Scientifically Accepted Benefits of Essential Oils versus the Lack of Evidence for Aromatherapy

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There is virtually no scientific evidence, as yet, regarding the direct action of essential oils, applied through massage on the skin, on specific internal organs—rather than through the odor pathway leading into the mid-brain's "limbic system" and then through the normal sympathetic and parasympathetic pathways. This is despite some evidence that certain components of essential oils can be absorbed either through the skin or lungs (Buchbauer et al., 1992; Jager et al., 1992; Fuchs et al., 1997).

Many fragrances have been shown to have an effect on mood and, in general, pleasant odors generate happy memories, more positive feelings, and a general sense of well-being (Knasko et al., 1990; Knasko, 1992; Warren and Warrenburg, 1993) just like perfumes. Many essential oil vapors have been shown to depress contingent negative variation (CNV) brain waves in human volunteers and these are considered to be sedative (Torii et al., 1988). Others increase CNV and are considered stimulants (Kubota et al., 1992). An individual with anosmia showed changes in cerebral blood flow on inhaling certain essential oils, just as in people able to smell (Buchbauer et al., 1993c), showing that the oil had a positive brain effect despite the patient's inability to smell it. There is some evidence that certain essential oils (e.g., nutmeg) can lower high blood pressure (Warren and Warrenburg, 1993). Externally applied essential oils (e.g., tea tree) can reduce/eliminate acne (Bassett et al., 1990) and athlete's foot (Tong et al., 1992). This happens, however, using conventional chemical effects of essential oils rather than aromatherapy.

Most clients seeking out aromatherapy are suffering from some stress-related conditions, and improvement is largely achieved through relaxation. An alleviation of suffering and possibly pain, due to gentle massage and the presence of someone who cares and listens to the patient, could be beneficial in such cases as in cases of terminal cancer; the longer the time spent by the therapist with the patient, the stronger the belief imparted by the therapist and the greater the willingness of the patient to believe in the therapy, the greater the effect achieved (Benson and Stark, 1996). There is a need for this kind of healing contact, and aromatherapy with its added power of odor fits this niche, as the main action of essential oils is probably on the primitive, unconscious, limbic system of the brain (Lis-Balchin, 1997), which is not under the control of the cerebrum or higher centers and has a considerable subconscious effect on the person. However, as mood and behavior can be influenced by odors, and memories of past odor associations could also be dominant, aromatherapy should not be used by aromatherapists, unqualified in psychology, and so on in the treatment of Alzheimer's or other diseases of aging (Lis-Balchin, 2006).

Proven uses of essential oils and their components are found in industry, for example, foods, cosmetic products, household products, and so on. They impart the required odor or flavor to food, cosmetics and perfumery, tobacco, and textiles. Essential oils are also used in the paint industry, which capitalizes on the exceptional "cleaning" properties of certain oils. This, together with their embalming properties, suggests that essential oils are very potent and dangerous chemicals—not the sort of natural products to massage into the skin!

Why, therefore, should essential oils be of great medicinal value? They are, after all, just chemicals. However, essential oils have many functions in everyday life ranging from their use in dentistry (e.g., cinnamon and clove oils), as decongestants (e.g., Eucalyptus globulus, camphor, peppermint, and cajuput) to their use as mouthwashes (e.g., thyme), also external usage as hyperemics (e.g., rosemary, turpentine, and camphor) and anti-inflammatories (e.g., German chamomile and yarrow). Some essential oils are used internally as stimulants of digestion (e.g., anise, peppermint, and cinnamon) and as diuretics (e.g., buchu and juniper oils) (Lis-Balchin, 2006).

Many plant essential oils are extremely potent antimicrobials in vitro (Deans and Ritchie, 1987; Bassett et al., 1990; Lis-Balchin, 1995; Lis-Balchin et al., 1996; Deans, 2002). Many are also strong antioxidant agents and have recently been shown to stop some of the symptoms of aging in animals (Dorman et al., 1995a, 1995b). The use of camphor, turpentine oils, and their components as rube-facients, causing increased blood flow to a site of pain or swelling when applied to the skin, is well known and is the basis of many well-known medicaments such as Vicks VapoRub and Tiger Balm. Some essential oils are already used as orthodox medicines: peppermint oil is used for treating irritable bowel syndrome and some components of essential oils, such as pinene, limonene, cam-phene, and borneol, given orally have been found to be effective against certain internal ailments, such as gallstones (Somerville et al., 1985) and ureteric stones (Engelstein et al., 1992). Many essential oils have been shown to be active on many different animal tissues in vitro (Lis-Balchin et al., 1997b). There are many examples of the benefits of using essential oils by topical application for acne, Alopecia areata, and Athlete's foot (discussed later in Section 13.21), but this is a treatment using chemicals rather than aromatherapy treatment.

Future scientific studies, such as those on Alzheimer's syndrome (Perry et al., 1998, 1999), may reveal the individual benefits of different essential oils for different ailments, but in practice this may not be of utmost importance as aromatherapy massage for relief from stress. Aromatherapy has had very little scientific evaluation to date. As with so many alternative therapies, the placebo effect may provide the largest percentage benefit to the patient (Benson and Stark, 1996). Many aro-matherapists have not been greatly interested in scientific research and some have even been antagonistic to any such research (Vickers, 1996; Lis-Balchin, 1997). Animal experiments, whether maze studies using mice or pharmacology using isolated tissues, are considered unacceptable and only essential oils that are "untested on animals" are acceptable, despite all essential oils having been already tested on animals (denied by assurances of essential oil suppliers) because this is required by law before they can be used in foods.

The actual mode of action of essential oils in vivo is still far from clear, and clinical studies to date have been scarce and mostly rather negative (Stevenson, 1994; Dunn et al., 1995; Brooker et al., 1997; Anderson et al., 2000). The advent of scientific input into the clinical studies, rather than aromatherapist-led studies, has recently yielded some more positive and scientifically acceptable data (Smallwood et al., 2001; Ballard et al., 2002; Burns et al., 2000; Holmes et al., 2002; Kennedy et al., 2002). The main difficulty in clinical studies is that it is virtually impossible to do randomized double-blind studies involving different odors as it is almost impossible to provide an adequate control as this would have to be either odorless or else of a different odor, neither of which is satisfactory. In aromatherapy, as practiced, there is a variation in the treatment for each client, based on "holistic" principles, and each person can be treated by an aromatherapist with one to five or more different essential oil mixtures on subsequent visits, involving one to four or more different essential oils in each mixture. This makes scientific evaluation almost useless, as seen by studies during childbirth (Burns and Blaney, 1994; see also Section 13.19). There is also the belief among alternative medicine practitioners that if the procedure "works" in one patient, there is no need to study it using scientific double-blind procedures. There is therefore a great bias when clinical studies in aromatherapy are conducted largely by aromatherapists.

Recent European regulations (the seventh Amendment to the European Cosmetic Directive 76/768/EEC, 2002; see Appendices 27 and 28) have listed 26 sensitizers found in most of the common essential oils used: this could be a problem for aromatherapists as well as clients, both in possibly causing sensitization and also resulting in legal action regarding such an eventuality in the case of the client. Care must be taken regarding the sensitization potential of the essential oils, especially when massaging patients with cancer or otherwise sensitive skin. It should also be borne in mind when considering the use of essential oils during childbirth and in other clinical studies (Burns and Blaney, 1994; Burns et al., 2000) that studies in animals have indicated that some oils cause a decrease in uterine contractions (Lis-Balchin and Hart, 1997).

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