The most pervasive concept of aromatherapy in North America is that of nice smells making you feel good - a strong whiff out of a little bottle and you’re carried away to your personal ‘happy place’. Not a bad idea, but this concept carries the burden of ‘New Age’ stereotypes with it. Aromatherapy is but a simple folk remedy that works only because the yoga-posing, mantra-chanting, tantric-sex practicing user thinks it does. Well, we’ve got news for the ‘Establishment’: Science has validated aromatherapy! Perhaps most profoundly, science has shown that smelling essential oils has true anti-anxiety effects; there’s actual data showing essential oils will actually help you relax. Now all you natural health and wellness practitioners can tell your doubting, possibly smirking friends - this stuff is for real.
In recent years, more and more clinical and laboratory research is uncovering the efficacy of essential oils used for their anti-anxiety effects. Thankfully, the application of the oils in these studies is relatively simple: both the inhalation of aroma and the topical application have demonstrable therapeutic activity. These methods are easily replicated by the professional and aromatherapy enthusiast alike. The oils can be diffused an any diffuser (as the concentrations from high end nebulizers are not required for this practice), used in aromatherapy massage, or simply worn as natural perfume. Several readily available essential oils have statistically significant data to support their use in stress reduction - here’s a look at some of the most often studied ones…
Lavender has been the most frequently studied of all the essential oils. Its anti-anxiety (or simply ‘relaxing’) action has been documented both in the laboratory (using stressed-out mice and rats) and in clinical environments with actual human beings. Many, many studies have reported the same thing: inhalation of lavender oil brings calm under a great variety of conditions. At least one study compared Lavender oil aroma to that of Juniper, Cypress, Geranium, Jasmine and Frankincense. It was only the Frankincense that had a somewhat similar effect, but not nearly as effective as Lavender. Several studies compared Lavender’s effect to diazepam (Valium) with Lavender’s aroma having similar (but likely more healthy) calming results. In other studies, Lavender has been shown to improve sleep, decrease conflict between animals, and reduce the amount of pain medication needed by recovering hospital patients.
Sandalwood oil is another well-known stress reducer. For those that may not enjoy the floral aroma of Lavender, Sandalwood could be the oil of choice. Its warm, earthy scent is grounding and centering, being used by some spiritual traditions to enhance relaxed, focused meditative states. The science shows similar results - Sandalwood oil topically applied relaxed the body while stimulating psyche. Studies on sleep/wake cycles using Sandalwood oil topically improved the quality of sleep and lessened waking episodes. A small study using Sandalwood suggested the oil may be helpful in reducing anxiety for palliative care patients. Beyond the scope of Western scientific inquiry, Sandalwood oils and pastes have been used for centuries in Ayurvedic medicine for the treatment of psychological disorders, utilizing its sublime mental-health promoting actions.
While Sandalwood and Lavender have the most data to back them up, many other essential oils have had positive test results. Rose is a standout; it has also been tested alongside Valium (apparently the anti-anxiety gold standard) with better and longer-lasting results. The rose aroma’s effect seem to increase over time, where as benzodiazepines’ effect will tend to decrease - and the test subjects appeared less confused or sedated. Rose, like Lavender, reduced conflict between test subjects as well. For a little variety, you can mix Rose and Sandalwood together (try a 1:4 ratio)…this is a classic Indian aromatic blend combining two of the world’s best known anti-anxiety scents.
Other oils found in research databases include Angelica, Chamomile, Lemon, Lemongrass, Tagetes and Ylang Ylang. Some oils tested didn’t show repeatable results in the laboratory environment, but if you find and oil aroma that you find relaxing, it’s more than likely not purely ‘in your head’; the olfactory (smell) sense is the one of the five senses most directly wired to the brain’s emotional centers. These are, in turn, directly wired to the autonomic nervous system controlling functions such as heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure - all of which are closely tied to one’s level of stress.
So what to do with these stress relieving wonders? They’re really easy to use - one of the great features of aromatherapy. Both topical application and inhalation show repeatable results in laboratory tests. A common method of topical application is to dilute the essential oil in a carrier oil like Jojoba down to 10% or less. Essential oils tend to pass easily into the bloodstream when applied to the skin, so nearly any technique will do. A few drops of your mixture can be placed on the wrists and rubbed together (this is nice, as you’ll smell the aroma as well). For inhalation, there’s a great many aromatherapy diffusers available, from little, inexpensive plug in units, to professional models which make a cloud of pure, intense aroma. For anxiety relief, any model where you can smell the aroma will do the job - the higher end diffusers tend to bathe a larger area in your aroma of choice.
How to chose an oil for you, your family or friends? Aromatherapy choices tends to be some personal. Some folks go mad for Rose Geranium, and other folks can only think of ‘grandma’ (in a nice way!) with the bright scents of florals. These same individuals will often love the grounding aromas of the woods: Sandalwood, Frankincense, Spruce, etc. The beauty of the scientific data is that it’s not one type of essential oil that’s effective to support health and wellness naturally - it’s the santalol in Sandalwood, the linalool in Lavender, and the citronellol in Rose that imparts much of the therapeutic effect. Other oils have different chemical constituents that also bring about relaxation. Even the most scientifically aligned practitioners will tell you: if it feels good, use it. Try a variety of aromas if you’re new, and use your favorite with confidence - relaxed confidence, of course - knowing you’re using some of the best medicine nature has to offer, with the science to back it up.
Although I'm a firm believer in the power of essential oils to effect profound physical and psychological changes, there are always going to be charlatans who promote their alternative therapy as a miracle cure for anything (I think I once read the
Lavender essential oil can cure cancer...if only!). So it is no wonder many of us aromatherapy lovers are healthy skeptics who do like to read proof of efficacy from an unbiased source, such as the scientific community! The study that you have cited is great news and I would very much like to view the paper(s). Can you point us in the right direction for the documentation on these studies?