Aromatherapy is one of the most interesting and controversial practices of the non-traditional medicine. From the times immemorial, people have used the gifts of nature in order to resist illnesses, evil spirits, and disasters. However, in pre-scientific times, people had no developed medicine and had nothing but essential oils. Frequently, oils of plants were used in the magic rituals that were believed to cure the ill by honoring gods and spirits. Today, however, when technological and microbiological inventions allow overcoming harmful bacteria and diseases with chemistry, physics, and psychophysiology, the application of mythic aromas seems ridiculous.
Nevertheless, more and more contemporary scientists are engaging in the aromatherapy exploration.
My research topic is rather complex as it considers not only the issue of applying essential oils, but also the problem of science and pseudoscience, myths and scientific discoveries, as well as the psychophysiology and placebo effect. The actual task is to find out whether aromatherapy may be effective as an additional to traditional medicine tool or by itself. The topic of aromatherapy is very significant as it helps to re-evaluate the medical activity of our ancestors and realize that the nature is extremely rich for plants that sometimes can replace medicines and therapy sessions. I am interested in this topic because I suppose that some discoveries of non-traditional medicine should not be neglected. Therefore, I want to study the use of aromatherapy and conclude whether people can seek help from nature.
Honestly, before starting the given research, I have learned about aromatherapy during the analysis of ancient religious beliefs. I have never believed that the spirits can heal people, but I think that some plant components, used in magic rituals, really have a positive impact on the human body. In addition, I have always been noticing that different aromas influence person’s mood and behavior in specific ways. For instance, the aromas of oranges and lemons are exciting and alerting while lavender and rose are likely to calm people. Furthermore, many of the contemporary drug shops are selling various oils that are frequently purchased. It is important to consider that the rising interest to aromatherapy is caused by different factors. Nevertheless, such interest should not lead to the underestimation of aromatherapy as one of the most important therapies of doctors in other corners of the world. Instead of boasting about the latest advances in microbiology and chemistry, it is necessary to accept that the old-known therapies may also be useful.
First of all, I want to analyze the ancient medicine practices, such as aromatherapy. In addition, it is important to find out how alternative and traditional medicine may be combined in the contemporary medical practices. Among other issues, I want to explore the application of aromatherapy in clinical medicine and psychology. Moreover, I am concerned with the fact that the given research allows emphasizing how a myth may be transformed into a scientific fact and how people’s mood depends on different chemicals, found in certain oils.
In order to explore the topic, I decided to analyze the most credible and significant studies concerning the issue. Many of the studies report exclusively positive effects of aromatherapy; however, I decided to take into consideration other opinions regarding this practice of alternative medicine. Though the analysis focuses on the psychological effects of essential oils, the articles on severe mental disorders, microbiology, and specific physical illnesses are also taken into consideration. Even though, my primary position was in favor of the essential oils, I looked through the studies reporting the adverse effects of aromatherapy. Having analyzed the literature on both advantages and disadvantages of aromatherapy, I assume that this issue is very controversial and complicated.
Aromatherapy: Myth or Medicine
As it was mentioned above, before starting analyzing the facts in favor and against the application of essential oils in the contemporary medicine, I had to find the epistemological backgrounds for considering aromatherapy an effective tool. Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans used the essential oils to enhance healing and considered the practice rather rational and scientific. However, even today some distinct tribes associate aromatherapy with supernatural powers. It is worth noting that aromatherapy became popular because, in some cases, it was extremely effective and no other options for healing were available. It is difficult to distinguish the actual facts and fiction; therefore, today, it is difficult to state whether people believed in the power of essential oils or in the power of gods and spirits.
