Aromatherapy: Does It Pass the Smell Test?

By: 
Paul DesOrmeaux
Originally published in BASIS
Volume: 
24
Number: 
3
July-September 2007

Aromatherapy is only one of oodles of alternative medicines and holistic treatments that have currently captured part of the public's wild imagination. These holistic approaches, including acupuncture, therapeutic touch, and mall shopping, are part of a multi-billion dollar industry.

What exactly is aromatherapy? By dismantling the word, you'd think that it would be related to odors, but you'd only be partially correct. And since evidence of its therapeutic properties is wanting, it's not even really therapy. In other words, if we remove the two main words from the term, we end up with, well, nothing. So this could be an article about nothing. But since aromatherapy is part of the holistic hullabaloo, for arguments' sake, let's assume it exists.

Like all holistic treatments, aromatherapy purports to work on the whole body: the physical, emotional, social, spiritual, and wallet. Aroma does play a part, but therapeutic claims also include the application of oils on the skin and, to a lesser extent, ingestion. Like most other alternative medicines, aromatherapy relies solely on "natural" ingredients???no synthetics or preservatives are invited???to soothe the psyche and cure the cooties in an earthy sort of way. Aromatherapy's main ingredients are plant-derived essential oils, which can offer a magical band-aid for all physical and psychological disorders under Aquarius, from asthma to zirconium poisoning.

For some, alternative medicines complement the mainstream medicine and therapeutic practices that gained their dubious reputations by actually curing diseases and offering relief. To be fair, since holistic treatments are held in such high regard, there must be hundreds of peer-reviewed studies available, especially if it's on equal footing with quirky, unpredictable, pie-in-the-sky conventional medicine. So start your studies' scavenger hunt now and call me with your list in a few days. Not to worry; if you don't find any, just invent them.

One of aromatherapy's undisputed selling points is its historical roots. Practitioners of, and believers in, holistic medicine forever embrace the overly romantic idea that there's some cosmic connection among mind, body, spirit, and environment, a biopsychosocial sphere (say it fast five times) that somehow promotes a healthy life. In other words, simply stated, natural plants are good for you, such as tobacco.

It's apparently logical for some to think that if the "natural" substances distilled from plants, shrubs, flowers, trees, roots, bushes, or seeds worked for the advanced cultures from thousands of years ago, why not us? Hell, why can't our life expectancy be the mid-30's, too?

Of course, essential oils have a much more romantic image than some of the alternative treatments ancient Egyptian physicians might have recommended to their patients, such as magic potions, animal dung, fly droppings and cooked mice.(I'd mention magical amulets, but they're currently for sale on the internet.) To say the least, there must have been a colorful hodgepodge of merchandise in their pharmacies.

Unlike today, diseases then were thought to be caused by pissing off the gods, who would, in turn, give you such a pinch. Ah, the good old days, when pig entrails were sometimes used to predict the future. If there's one issue we can agree on it's that although we can admire much about the ancients' accomplishments, medical cures ain't one of them.

The roots, then, of aromatherapy, date back to more than 4,000 years ago. India and Egypt have been widely accepted as the countries where it originated. Both civilizations used these essential oils for bathing, massages, and cosmetics. Their curative properties, the ones in abundance today, weren't appreciated back then.

For illnesses, they relied on tried-and-true curatives, such as prayers, rituals, and sacrificing goats, which are still practiced the world over today, minus the goat sacrifice. For pain relief, herbs were preferred. Since diseases and deaths were acts of crabby, grouchy gods, magic was employed to please them, along with a lute-and-lyre rock concert now and then. Aromatic-type fumes were also a part of peoples' daily lives, to the point of being sacred.

Uses for essential oils were eventually passed down to the Greek and Romans, possibly for treating tunic and toga chafing. Greek and Roman physicians were the first to apply these oils to treat infections, although their success was dubious. Hippocrates' writings recommended aromatic baths and oily massages as practices for good health. Some Greek physicians treated wounded gladiators with botanical remedies. With all those gods hanging around creating mischief, you'd have thought that at least one would have introduced an antibiotic or something.

The Black Plague struck in the late 1340s. Theories about its origins included angry gods, planetary alignments, and evil stares. When it was finally over, by some estimates, up to two-thirds of the European population had died. Botanical remedies were tried, with no success. They had failed the ultimate test and temporarily fell out of favor. For some reason, prayers survived intact.

