THE SCIENCE BEHIND AROMATHERAPY: HOW DO ESSENTIAL OILS WORK?
- Jul 19, 2021
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Essential oils smell nice, but do they really have proven health benefits?
Plants have been used for healing purposes for centuries. Aromatherapy is a holistic or alternative treatment that consists of using essential oils extracted from plants to promote physical and emotional health. Essential oils are becoming increasingly popular, but what is the science behind their benefits and how exactly do they work? We break down the basics for you in this blog post!
What is aromatherapy?
Essential oils are made by pressing or steaming plant elements (flowers, leaves, fruits, or bark). The term aromatherapy was first coined by René-Maurice Gattefossé, a perfumer and chemist in France who suggested using plant-based oils to treat certain medical conditions. But the practice had already existed for thousands of years; ancient civilizations in Egypt, India and China, for example, used plant components in oils and balms long before the term was coined.
How does aromatherapy work?
Essential oils are usually either inhaled or applied topically, on the skin. When inhaled, scent particles travel from the olfactory nerves to the amygdala in the limbic system – the brain’s emotional center. When applied topically, they are absorbed into the skin, enter the bloodstream and are metabolized by the liver.
Once in our system, certain essential oils are claimed to manage pain, boost immunity, fight infections, promote digestion, improve sleep quality, reduce stress or anxiety, treat migraines and tension headaches, relieve sore joints, and more. But what does science say about the potential healing effects of essential oils?
Does science support aromatherapy?
Given essential oils’ increasing popularity, many studies have been carried out to study the effects of essential oil therapy on our physical and emotional health. Some studies have shown that lavender may offer small to moderate sleep benefits. Peppermint oil has been shown to have pain-relieving properties and the ability to treat gastrointestinal problems, like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Despite these promising findings on the benefits of aromatherapy, science hasn’t yet caught up to its popularity. There haven’t been enough large-scale, peer-reviewed studies to determine essential oils’ effectiveness on our health or mood. Results are pretty inconsistent; some studies suggest certain essential oils are beneficial, while others fail to show improvement in symptoms. More rigorously controlled research is needed.
How to integrate aromatherapy into your daily routine?
Essential oils can be used in a variety of ways:
- Absorbent accessories like necklaces, bracelets and keychains
- Diffusers and spritzers (like our calming mist)
- Facial compresses
- Sleep masks (like our therapeutic lavender mask)
- Bath salts
- Soap or toothpaste
- Oils and creams massaged into your skin
What are some benefits of essential oils?
Wondering which essential oils may be right for you? Here are 14 popular essential oils and their potential benefits:
- Eucalyptus has energizing properties and is helpful as a decongestant.
- Lavender has calming properties and is used to reduce anxiety and enhance sleep, but also for bites and skin wounds.
- Ylang ylang is used to treat nausea, headaches or skin conditions.
- Sweet orange and bitter orange have been associated with reduced pain (including labor pain) and anxiety.
- Cedarwood has been proposed to treat hair loss and scalp conditions, as well as an antiseptic, anti-fungal and anti-inflammatory treatment, to promote sleep and reduce anxiety symptoms.
- Peppermint has been shown to aid digestion and help relieve irritable bowel syndrome; it may also relieve tension headaches and migraines when applied topically.
- Lemon oil is used in home cleaning products, and is said to have antioxidant, analgesic and insect-repelling properties.
- Patchouli is anti-inflammatory and soothes the nervous system.
- Tea tree oil supports the immune system and fights viral and bacterial infections, and can be used to treat head lice.
- Vetiver has calming and grounding properties, and improves blood circulation.
- Ginger helps with digestion (relieving gas and nausea) and can reduce pain and inflammation.
- Neroli is often used to reduce PMS, depression and anxiety symptoms.
- Bergamot is often used to calm the nervous system, improve mood, relieve pain and heal wounds.
- Sandalwood is used to calm nerves and improve mental focus.
Do essential oils have side effects?
Although essential oils are derived from natural plant parts, some best practices and precautions should be considered. Always check with a healthcare professional before trying aromatherapy, especially if you’re taking prescription medications, are pregnant or breastfeeding. Plant compounds, especially in high doses, can cause allergic reactions, irritation or drug interactions. Look for bottles that contain a single essential oil in its purest form (i.e. 100% essential oil with no other chemicals). When applying essential oils topically, test them first on a small area of your skin. Avoid direct sunlight exposure and don’t ingest essential oils. Diffusion of essential oils can affect people differently, especially children and pets. Essential oils can be dangerous for some animals and children; never leave them unsupervised with essential oils. Remember that aromatherapy is intended as a complementary therapy and not meant to replace doctor-approved treatment plans.
Essential oils may soothe or uplift your mood, depending on their fragrance and properties. Although science has not yet entirely caught up to their popularity, some of their benefits are backed by scientific research.
Try our therapeutic lavender sleep mask and our calming yogi mist made with cedarwood, ylang ylang, eucalyptus and sweet orange. Be sure to subscribe to our newsletter for more wellness tips, exercises and savings delivered straight to your inbox!
What’s your go-to essential oil? Leave us a comment below or share with us on social media by tagging @behumance.