There have been a wide variety of medical practices throughout history, ranging from bloodletting to spitting on your wounds to purging and taking arsenic (boy, am I glad we outgrew the idea of the four humors), but few have withstood the test of time like aromatherapy.
‘Yeah,’ you may be thinking. ‘That’s because aromatherapy doesn’t involve massive projectile vomiting and blood loss.’ And you make a fair point, but you still shouldn’t underestimate the staying power of aromatherapy as a medical tradition.
No one is certain exactly when humans started inhaling the fumes from herbs and oils for medicinal purposes, but we know that the ancient Egyptian priests, who doubled as doctors, used them to treat illnesses of all sorts. Aromatherapy was widespread throughout many ancient cultures, but perhaps most notable was its presence in the toolkit of Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine. According to him, the basis of all healing lay in scented baths and daily massages. Aromatic oils such as tea tree oil and eucalyptus oil were also used widely throughout China and India, generally as massage oils that were recommended for everything from headaches to depression to colds and insomnia.
In the modern era, a French chemist named René-Maurice Gattefossé is credited with founding contemporary aromatherapy. He discovered lavender oil’s powerful healing properties when he used it topically on a chemical burn he suffered during an experiment, and he did extensive research on the ways it was used to treat wounds and burns during World War I. After all this, he came up with the term ‘aromatherapy’ in 1937—it was the title of his book. By the late 1950s, many doctors, massage therapists, nurses, and other ‘healers’ were using aromatherapy on their patients, but it didn’t really begin to surge in popularity until the 1980s.
Today, the word ‘aromatherapy’ is everywhere. There are plenty of candles, perfumes, potions, bouquets, and even clothing articles that are marketed as tools for aromatherapy—though many of these items are scented with man-made chemicals that don’t boast the same benefits as real essential oils. In more respectable (and perhaps less profit-driven) circles, aromatherapy is used by doctors, nurses, therapists, and alternative healers to treat many of the same ailments as in ancient Egypt.
While most medical practitioners don’t rely on aromatherapy alone to treat chronic illnesses or serious health conditions, it is often employed as a complementary treatment to manage pain, reduce stress levels, and improve overall quality of life. Its popularity has grown mostly among those looking for at-home remedies for common ailments like seasonal depression, insomnia, stress, stomach problems, or headaches.
Aromatherapy has been shown to be effective in alleviating the symptoms of several different illnesses, but before we go into a list of health benefits, we need to cover a few basic rules.
First, make sure the oils you purchase are 100% pure essential oils. Many of the cheaper products available today are synthetic oils, so while they may smell wonderful, they will do little to improve your health. Second, be conservative! Mix a couple drops of your chosen essential oil into lotion, coconut oil, olive oil, or another carrier if you want to massage it into your neck or chest for inhalation.
And of course, be wary of any allergies or sensitivities you may have. If inhaling a certain oil makes you feel dizzy, sick or tight in the chest, stop using it and consult your doctor. For the best effects, store your essential oils in a cool, dark place. As with anything, efficacy may vary—you might not get the exact same benefits that your neighbor or your cousin do, but with some practice and experimentation, you can find a blend or concentration of oils that works for you.
Here are just a few of the health benefits of aromatherapy:
Health Benefits of Aromatherapy
1. It can help you fall asleep faster and wake up less during the night.
When we can’t sleep, many of us turn to over-the-counter sleep aids, often only to fall victim to unpleasant or even dangerous side effects like dry mouth, dizziness, upset stomach, constipation, and the dreaded day-after ‘hangover’. Desperate to look after our bodies, we may turn to writing out our stream of consciousness in journals, counting sheep, struggling to breathe through our clogged left nostril, or eating enough tryptophan-loaded bananas to put a monkey to shame—to no avail.
While some people can fall asleep rather quickly once they get their conscious brain to slow down, others have trouble quieting our bodies, and aromatherapy may be the solution. By using a few drops of a calming essential oil in your bath, you can quiet your body and your mind to help yourself drift off easier. Want a more powerful effect? Diffuse your soothing oil of choice directly into your bedroom before you turn the lights out. The scent will sedate you without the unpleasant side effects of a sleeping pill.
2. It can be used to improve quality of life in people with cancer or other severe illness.
While aromatherapy should not be used as the sole treatment for patients dealing with cancer or heart failure, it can be instrumental in improving quality of life and reducing suffering—which, as we know, can improve the prognosis in the long term. Aromatherapy is often used in conjunction with standard treatments to manage symptoms like pain, anxiety, and fatigue. Because of the positive effect it has on cognition and emotional well-being, it can be a key part of managing feelings of hopelessness or despair.
3. It can improve cognition in people suffering from dementia.
Though we have been using aromatherapy to treat psychiatric problems for thousands of years, it wasn’t until recently that we were able to put its healing powers to the test in a controlled setting. A handful of studies performed on people with dementia—mostly Alzheimer’s—have found significant improvements in cognition after undergoing a certain period of aromatherapy.
When used on patients with advanced dementia, lavender and lemon balm were found to decrease the instance of behavior problems and physical agitation. They also improved communication and overall functionality.
4. It can alleviate headaches and manage pain.
You don’t need a life-threatening illness to see the pain reduction benefits of aromatherapy. Rather than popping pills, you can use aromatherapy to relieve your current headache—and to reduce the instance of headaches in the future. One placebo-controlled study done in 2012 found that lavender essential oil significantly reduced the number and intensity of headache symptoms in those diagnosed with chronic migraine headaches. Researchers concluded that, “inhalation of lavender essential oil may be an effective and safe treatment modality in acute management of migraine headaches.”
5. It can help you wake up and energize.
Aromatherapy can put you to sleep, but it can also help you wake up without feeling like you need to pump copious amounts of caffeine directly into your veins. While a healthy diet and exercise program are by far the best treatments for low energy levels, aromatherapy may be the extra boost you need to feel alert and productive.
Many essential oils used in aromatherapy will help make you feel more lively by improving your circulation and stimulating the nervous system—without the harsh effects of other stimulants like caffeine and nicotine. To help wake yourself up in the morning, you can diffuse the scent throughout the house, mix a couple drops of oil into your face wash, or mix it into your lotion and rub it into your neck and chest. As long as you can smell it, you should be good to go!
6. It can alleviate depression and elevate your mood.
Though it may not be sufficient to completely eliminate symptoms in those suffering from major depressive disorder, aromatherapy is a great natural remedy for a standard case of ‘the blues’. Because scent goes directly to the brain, our sense of smell is one of the most emotionally triggering senses we have. Our most primal emotions—and even our hormonal balances—are often affected by our sense of smell.
To keep feelings of sadness, low self-esteem, and fatigue at bay, diffuse essential oils into your home or mix them with your favorite moisturizer and give yourself a massage every morning. For immediate, powerful results, rub two or three drops of oil into your hands, cup them over your nose, and take a few deep breaths of the oil. You should feel better almost immediately.
7. It can relieve sore throats, as well as sinus and lung congestion.
Cold? Flu? Allergies? Regardless of the cause, aromatherapy is a quick and painless way to clear out your sinuses and breathe easier. Whether you diffuse it into your home or cup it in your hands and inhale, the results are instantaneous. Inhaling essential oils helps unclog the nasal passages, reduce inflammation, improve breathing, and lower the amount of mucous your body turns out. This makes aromatherapy a great alternative to those who often rely on nasal sprays to relieve sinus congestion—and unlike your average nasal spray, essential oils do not put you at risk for rebound congestion.