Finally during the 19th century, after millions of years of unnecessary human suffering, some gods or god finally decided to let scientists in on a little secret: diseases are caused by microbes. This discovery led to the introduction of a number of life-saving practices, such as sanitation, injections, disease prevention, antibiotics and modern medicine in general. As was to be expected, it dampened the enthusiasm for essential-oil remedies; they were placed in Museum for Questionable Cures, alongside bloodletting and animal urine.

As you'll see, however, it's hard to keep an attractive, persistent pseudoscience down. In 1928 French chemist and perfumist Rene-Maurice Gattefosse led a revival in aromatherapy. As the story goes, while working in the lab, probably on Chanel #1, a fire burnt Gattefosse's arm. Quickly, he dipped it into the nearest vat filled with what he assumed was H2O. As fate would have it, it was lavender oil. Luckily for the nutty professor, it wasn't hydrochloric acid. According to Gattefosse his pain immediately subsided and his burns healed quicker than expected, with very little scarring.

With this painstaking, meticulous, 30-second, Gattefosse-reviewed "experiment" completed, he wrote an article touting the benefits of essential oils and coined the term "aromatherapy" after rejecting the term "rene-mauricegattefossetherapy."

Was Gattefosse's burn checked by a physician? What degree burn did he have? Who confirmed the burns? Who knows? Apparently, history is relying on variations of this pleasant little tale. In any case, Gattefosse spent the rest of his life studying and promoting aromatherapy, including its anti-microbial effects, more commonly known as wishful thinking.

In 1937 he published the quintessential aromatherapy book with a lengthy French title, which was trimmed-down in the English version to Gattefosse's Aromatherapy (still available today). He's considered to be the father of aromatherapy.

Although Britain and France, along with other countries in the eastern hemisphere, embraced this new therapy over the next several years, it wasn't until the 1980's when New Age Americans were first snookered.

For the ancients, it made some sense that plants and shrubs might prove beneficial. After all, humans needed plants to live. Essential oils might have seemed logical to those who had no idea that diseases were caused by microbes or genetic disorders. What else made sense, "Here, take two rocks, pray to some invisible grump, and get plenty of rest"?

Since many of these essential oils have been available for at least 4000 years, one would think that by now there'd be universal agreement on their effectiveness based on scientific testing. You'd be wrong. In fact, no supposed "cure" from the ancients survives today, unless you believe prayer is going to clear up your genital warts.

Current practitioners of aromatherapy have concocted dozens of different oily products to relieve stress, invigorate the body, cure diseases, and lubricate a door hinge. Generally, the essential oil is mixed with a neutral oil (like vegetable oil) and massaged into the body (to be absorbed through the skin), added to bathwater, inhaled, or ingested (not generally recommended).

According to aromatherapists, purity is required for good therapeutic results; no synthetics or preservatives need apply. In other words, only the manufacturers have the proper equipment to extract the substances to produce the pure, high-quality oils. And, surprisingly, the best oils come from organic plants you can't ordinarily grow in your backyard. Otherwise, we'd simply be able to pick a bunch of geraniums from our gardens and cure just about anything after running them through our juicers.

The list of beneficial oils and their endless uses is confusing and, frankly, embarrassing. Depending on which aroma-therapist you reference ??? it's not an exact science (or exactly a science) ??? different oils will allegedly treat different maladies. As one aromatherapist claims, "There is a plant for every illness."

Following is only a fraction of various disorders and their oily treatments: insomnia, congestion and colds (basil); antiseptic, toothaches, and respiratory infections (clove); skin infections (eucalyptus); ulcers, skin care, laryngitis (frankincense); kidney stones, calming effect on the nervous system (geraniums); stomach acidity (lemon); headaches, fevers, colds (mint); and sedative (orange). Lavender and geranium oils are also purported to be antimicrobial agents.

If you need some psychological aromatherapy, try these: easing of anger (chamomile); promoting alertness (eucalyptus); calming, relieving pain (lavender); insomnia (mandarin orange blossom); anxiety and stress (ylang-ylang...goes the trolley).

In addition, unsubstantiated biophysical actions include stimulation of cellular activity and activation of capillary circulation, elimination of toxins, and oxygenation of blood, helping the body to heal itself, relieving pain, reversing constipation, energizing the sympathetic nervous system, and improving your ability to play the harmonica.

One "study" even "proved" that penile blood flow is increased by the combined scents of lavender and pumpkin pie. Instead of only watching football, men would have something else to do on Thanksgiving Day.