In the 21st century, people are aware of the effective therapies, pills, and procedures; traditional medicine seems to dominate over the alternative practices in different aspects. First of all, the stigma of alternative medicine attributed to aromatherapy does not allow taking it seriously and, consequently, perceiving it as an object of thorough studies. Therefore, despite the raising attention to application of essential oils, aromatherapy remains a poorly-explored field. For example, in the book Alternative Medicine: A Guide to Natural Therapies, Stanway asserts that people should re-evaluate unorthodox medicine techniques (13). Therefore, the primary problems associated with aromatherapy include its epistemological status and stereotypical thinking.
Before studying the effects of essential oils, it is necessary to realize that the experience of our ancestors should not be neglected. In addition, the scientific community should be more attentive to the medicines that surround us in the daily life. In addition, the idea of the healing effects of plants and fruit, which do not demand intervention of the latest technologies, is rather surprising. Nevertheless, the studies and experiments on the effects of essential oils are crucial while promotion of the experiments’ results regarding aromatherapy becomes highly demanded.
Most of the studies on aromatherapy are intended to describe the psychological effects of the aromatherapy sessions. In order to measure the consequences more objectively, it is necessary to distinguish the effects of aromas and the effects of personal relationships with the therapist, general physical and mental conditions, as well as the patient’s attitude to aromatherapy. The patients of aromatherapies are usually asked to report their feelings, but they are not always able to distinguish pleasure of interaction with the therapist and other patients, sitting or lying after a hard day from the real influence of aromas. Nevertheless, it seems to be the neglect of the researchers who have failed to conduct appropriate experiments on the effects of aromatherapy itself. Furthermore, when making the conclusions regarding the effectiveness of aromatherapy, the researchers usually omit the placebo effect. Essentially, when it comes to the placebo effect in microbiology and chemistry, this option seems to be rather unlikely. However, the tired and emotionally exhausted people are very likely to relax during the lavender and cinnamon therapy sessions.
Evidence in Favor of Aromatherapy
In general, the studies that prove the positive effects of aromatherapy focus on the cognitive performance and mood of the patients. For example, in the study “Modulation of Cognitive Performance and Mood by Aromas of Peppermint and Ylang-Ylang,” the authors have discovered that the peppermint enhances memory and increases alertness while ylang-ylang aroma decreases alertness and reduces stress (Moss, Hewitt, Moss, & Wesnes. 72). The results of the experiment prove that aromatherapy may considerably influence the human cognition and behavior.
However, this study does not provide any evidence regarding the mechanisms, in which memory may be enhanced. It means that it is impossible to know for sure whether the memory and processing speed are improved because of the peppermint influence or as a result of relaxation. When people are relaxing, their brain is working less hard that results in enhanced cognition after the rest. It is difficult to deny that the processing speed increases after the peppermint aromatherapy sessions; however, it is worth considering that the enhanced memory and cognition may be a result of various factors.
Apart from the academic literature, the issue of aromatherapy is depicted in educational and pseudo-scientific books, including Practical Aromatherapy by Rich (52) and Handbook of Complementary and Alternative Therapies in Mental Health by Shanon (31). For instance, the later book provides an overview of the existing alternative medicine practices, among which aromatherapy is one of the central issues. The origin, history, and legends regarding aromatherapy are given much attention while the place of aromatherapy in traditional medicine and alternative therapies techniques are only briefly summarized. The most meaningful component of this book is the variety of evidence, especially electroencephalogram mapping of the human brain. This procedure may be considered one of the most reliable evidence in favor of aromatherapy, as it proves that different aromas influence the brain activity. By influencing certain parts of the human brain and creating electric impulses, aromas impact people’s physical and mental wellbeing. This fact may be soundly considered a sufficient and direct evidence in favor of the effectiveness of aromatherapy.
While some researches identify the psychological effects of aromatherapy, other studies consider the antibacterial effects of essential oils. For example, the research by Inouyea, Takizawab, and Yamaguchi (567) “Antibacterial Activity of Essential Oils and Their Major Constituents against Respiratory Tract Pathogens by Gaseous Contact” discovered that the vapors of certain essential oils helped mitigate the effects of asthma and cure some lungs illnesses. The assertion made by this experiment is explained via the chemical reactions upon the vapor’s interaction with the human nervous system. Apart from providing sufficient evidence, this study proves that aromatherapy may be effective in case of specific conditions, “We conclude that the antimicrobial action of essential oils by gaseous contact is most efficient when exposed at high vapor concentration for a short time” (Inouyea et al. 572).
