Aromatherapy essential oils can help treat stress, depression, anxiety, inflammation and other health problems

The scent of Gardenia jasminoides flowers can reduce anxiety and promote sleepIs jasmine the next Valium substitute? Perhaps. Recent research has discovered that the scent of jasmine has the same effect on the brain and is as strong as barbiturates and the anesthetic propofol. Jasmine calms, relieves anxiety and promotes sleep. Researchers Professor Hanns Hatt and his team in Germany tested hundreds of fragrances and found jasmine and one other plant fragrance are especially good relaxants.

Other studies have found that the use of fragrant plant oils (essential oils), such as rose, lemon and lavender oil, can reduce stress, and the symptoms of anxiety, depression and more. This is no surprise considering the fragrant parts of plants have been used for health and healing throughout history all over the world, including China, India, North America, the Far East and the Middle East.

What is aromatherapy?
How can we use essential oils?
What health problems has aromatherapy been used for?
Which essential oils are good for stress, anxiety and depression?
How does aromatherapy work?
What evidence is there that aromatherapy works?
Are there any side effects, dangers and complications of aromatherapy?
Who should be cautious about aromatherapy?

What is aromatherapy?

Aromatherapy is the use of aromatic plant oils to improve mood, health and healing. Aromatic plant oils are also called fragrant plant oils or essential oils. They are made from the fragrant extracts of plants.

Essential oils vary in their uses, depending on the type of plants the oils come from. The oils are concentrated, so just a few drops have an effect.

How can we use essential oils?

Before using essential oils, talk to a qualified aromatherapist and/or read credible information on aromatherapy. This is to avoid bad reactions to the oils, and increase the likelihood that you’ll get good results from the oils.

Essential oils vary in their effects depending on, for example,:

  • the types and amounts of oils used
  • the quality of the oils. Essential oils vary in quality. Don’t shop by price alone. Choose high quality essential oils.
  • whether an essential oil is used alone or with other oils
  • whether the oils are inhaled and/or applied topically (to the skin)
  • the individual exposed to the oils

Essential oils can be used in:

  • air fresheners and room sprays
  • bath water – to soothe sore muscles, help relax people etc
  • skin products such as body lotions, massage oils, soaps, and body washes
  • candles
  • cleaning products, because the oils add a lovely scent, help with cleaning, and some essential oils can kill germs
  • cotton balls – apply to the skin to help heal skin problems, for example
  • drawer and shelf liners
  • facial waters (facial toners)
  • hair care products such as shampoos and conditioners
  • herbal sachets
  • humidifiers – increase the humidity (moisture) in rooms
  • laundry wash/rinse to freshen clothes and kill germs
  • oil diffusers – these spread scents gradually throughout an area
  • pot pourri
  • scented books and paper
  • water bowls

Science Daily warns that: “Burning oils or incense is not recommended because most are poorly constructed and give off unhealthy fumes and soot.”

As previously mentioned, essential oils are concentrated. Before applying to the skin, they should be diluted with, for example, creams, lotions or carrier oils. Good carrier oils include:

  • apricot kernel oil
  • avocado oil
  • grapeseed oil
  • sweet almond oil
  • wheatgerm oil

What health problems has aromatherapy been used for?

Essential oils have been used to help treat many mental and physical problems including:

  • stress
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • memory problems
  • poor concentration
  • low energy levels
  • bacterial, fungal, parasitic and viral infections
  • sleeping problems such as insomnia (sleeplessness)
  • breathing problems
  • hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • skin problems such as burns, wounds, pimples, blackheads, acne, dandruff, eczema, psoriasis and dermatitis
  • pain such as headaches, back ache and muscle pain
  • inflammation
  • circulation problems
  • digestive problems

Which essential oils are good for stress, anxiety and depression?

Essential oils to help cope with stress and/or anxiety

  • Bergamot
  • Chamomile
  • Clary sage
  • Frankincense
  • Geranium
  • Jasmine
  • Lavender
  • Lemon grass
  • Lemon-scented eucalyptus
  • Mandarin
  • Marjoram
  • Melissa
  • Neroli
  • Orange
  • Palmarosa
  • Pettigrain
  • Rose
  • Sandalwood
  • Vetiver
  • Ylang-ylang (has both sedative (calming) and stimulant properties)

Essential oils to help treat depression

  • Bergamot
  • Citrus oils such as lemon and orange oil
  • Clary sage
  • Geranium
  • Jasmine
  • Lavender
  • Melissa
  • Rose
  • Rosemary
  • Sandalwood
  • Ylang-ylang

Essential oils that uplift/stimulate

  • Ginger
  • Orange
  • Peppermint
  • Scot’s pine
  • Thyme
  • Ylang-ylang (has both calming and stimulating properties)

How does aromatherapy work?

Essential oils work in various ways. The oils are volatile substances. This means that they evaporate easily, and their molecules are released into the air. After we breathe in the scented air, the oils’ molecules go from the lungs into the blood. The scent molecules then travel to the brain, where they affect memory, learning, emotions, feelings and so on.

Recent research by Professor Hanns Hatt and colleagues in Germany has found that molecules in essential oils act upon the receptors of nerve cells in the brain. The oils can also increase the effect of the neurotransmitter GABA. This is how benzodiazepines, barbiturates, and anesthetics, such as propofol, work to calm people down and make them sleepy.