Since New-Age adherents are generally insatiable "energy" junkies, they necessarily apply the concept to aromatherapy. Once again there's discussion of some vague, ubiquitous "energy field" emanating from the human body. However, it's not actually the oils' chemicals that are reacting with the human "energy field," but it's the plant oils' "life force" that will neutralize or shoo away the nagging, negative energy vibrations from our bodies. You see, essential oils have a "spiritual dimension." They restore "balance" and "harmony" to one's body and to one's life. The needle on the wacky meter is straining past the 180-degree mark.

It's also purported that some oils may influence our "chakras," seven vortexes and whirling balls of energy in the human body related to our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual well-being; that is, if they're open and spinning at the same rate to each other. And I thought all that activity was just my stomach grumbling.

If the wacky meter hasn't shattered just yet, another "theory" floating around in the ether is that essential oils may involve some kind of bio-electrical frequency. How long will it be before we're not only tip-toeing through the tulips, but talking to them, too?

Let's see: energy fields...life forces...negative energy... positive energy...bio-electrical frequencies...chakras. Excuse the momentary digression but should we be paying teachers more? Maybe smaller class sizes? School dress codes?

One problem with aromatherapy as a feel-good, rediscovered substitute for, or complement to, standard medicine is that almost all available evidence is anecdotal, which is mostly pseudoscientific "proof." But for many people, stories are exciting, statistics suck. At best, other than the placebo effect, there's insufficient proof of the effectiveness of aromatherapy; that is, unless you discovered something on your scavenger hunt.

Can aromatherapy at least make a scientific claim that smells can relax us? Perhaps. Most can agree that pleasant smells can produce positive responses. Pine, for example, may remind someone of the joys of Christmas. On the other hand, it might remind someone else that grandma got run over by a reindeer.

Certain aromas may change the way we breathe; calm breathing calms the mind. Since some legitimate studies have connected stress to heart disease and even cancer, relaxing isn't a bad thing. Not many of us, however, can surround ourselves with pleasant-smelling oils 24/7. Even with a lemon hanging from your rearview mirror, the octogenarian who cuts you off in traffic is going to immediately send adrenaline coursing through your chakras.

The aroma in aromatherapy can also be part of a pleasant ritual. Go ahead, start up your bathtub, light a forest of scented candles, pour some pleasant-smelling essential oils in the warm water, lie back, and enjoy. Just don't expect the experience to resolve your restless-leg syndrome. But do consumers really need to be told and sold what smells swell? And is the previous question rhetorical?

Also, a massage with essential oils can be a relaxing experience; that is, unless it's the type of massage where law enforcement might raid the premises. But will the oils your skin absorbs actually help to kill bacteria and viruses and stimulate the body's immune system? Maybe on Atlantis.

So, what's the harm if people believe in aromatherapy's nonexistent health benefits? Besides another stick in the eye of critical thinking, they can be dangerous. Certain essential oils can produce serious allergic reactions in certain people. When combined with some legitimate prescriptions, the oils can prove harmful, even fatal. A number of people have refused curative traditional medicine and instead embraced alternative treatments, which killed them. Some essential oils are toxic if ingested. Looking on the sunny side of life, it may be nature's way of thinning the herd.

And how do you know if an aromatherapist is legitimate? Good freaking luck. No government-issued certification or license is required. Neither aromatherapy nor essential oils are regulated by the government. If you cut or style hair, however, you must be licensed. Not surprisingly, alternative medicine schools not only boast classes in oils, massage techniques, etc., but also on starting businesses and marketing.

Is aromatherapy considered a complementary or alternative medicine (CAM)? Both. The recent emphasis on the word "complementary" is obviously an attempt to give the movement more legitimacy. It's easier to expose a worthless, stand-alone treatment (alternative) than a worthless treatment that complements an authentic one. Was it the massage or morphine that relieved the pain? For some, the answer is obvious; for others, a good friend of mine is selling magical amulets.

Regardless, aromatherapy continues to be big business. Aromatherapy oils, bath gels, soaps, teas, dried flowers, and lotions are popping up everywhere, crying out for our maxed-out charge cards. Essential oils are found in homes, clinics, beauty salons and spas. Aromatherapists are flourishing. CAM books are selling like chakra candles. The list grows on and on.

Once in awhile, folks, take a deep breath and think. You don't need to be a Mensa member to understand that almost everything about the complementary and alternative medicine movement in general, and the aromatherapy movement more specifically, smells fishy.

Humorist Paul DesOrmeaux teaches writing at the Rochester Institute of Technology and Monroe Community College. His goal is to introduce skepticism to a broader audience by combining reason and science with humor/satire to expose myths, pseudoscience, fraudulent claims, and nonsensical ideas.