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Aromatherapy, myth or evidence-based science?



Since I first heard about it I wonder what was that about, aromatherapy? Is it worth trying? Will that work and for which ailments?

Well, to find out and answer to these and many more questions I had a look at medical libraries and scientific trials on aromatherapy and their results, and you know what, after writing this article the way I thought about aromatherapy completely changed, and so you will I hope.

For those of you that have already tried it this article will give you an insight into those treatments and essentials oils about which you didn't know yet, and for those who didn't it will give you a perfect excuse to try it.

Aromatherapy is one of the complementary and alternative medicines used to treat various diseases and symptoms because essential oils have many kinds of pharmacological actions including anti-microbialsedative, analgesic, spasmolytic and estrogen or steroid hormone-like effects, etc. [1]. Image left: Themed herb pots -Aromatherapy- by Leonora Enking under Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 2.0).


Family: Lamiaceae

Genus: Lavandula

Common name: Lavender, English lavender, common lavender, true lavender, narrow-leaved



Essential oils are in fact everything but oils. Essential oils do not contain any fatty acids that will eventually justify to define them as "oils", they are purely and simply highly concentrated plant extracts that exert powerful cosmetic and medicinal properties.

Essential oils have been traditionally used to reduce body tension and emotional stress, being the most common types of essential oils are bergamot, lavender, and geranium. Some essential oils have been found to exert a sedating effect, such as bergamot, lavender, chamomile, and other essential oils [2,3].



Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is defined by National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine in the United States (NCCAM) as a group of diverse medical and health-care systems, practices and products that are not presently considered to be part of conventional medicine [8].

As such, aromatherapy falls into that category, as indeed, it makes use of non-conventional methods used in traditional medicine. 

In spite, it is not the only way, the most commonly used method to practice aromatherapy is using essential oils from plants. An essential oil is a concentrated hydrophobic liquid containing volatile aroma compounds from plants.

Essential oils are also known as volatile oils, ethereal oils or aetherolea, or simply as the "oil of" the plant from which they were extracted, such as oil of clove.

An oil is "essential" in the sense that it carries a distinctive scent, or essence, of the plant [7].



The most common essential oils as lavender, peppermint, and eucalyptus, are distilled from raw plant material, consisting of the flowers, leaves, wood, bark, roots, seeds, or peel, is put into an alembic (distillation apparatus) over water.

As the water is heated, the steam passes through the plant material, vaporizing the volatile compounds. The vapors flow through a coil, where they condense back to liquid, which is then collected in the receiving vessel [7], more or less the same as it is done with the alcoholic beverages that are done using this traditional method.



ESSENTIAL OILSIn a study done on aromatherapy effects on menopausal women, Lavender rose geranium, rose, and jasmine in almond and primrose oils were used for a massage once a week.

Eight-week massage showed a significantly lower total menopausal index than that in wait-listed controls.

These findings suggest that aromatherapy massage can be an effective treatment of menopausal symptoms such as hot flushes, depression, and pain in climacteric women [2,5]. Image right: #3219 by Gerold Schneider under Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0).



Several studies suggest that neurotransmitters 5-hydroxytryptamine and dopamine may be modulated with the anti-anxiety effect by essential oils from rose, lavender, lemon and peppermint [9,10,11]. Other popular anxiolytic oils include:

  • Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia),
  • Rose (Rosa damascena),
  • Orange (Citrus sinensis),
  • Bergamot (Citrus aurantium),
  • Lemon (Citrus limon),
  • Sandalwood (Santalum album),
  • Clary sage (Salvia sclarea),
  • Roman chamomile (Anthemis nobilis), and
  • Rose-scented geranium (Pelargonium spp.)

Workplace stress-related illness is a serious issue, and consequently, many stress reduction methods have been investigated.

Aromatherapy is especially for populations that work under high stress. Elementary school teachers are a high-stress working population in Taiwan.

In a study, fifty-four elementary school teachers were recruited to evaluate aromatherapy performance on stress reduction. Bergamot essential oil was used for aromatherapy spray for 10 minutes. Results showed that there were significant decreases in blood pressure, heart rate, [2].

