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I haven't always had a high regard for aromatherapy.
Like many American men of my age, I harbored a prejudice against accepting the healing potential of anything so, well, frilly and feminine. A good stiff drink or a full-fat meal always struck me as a more likely way to relieve stress than something as frou-frou as aromatherapy, and I had sympathy for anyone who would choose drink or drugs, although I didn't choose them for myself.
But about 20 years ago I realized I was wrong, when I was confronted with the first clinical evidence for the efficacy of aromatherapy, and I began using it myself.
What evidence is there that aromatherapy could possibly relieve stress?
Some of the earliest scientific research of the potential of aromatherapy for relieving stress was funded by Japanese companies that make scented bath soaps. These companies were looking for a legitimate way to claim that taking a long, warm, luxurious bath with their products was more relaxing than taking a long, warm, luxurious bath just with bubble bath. Naturally, when the scientists funded by these firms started publishing their research in the early 1990's they published in Japanese, and most of the research was still published in Japanese when I started following this topic in 2000. Even at a meeting to discuss their findings I attended in Hawaii that year, the discussion was still in Japanese and I had to hire a translator. However, a steady flow of over 140 studies of aromatherapy for stress has entered the English-language scientific literature. Here are a few of the findings:
- In the United States, nurses studied aromatherapy before doctors became interested. The earliest studies of healing scent focused on the use of the method for controlling outbreaks of acne, eczema, contact dermatitis, and psoriasis that were triggered by emotional stress.
- Later nurses started using aromatherapy as a remedy for general anxiety in the hospital, especially in children's wards.
- In 1997, the Japanese scientists I would later meet started studying essential oils of lemon, labdanum, oak moss, and tubrose as a rescue remedy for the immune system in lab animals exposed to stress. They found that, at least in mice, lemon and labdanum could restimulate the production of white blood cells after they were wiped out by stress.
- In the late 1990's, the British National Health Service started using aromatherapy in break rooms used by nurses and other hospital caregivers to lower their stress levels.
- About the same time, Japanese hospitals started using aromatherapy with lavender to reduce vomiting and nausea in chemotherapy patients.
- Between 2000 and 2005, a number of hospitals started using aromatherapy to reduce pain and anxiety in labor and delivery rooms, for both the mother and the father.
- In 2007, a clinical trial concluded that essential oils of rosemary and lavender could reduce the production of the stress hormone cortisol in humans.
- In 2008, Japanese scientists found that lavender could relax coronary arteries to improve heart function.
- In 2010, a research study found that bergamot (the dried citrus added to Earl Grey Tea) reduces stress.
- In 2013, a study found that aromatherapy reduces anxiety of patients inside MRI machines.
- More recently, scientists have found that lemon oil reduces agitation in Alzheimer's disease.
There are currently over 140 studies published in the medical literature that support the use of aromatherapy for stress and post-traumatic stress disorder. But how and why should any of this work?