Evidence Against Aromatherapy
Many of the researchers emphasize the positive effects of aromatherapy; nevertheless, numerous studies argue its effectiveness. For example, in the work “Adverse Effects of Aromatherapy: A Systematic Review of Case Reports and Case Series,” Posadzki, Alotaibi, and Ernst (153) reported the negative effects of essential oils. The authors stated that in many instances, the aromatherapy sessions had caused negative consequences instead of healing. For example, lavender, peppermint, ylang-ylang, and tea oils could cause dermatitis. Furthermore, several lethal cases prove that essential oils may become rather dangerous for the patients. Despite the variety of reports, it is worth emphasizing that the adverse effects were observed in case of inappropriate dosage of essential oils.
The matter is that many people are liable to allergy to certain kinds of oils; this issue does not allow stating these oils to be harmful to humans. Mild, severe, and fatal effects should provoke further researches regarding the aromatherapy consequences. The researchers should pay attention to the peculiarities of the aromatherapy methods including inhalation, massage, dosage, and participants of the experiments. It is necessary to realize that even the most effective medicine may lead to death in case of inappropriate application.
Degel, Piper, and Koter (270) attempted to explore the connection between human memory for odors and effects of essential oils on the human organism in their study “Implicit Learning and Implicit Memory for Odors: The Influence of Odor Identification and Retention Time.” It is necessary to pay special attention to this work because it provides serious proofs against the aromatherapy effectiveness. To be precise, the authors measured the effect of aromas on implicit learning abilities of the participants of the experiment. The authors explained how people’s awareness of odors, concentration of these odors, and length of session affect people’s memory for odors and mental health. According to the results of their experiment, only few individuals managed to identify the control and experimental odors. It means that people do not memorize the odors of essential oils and do not report the improving mood. Though the odors were pleasant, several people pointed out their high concentration.
Moreover, some participants of the experiment could not identify certain samples at all and did not report any positive changes in their emotional condition accordingly. When the participants were unaware of odors, they failed to recall any; however, when they were told that certain odor is air-sprayed in the room, they reported pleasant and/or unpleasant feelings immediately. This fact proves that frequently, people fail to distinguish their recent feelings, which depend on their preferences for some odors.
Despite the variety of studies in the scientific literature, the issue of aromatherapy remains controversial and unsolved. First of all, it is closely associated with the issues of trustworthiness, transformation of myths into science, and perception of the alternative medicine. Undeniably, epistemological issues are much more complicated than the actual effects of aromatherapy on the human health. While a number of studies aim at demonstrating that the essential oils are very effective, others attempt to prove the adverse effects of aromatherapy. The issue of distinction between the real use of essential oils and people’s approval/disapproval of certain odors appear to be significant.
On the one hand, the findings in the field of microbiology and results of the electroencephalogram prove that the essential oils activate certain parts of the brain and change people’s psycho-physiological condition.
Nevertheless, on the other hand, essential oils were tested only as an additional tool, followed by different traditional therapies and pharmacology, for example, in the study “The Effect of Lavender Aromatherapy on Autonomic Nervous System in Midlife Women with Insomnia” (Chien, Cheng, & Feng 21). Nevertheless, it is still difficult to conclude whether aromatherapy is effective or not, I suppose that aromas positively affect people’s mood, stress level, and alertness if only some other therapies such as massage, appointments with psychologists, or physical relaxation are available. Even though, the antibacterial effects of essential oils cannot be denied, aromatherapy appears to be ineffective in dealing with severe mental and physical illnesses without additional therapy and pills.