Bergamot essential oil was also effective for anxiety reduction of mild depression subjects, and it also had the effect of reducing pain in cancer subjects [2,6].



Some essential oils have been found to exert sedating effect, such as:

  • Bergamot,
  • Lavender,
  • Chamomile, and other essential oils [2,3].

In spite Lemon oil is not one of the most commonly used essential oils when looking for anti-stress and sedating effects, at least one study shows how after examining the anti-stress action of the essential oils of lavender, rose, and lemon, it was observed that Lemon oil had the strongest anti-stress effect, confirming that lemon oil possesses anxiolytic and antidepressant-like effects [14].

Disclaimer: The information presented on this website is not intended to prescribe or give in any way or form medical advice, recommend or diagnose. Please read the disclaimer at the bottom of this page for more info.



[1] Anxiolytic Effect of Aromatherapy Massage in Patients with Breast Cancer Jiro Imanishi,1 Hiroko Kuriyama,1 Ichiro Shigemori,1 Satoko Watanabe,1 Yuka Aihara,2 Masakazu Kita,1 Kiyoshi Sawai,3 Hiroo Nakajima,3 Noriko Yoshida,4 Masahiro Kunisawa,4 Masanori Kawase,5 and Kenji Fukui4 Kang-Ming Chang1, 2* and Chuh-Wei Shen1, 3 Setzer WN. Department of Chemistry, University of Alabama in Huntsville, Huntsville, Alabama 35899, USA.
[2] Aromatherapy Benefits Autonomic Nervous System Regulation for Elementary School Faculty in Taiwan
[3] Carolyn LM. Releasing Emotional Patterns with Essential Oils. Vision Ware Press; 1998.
[4] McCaffrey R, Thomas DJ, Kinzelman AO. The effects of lavender and rosemary essential oils on test-taking anxiety among graduate nursing students. Holistic Nursing Practice. 2009;23(2):88–93.
[5] Hur MH, Yang YS, Lee MS. Aromatherapy massage affects menopausal symptoms in Korean climacteric women: a pilot-controlled clinical trial. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2008;5(3):325–328.
[6] Bagetta G, Morrone LA, Rombolà L, et al. Neuropharmacology of the essential oil of bergamot. Fitoterapia. 2010;81(6):453–461.
[7] Wikipedia article on Essential oils under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License
[8] Changes in Attitudes of Japanese Doctors toward Complementary and Alternative Medicine—Comparison of Surveys in 1999 and 2005 in Kyoto Kenji Fujiwara, 1 Jiro Imanishi, 1 ,* Satoko Watanabe, 1 Kotaro Ozasa, 2 and Kumi Sakurada 3
[9] Komiya M, Takeuchi T, Harada E (2006) Lemon oil vapor causes an anti-stress effect via modulating the 5-HT and DA activities in mice. Behav Brain Res 172: 240–249. [PubMed]
[10] Umezu T (2010) Evidence for dopamine involvement in ambulation promoted by pulegone in mice. Pharmacol Biochem Behav 94: 497–502. Yani Wu,#1,2 Yinan Zhang,#3 Guoxiang Xie,4,* Aihua Zhao,1 Xiaolan Pan,2 Tianlu Chen,3 Yixue Hu,2 Yumin Liu,5 Yu Cheng,1 Yi Chi,1 Lei Yao,2 and Wei Jia4,*
[11] The Metabolic Responses to Aerial Diffusion of Essential Oils
[12] Essential oils and anxiolytic aromatherapy. Buchbauer G, Jirovetz L, Jäger W, Plank C, Dietrich H. Komiya M, Takeuchi T, Harada E.
[13] Fragrance compounds and essential oils with sedative effects upon inhalation. Institute of Pharmaceutical Chemistry, University of Vienna, Austria.
[14] Lemon oil vapor causes an anti-stress effect via modulating the 5-HT and DA activities in mice. Graduate School of Veterinary Science, Faculty of Agriculture, Yamaguchi University, Yamaguchi 753-8515, Japan.
[15] Pharmaceutical and therapeutic potentials of essential oils and their individual volatile constituents: a review. Edris AE. Aroma and Flavor Chemistry Department, National Research Center, Dokki, El Behose Street, Dokki, 12622, Cairo, Egypt.