In 2009 Science Daily reported on “the first scientific evidence that inhaling certain fragrances alter gene activity and blood chemistry in ways that can reduce stress levels.” Scientists Akio Nakamura and colleagues in Japan exposed lab rats to stressful conditions while inhaling and not inhaling linalool. Linalool is a part of essential oil. The scientists found that linalool reduced the rats’ high levels of two types of white blood cells to near-normal levels. The rats’ white blood cells were high due to stress. “Inhaling linalool also reduced the activity of more than 100 genes that go into overdrive in stressful situations. The findings could form the basis of new blood tests for identifying fragrances that can soothe stress, the researchers say.”

Brent A. Bauer, M.D., says: “aromatherapy is thought to work by stimulating smell receptors in the nose.” The receptors then send messages through the nervous system to the limbic system — the part of the brain that controls emotions.

Essential oils can also enter the body via the skin through body lotions, massage oils, bath water with essential oils added etc. The oils travel from the skin to the muscles, organs, joints and so on, where the oils take effect.

Essential oils have various properties, depending on the type of oil. These properties include:

  • analgesic (relieve pain)
  • anti-anxiety
  • antibacterial (kill bacteria)
  • antidepressant
  • antifungal (kill fungus)
  • anti-inflammatory (ease inflammation)
  • antiseptic (prevent infection)
  • antispasmodic (relieve muscle spasms)
  • antiviral (kill viruses)
  • calming
  • sedating (cause sleepiness)
  • stimulating
  • wound healing

What evidence is there that aromatherapy works?

Below are some key research studies that show that aromatherapy has health benefits.

As briefly discussed above, recent research by Professor Hanns Hatt and colleagues in Germany has discovered that two fragrances “have the same molecular mechanism of action and are as strong as the commonly prescribed barbiturates [calming and sleep-promoting drugs] or propofol [a type of anesthetic]. They soothe, relieve anxiety and promote sleep.” One of these fragrances is jasmine from Gardenia jasminoides. Professor Hatt and his team tested hundreds of different fragrances. The two strongest “were able to increase the GABA effect by more than five times and thus act as strongly as the known drugs.”

As mentioned under the above heading How does aromatherapy work?, Japanese researchers have discovered that essential oils can alter gene activity, and reduce high white blood cell counts caused by stress.

Hiroyasu Inoue and colleagues in Japan have found that six essential oils can reduce inflammation in a similar way to resveratrol — the chemical linked with the health benefits of red wine. These six essential oils are from thyme, clove, rose, eucalyptus, fennel and bergamot.

Researchers in the Department of Psychiatry in Mie University School of Medicine, Japan studied the effects of citrus fragrance on 12 people with depression. The researchers said that in regards to inhaling the citrus scent: “the results indicated that the doses of antidepressants necessary for the treatment of depression could be markedly reduced. The treatment with citrus fragrance normalized neuroendocrine hormone levels and immune function and was rather more effective than antidepressants.”

A blend of rose and lavender essential oils reduced stress and anxiety levels in a group of 28 women in USA at high risk of post natal depression. The treatment consisted of inhaling the oils for 15 minutes, twice a week for four weeks. The women reported no bad effects from the oils.

Eighty six nurses in Australia were given aromatherapy massages with music over 12 weeks. The nurses all worked in an accident and emergency department. Their stress levels were tested before and after the 12-week period. The researchers concluded that: “Aromatherapy massage with music significantly reduced emergency nurses’ anxiety.”

Are there any side effects, dangers and complications of aromatherapy?

Brent A. Bauer, M.D., says on the Mayo Clinic’s website that: “Many essential oils have been shown to be safe when used as directed.”

Some essential oils are poisonous, so should never be taken orally (swallowed). These oils include tea tree, eucalyptus, hyssop, thuja, wormwood, mugwort leaf, sage and tansy.

Inhaling too much essential oil might cause headaches and/or fatigue.

Essential oils are potent, so usually it’s best to dilute the oils before you put them on skin.

People’s reactions to essential oils vary. They might find that they have a bad reaction to one essential oil, but other oils cause them no problems. Do a patch test on your skin to see if you have a bad reaction, before applying to larger areas of skin. To test the oil, put one drop of the diluted oil on the inside of your elbow then wait 24 hours for a reaction.

When applied to the skin, some people might have one or more of the following side effects to essential oils:

  • allergies
  • skin reactions such as redness, burning sensations and/or lumps
  • sun sensitivity

Who should be cautious about aromatherapy?

Essential oils vary in their chemical properties. Individual oils can be helpful for some health problems, but are unsuitable – maybe harmful at times – for other problems.

Science Daily reports that the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center says:

  • Patients should always discuss aromatherapy with their health physicians before patients use essential oils to help treat health conditions.
  • Some essential oils might be toxic for some people when combined with chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
  • “People with high blood pressure should avoid hyssop, rosemary, sage and thyme.”
  • People with diabetes should avoid angelica oil.
  • Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should avoid oils that stimulate the uterus, such as star anise, basil and juniper, to name just a few.
  • Pregnant women in the first trimester should use peppermint, rose and rosemary oils with caution.
  • Cherie Perez, a supervising nurse and aromatherapy teacher, says essential oils in very low concentrations can help treat unwell babies and children.

written by Nyomi Graef

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