieties of the same plant species may have chemical compositions different from each other. The same applies to plants that are grown or harvested in different ways or locations.”
Aromatherapy Benefits That May Surprise You
Many people enjoy diffusing their favorite essential oils into their home’s air as a way to relax and relieve stress. Others may add them to their massage oil or bathwater, or use them in homemade cleaning supplies or lotions. The uses of aromatherapy are virtually endless, but there are a few notable benefits worth noting. For instance, something as simple as receiving a massage with a blended essential oil for four weeks led to significant improvements in both quality of life and sleep quality in career women.5
In addition, aromatherapy massage has been found to enhance the sleep quality of patients in a surgical intensive care unit and resulted in some positive changes in diastolic blood pressure.6 Other research suggests aromatherapy may be beneficial for the following conditions:
Depression and Anxiety
A study on rats showed that inhaling Roman chamomile essential oil for two weeks reduced depressive-like behaviors.7 A Korean study also found that lavender reduced both insomnia and depression in female college students8 while research published in Phytomedicine found that an orally administered lavender oil preparation was as effective as the drug Lorazepam for the treatment of generalized anxiety disorder.9 Other research has concluded the essential oil of jasmine can also uplift mood and counteract symptoms of depression.10
Agitation and other behavioral and quality-of-life issues may be improved via the use of aromatherapy in people with dementia. In one study, essential oils were placed nightly on towels around the patients’ pillows, which resulted in significantly longer total sleep time, increased sustained sleep and reduced early morning awakening.11 Another study found diffusing lavender essential oil twice daily in an adult facility for patients with dementia reduced the frequency of agitation in elderly patients.12
Improved Vital Signs During Surgery
In a study on patients undergoing open heart surgery, a cotton swab containing lavender essential oil was placed in the patients’ oxygen mask for 10 minutes. The aromatherapy led to significant reductions in blood pressure and heart rate, with researchers concluding it could be “used as an independent nursing intervention in stabilizing mentioned vital signs.”13
Aromatherapy may relieve pain from rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, headaches, needle insertion and more, even leading to reduced usage of pain medications.14 Lavender aromatherapy has also been found to reduce pain from menstrual cramps.15
Beyond this, aromatherapy plays a positive role in sleep among adults as well as children, including those with autism. It also may help to boost memory, disrupt cravings and reduce systemic inflammation and stress.16
What Are the Best Essential Oils for Calming or Uplifting?
The effects of essential oils range from stimulating to promote alertness to calming to encourage sleep and relaxation. If your goal is to invoke a sense of balance, harmony and calm, the following essential oils may be a good choice:
On the other hand, if you’re looking to feel energized and uplifted, consider essential oils such as peppermint, grapefruit, lemon, neroli and wild orange. In many cases, essential oils are multitaskers, however, which means the same oil may exert both calming and uplifting effects. The following chart gives you an overview of different essential oils that are useful for different conditions.17 For more information, be sure to check out our Ultimate Guide to Herbal Oils.
Lavender, lemon, bergamot, peppermint, vetiver, pine and ylang ylang
Lavender, chamomile, jasmine, benzoin, neroli, rose, sandalwood, sweet marjoram and ylang ylang (avoid lemon, which has an invigorating effect)
Lavender, bergamot, rose, clary sage, lemon, Roman chamomile, orange, sandalwood, rose-scented geranium and pine
Lavender, chamomile, clary sage, juniper, eucalyptus, rosemary, peppermint, lavender and green apple (especially for migraines)
Nausea and vomiting
Mint, ginger, lemon, orange, ginger, dill, fennel, chamomile, clary sage and lavender
Memory and attention
Sage, peppermint and cinnamon
Black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, clove, angelica, jasmine, tea tree, rosemary, sage and citrus
Depending on your needs, the following essential oils may also be useful to have on hand:18
Basil, which may increase concentration and relieve headaches (do not use basil essential oil during pregnancy)
Black pepper, which is useful for muscle aches and pains and bruises
Citronella, which can be used as an insect repellant
Clove, which has antimicrobial and antifungal properties and may act as a pain reliever when applied topically
Rosemary, which may promote hair growth and support memory
Tea tree, which has antimicrobial, antiseptic and disinfectant properties
Thyme, for reducing fatigue
Yarrow, which may relieve symptoms of cold and flu
Aromatherapy Basics: How to Get Started
Many people dip their toes into the field of aromatherapy by choosing a few essential oils with scents that appeal to them. You can experiment by diffusing the oils in your home or adding a couple of drops to a natural massage oil. Some of the most common ways to use essential oils include:
- Massaging them (blended with a carrier oil) into your skin
- Adding them to bathwater
- Using them in a hot compress
- Heating them in a diffuser
- Rubbing a drop onto pulse points in lieu of perfume
Essential oils are extremely concentrated, so a little goes a long way. For instance, more than 200 pounds of lavender flowers may be used to make 1 pound of essential oil,19 so use them sparingly.
In addition, certain oils may be dangerous for some people, such as those with epilepsy, certain allergies or during pregnancy, so it’s best to seek the advice of a professional aromatherapist. Certain essential oils can also cause photosensitization (making your skin more sensitive to the sun) or may interact with medications you may be taking.
An aromatherapist may guide you to inhale essential oils or apply diluted oils to your skin. Most will also recommend ways for you to safely and effectively use aromatherapy at home. The National Association of Holistic Therapy has a database of qualified aromatherapists to help you find one in your area. As for how essential oils work, it’s likely through multiple mechanisms, as noted by the University of Maryland Medical Center:20
“Some experts believe our sense of smell may play a role. The ‘smell’ receptors in your nose communicate with parts of your brain (the amygdala and hippocampus) that serve as storehouses for emotions and memories.
When you breathe in essential oil molecules, some researchers believe they stimulate these parts of your brain and influence physical, emotional and mental health. For example, scientists believe lavender stimulates the activity of brain cells in the amygdala similar to the way some sedative medications work. Other researchers think that molecules from essential oils may interact in the blood with hormones or enzymes.”
Choosing High-Quality Oils
The effectiveness of aromatherapy depends on the quality of the essential oil, and all are not created equal. Low-grade oils may lack the same therapeutic properties of higher-grade oils, and the former may also be diluted with cheaper oils or even toxic additives.
Be sure to avoid oils labeled “fragrance” or “perfume” oil, as these are typically not 100 percent essential oils.21 In addition, when evaluating essential oils be sure to look for plants grown in their indigenous regions, which tend to be healthier, and the correct species of plant (the botanical name should be clearly labeled).
The oils should be cold-pressed or steam distilled, not distracted with solvents, and the oils should be safe for topical use when mixed with a carrier oil. Remember, again, that a little goes a long way, so in 1 teaspoon of carrier oil you’ll typically only need to add one to three drops of essential oil. You may try a single oil or a blend of complementary oils, such as lavender and peppermint, clove and orange, or lemon and eucalyptus.
Once you determine your favorite oils and oil blends, you can get creative using them around your home — in your body creams and shampoo, diffused for increased focus or stress relief, or even added to your laundry via wool dryer balls. You’ll find the uses for aromatherapy are as varied as the varieties, and the sky’s the limit in terms of their ability to improve your quality of life and well-being.