By Dr. Nora DeVoe, Ph.D.
Geriatric Care Manager


The Health Benefits of Aromatherapy

Essential oils, derived from various flowers, herbs, grasses, fruits, and other plants, have been used for centuries to scent perfumes, flavor foods, and as medications. Modern science affirms the therapeutic use of oils for some health conditions and has begun to appreciate them as natural, nontoxic choices. Essential oils have been shown to have a variety of useful properties, from antiseptic to antiviral to stimulating and calming.

The use of essential oils in massage gave rise to the practice of aromatherapy back in the 1930's. Today, essential oils have become more mainstream and multipurpose, making their way into cleaning products as well as medical practices.

Some UCLA hospital units have been using sets of three essential oils that medical personnel can offer to patients: lavender, lemon, and peppermint. The oils are commonly incorporated with relaxation services including guided meditation and breath work, gentle in bed movement, and reiki, a light touch stress reduction technique. Aromatherapy, which has been offered at UCLA Health for many years, may be the most accessible of the available relaxation modalities. Lavender oil appears to be the most popular in the hospital. Patients associate lavender with relaxation, and that is why they tend to pick it more often. Lemon is more uplifting, while peppermint is invigorating.

The sweet floral scent of lavender has long been appreciated for its ability to calm nerves and usher in sleep. Ancient Romans named the plant after its use in their bathing rituals ("lava" is to wash), realizing lavender is not only relaxing, but also antiseptic. Like all plants, there are many compounds in the leaves, flowers, and stems of lavender. Researchers theorize that there are at least 100 known compounds in lavender, among the most studied of essential oils. Studies show that lavender oil, which has calming and relaxing properties, may be as effective as prescription benzodiazepines like Ativan or Xanax.

The most common way to use essential oils is to breathe in the scent. Both inhaling a few drops on a cotton ball or using a diffuser to distribute the scent throughout a room can be beneficial. According to another study, when essential oil is inhaled, molecules activate the olfactory system. These molecules are capable of releasing neurotransmitters, such as endorphins, to trigger a sense of well being and an analgesic (pain relieving) effect.

Another study claims that compared with placebo and no treatment, lavender aromatherapy showed a substantial effect in reducing anxiety and depression, and multiple sessions of administration increased the anti-anxiety effects. Another study reported that inhaling lavender was effective in improving sleep problems, such as insomnia.

Aromatherapy with bergamot essential oil, a type of citrus, has been shown to ease feelings of anxiety and stress and promote happiness. Lemon oil has been found to boost mood. Peppermint oil, which has an eye opening, bright scent, appears to increase memory and alertness, and may offer some pain relief. The effects are immediate and remarkable. However, the effects are typically not long lasting. Still, it is easy enough to have a bottle handy and just inhale the scent as needed.

The Food and Drug Administration classifies essential oils as cosmetics not drugs for treating and preventing diseases, so they are not regulated by the FDA. When shopping for essential oils, look for formulations that are 100% pure. Beware of ultra low prices, as pure oils generally cost at least $10.00 for a half ounce bottle. Do not ingest them, and do not apply essential oils directly to the skin. For use in massage, place a few drops in a carrier oil, such as almond oil or fractionated coconut, which is non greasy, odorless, and room temperature stable.

Today's medical focus is on whole health, not just the patient as a physical disease, and there is an appreciation for the emotional, spiritual, and social domains that influence our health. Today there is a growing body of evidence pointing to the health benefits of essential oils and the therapeutic value of aromatherapy.

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Nora DeVoe is a Gerontologist specializing in Eldercare and Caregiver issues. She may be reached at (716) 667-7299.  

Dr. Nora is a ....