Is Aromatherapy a Missing “Ingredient” Of Your Proactive Healthcare Plan?4 weeks ago | Stress
By Joy Stephenson-Laws, JD, Founder
There is little dispute that going to the dentist is usually not a pleasant experience. And it appears that many dentists are more than aware of this. Dental visits can be a stressful, anxiety-ridden experience.
And some dental offices appear to being doing something about this. I recently came across an article which discussed how some dental offices are trying to make visits more like a spa experience by providing treats such as light snacks, noise-canceling headphones, Netflix, blankets, massage chairs and aromatherapy.
The latter of the treats, aromatherapy, particularly caught my attention, because it is a practice I need to educate myself about. Aromatherapy’s main claim to fame is that it calms the nerves and promotes relaxation.
For those that are not familiar, aromatherapy, also called essential oil therapy, uses essential oils from plants, including flowers, herbs and trees, to promote health and wellbeing in a number of ways (which I will explain shortly).
Here are the three basic ways to practice aromatherapy:
- Indirect inhalation. When you breathe in an essential oil through, for example, a room diffuser or by placing drops of the essential oil on some tissue or cotton and keep it near yourself in the room.
- Direct inhalation. Breathing in the essential oil through an inhaler containing water mixed with the essential oil.
- Massage. My personal favorite. Essential oils are combined with a carrier oil, such as avocado oil or coconut oil (used to dilute the essential oils so that it is not irritating to the skin), and massaged into the skin.
You can even add a few drops of your favorite essential oil to your bath water or body lotion.
For a more official definition of aromatherapy, I visited the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy. It is defined there as “the art and science of utilizing naturally extracted aromatic essences from plants to balance, harmonize and promote the health of body, mind and spirit. It seeks to unify physiological, psychological and spiritual processes to enhance an individual’s innate healing process.”
Perhaps we should just think of it as a form of plant therapy!
For those who are skeptical and see this as nothing more than “hippie dippie” medicine, hear me out.
“The olfactory nerve gives us our sense of smell and starts from our nose and enters the skull through tiny holes to connect directly to the brain. This nerve sends signals almost instantaneously to many parts of the brain, including the limbic system and amygdala, which are in charge of emotions, mood, and memory,” reports Psychology Today.
(Hence why certain smells may remind you of a certain place or person).
“These systems are also in charge of regulating our autonomic nervous system, which can either trigger a fight-or-flight response, quickening our breath, heart rate and raising our blood pressure, or can soothe us through turning on the parasympathetic nervous system, which relaxes our bodies...Essential oils like lavender have even been shown to interact the same way biochemically that many anti-anxiety medications do on neuroreceptors.”
Furthermore, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports that there is evidence that when aromatherapy was administered to women in labor it reduced their anxiety. In addition to this, the NIH discusses a clinical trial in which 140 women were randomly divided into aromatherapy and non-aromatherapy groups immediately after delivering their babies. Treatment for the aromatherapy group involved inhaling three drops of lavender essential oil every eight hours for four weeks. The results revealed that the aromatherapy group overall had less stress, anxiety and depression.
These findings are extremely important, because reportedly one in nine new mothers suffer from postpartum depression. And the NIH reports that anxiety in mothers decreases oxytocin secretion and milk production.
And it’s not just lavender oil that may be beneficial. For example:
- Wild ginger essential oil may have antidepressant effects.
- Bergamot (a citrus fruit) essential oil has been shown to reduce anxiety in patients about to undergo surgery.
- Rose essential oil may promote relaxation.
- Ylang ylang (a type of tropical tree) essential oil may promote relaxation and ease symptoms of depression.
No matter what our backgrounds (gender, age, race) or certain lifestyle influences (for example, whether we have kids or not), we can all benefit from any natural stress, anxiety and depression remedies such as aromatherapy. We have to approach our health in a holistic manner and acknowledge that implementing small practices, such as spritzing our pillows with our favorite essential oil, may calm us and promote a better night’s sleep.
And this all may have a snowball effect in a good way. If we are less stressed and better rested and not being overcome with crippling depression, the more likely we will be to make better food choices, exercise more and have stronger immune systems which, in turn, may help prevent or better manage health issues such as obesity and heart disease.
