Aromatherapy is the use of plant aroma producing oils, known as essential oils, for physical and emotional health and wellbeing. It is believed to lead to improvements in mood, cognitive function, and pain relief. Proponents say that it can also enhance memory, improve the immune system, and relieve headaches and migraines amongst many other health claims. However, there is no scientific evidence supporting these statements [i].
What are essential oils?
Essential oils are composed of concentrated extracts from various parts of the plant including leaves, roots, seeds or blossoms. There are about 40 different essential oils available in aromatherapy and each have their own healing properties. Lavender, rosemary, jasmine, peppermint, lemon, and eucalyptus are some of the more commonly used.
How does aromatherapy work?
These oils may be inhaled, massaged into the skin, or added to bathwater. When used for inhalation, the essential oils are typically placed in atomizers or humidifiers so the water vapor and oil are diffused through the air. When used externally, essential oils are mixed with carrier oils (usually vegetable oils) and massaged into the skin.
Some think the combination of essential oils being absorbed by the skin, along with breathing in the aroma, reduce the effects of stress and restore balance in the body.
Although the mechanism is unclear, it is suggested that the scent receptors in the nose may pick up the fragrance and send chemical signals through the olfactory nerve and stimulate the part of the brain that controls emotions.
What is aromatherapy used for?
Aromatherapy massage is used in integrative medicine by focusing on promoting relaxation and relieving stress. The practice has gained widespread popularity with cancer patients. This complementary therapy is used in conjunction with mainstream cancer treatment to alleviate symptoms and manage side effects of treatment. Patients report improvements in chronic pain, nausea, stress, and depression.
There is currently limited supporting clinical research on the role of aromatherapy especially in cancer care. However, in a study conducted in the United Kingdom, cancer patients who received weekly 1-hour aromatherapy massage sessions for 4 weeks, reported improvements in clinical anxiety or depression for up to 2 weeks after treatment. This is suggestive that aromatherapy may provide short-term benefits on psychological wellbeing [ii].
Is aromatherapy safe?
The essential oils are generally safe and well tolerated by cancer patients. They can be self administered, applied by aromatherapists, or licensed health professionals such as acupuncturists, chiropractors, and naturopaths. Essential oils should never be taken orally as they can be toxic. Some may cause allergic reactions or skin irritation when applied to the skin for a prolonged period of time.
It is important that all patients consult their oncologist or healthcare provider before starting or undergoing any complementary therapy [i].