There is an ongoing debate about whether aromatherapy is beneficial and should be integrated into standard medical practices. Although more research is needed, there is a significant amount of credible evidence showing that it may be worth considering when coping with serious health issues such as cancer.
For example, the National Cancer Institute reports that aromatherapy “...is used by patients with cancer to improve quality of life and reduce stress, anxiety, pain, nausea, and vomiting caused by cancer and its treatment.”
The Institute discusses a study in which patients who were newly diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia and were hospitalized to receive intensive chemotherapy inhaled an essential oil through a diffuser overnight for three weeks.
The National Cancer Institute also discusses a study involving patients who received radioactive iodine therapy, which can cause dry mouth by damaging salivary glands. Dry mouth may cause both a loss of taste and appetite. However, increased saliva production during treatment may reduce damage to the salivary glands. And the study found that when patients receiving this treatment inhaled a mixture of lemon and ginger essential oils, it increased saliva production.
In addition to cancer treatment, aromatherapy may be useful in the treatment of people battling serious heart conditions. The NIH discusses a study which found that aromatherapy reduced anxiety, increased sleep and stabilized blood pressure of patients undergoing cardiac stent insertion.
Essential oils involved in the study included lavender, chamomile and neroli (which is extracted from the blossoms of a bitter orange tree). The essential oils were administered to the patients via inhalation through aroma stones.
“Lavender suppresses heart stimulation and lowers blood pressure; therefore, it is useful in the treatment of heart acceleration and high blood pressure. Chamomile has a calming effect and is effective in relieving anxiety and stress, and neroli has a calming effect and is effective in treating insomnia,” reports the NIH.
(Keep in mind that lavender oil is not a viable option for curing high blood pressure (hypertension). Although it may lower your blood pressure temporarily, it will not outweigh the damaging effects of an unhealthy diet and lack of exercise).
Other potential benefits of aromatherapy?
Aromatherapy may help with skin issues such as acne due to antimicrobial properties of some essential oils. And aromatherapy may help with digestive issues such as bloating, can act as a natural decongestant and help with headaches, muscle aches and joint pain.
Here are a few essential oils to consider (in addition to lavender, ginger, chamomile and other essential oils mentioned earlier):
- Tea tree. Known for its antimicrobial properties. When applied topically, may help with the treatment of acne, athlete’s foot, lice and nail fungus.
- Jojoba. Makes a great skin moisturizer and may help with skin conditions such as rosacea and eczema. May even help with wound healing.
- Frankincense. When inhaled, may reduce stress and negative emotions. Makes a great natural household cleaner, as it contains antimicrobial properties. May also help with skin tone and appearance if applied topically.
- Sandalwood. Known for anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties. May even help in the treatment of hemorrhoids.
- Jasmine oil. Smells wonderful and may combat depression.
There are actually more than 90 known essential oils, so I don’t doubt that we can all find a few that work well for us.
Precautions with aromatherapy and essential oils?
As always, consult a competent healthcare professional before making aromatherapy a regular addition to your proactive healthcare regimine. This is especially necessary for people with existing health issues and for women who are pregnant and breastfeeding. I recommend that you also seek professional advice if you are particularly interested in practicing direct inhalation aromatherapy with the use of an inhaler.
If you have allergies, sensitive skin or our battling skin conditions such as acne or psoriasis, it is best you consult your dermatologist before applying essential oils directly to your skin. And remember to mix the oil with water or a carrier oil, like coconut oil, in order to dilute the essential oil.
Although the use of essential oils appears to be overall safe and not have many side effects in most cases, know that aromatherapy products do not need approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
“Lavender and tea tree essential oils have been found to have effects similar to estrogen (female sex hormone) and also block or decrease the effect of androgens(male sex hormones). Applying lavender and tea tree essential oils to the skin over a long period of time was linked in one study to breast growth in boys who had not yet reached puberty,” according to the National Cancer Institute.
And you never want to swallow large amounts of essential oils.
“If you drink some essential oils they can hurt your kidneys or liver. It's rare that people take essential oils by mouth, and you shouldn't do it unless your doctor says it's OK,” (WebMD).
To learn more about safety and essential oils, check out this older pH Labs blog.
Are you into aromatherapy? What are some of your favorite essential oils? Please join the conversation.
Enjoy your healthy life!
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