Fresh herbs lying next to a glass bottle of essential oilsAromatherapy, also referred to as essential oil therapy, is the therapeutic use of essential oils and other plant materials to improve a person’s health, mood, and energy.

What Is Aromatherapy?

Aromatherapy seeks to enhance an individual’s physiological, emotional, cognitive, and psychological well-being through the controlled use of pure essential oils and other aromatic plant compounds. These naturally extracted aromatic oils are usually diluted with carrier oil or cream, applied topically, and massaged into a person’s skin. The aroma from these oils may also be directly inhaled through the nose. Other applications include adding the diluted essential oils to a warm bath, adding oils to a cold compress placed on the skin, or using an aromatherapy oil diffuser to produce an aromatic vapor.

While some oils may have particular benefits, aromatherapy is not used to target specific symptoms; rather, the approach aims to promote holistic healing by supporting the body’s natural ability to regain balance and recover from health-related setbacks. Aromatherapy may be offered as a type of alternative medicine or as a complementary therapy in company with a more established treatment approach.

History of Aromatherapy

The practice of aromatherapy dates back as far as 4000 BC, when the ancient Egyptians produced medicine, embalming agents, perfumes, and cosmetics with the use of scented oils. Chinese, Indian, Greek, and Roman civilizations also made regular use of scented oils in therapeutic, spiritual, hygienic, and ritualistic activities. In the 5th century BC, the Greek physician Hippocrates taught and promoted the health benefits of aromatic oils.

Aromatherapy attracted public attention in 1937, after French chemist René-Maurice Gattefossé released a book entitled Aromathérapie: Les Huiles Essentielles, Hormones Végétales. In the book, Gattefossé described how he had severely burned his hand in an explosion in his lab but had recovered well after treating his burns with lavender oil. Gattefossé studied the properties of the essential oils used to treat gangrene, burns, skin infections, and wounds during World War I. In 1928, he established and spearheaded the scientific study of aromatherapy.

The concentrated oils harvested from plant leaves, flowers, stems, resins, and roots continued to be used during the early and mid-20th century, with French physician Jean Valnet employing them as antiseptics to treat injured soldiers during World War II. Aromatherapy gained wider recognition in the United States during the 1980s.

How Aromatherapy Works

There are two major theories that attempt to explain the mechanism by which aromatherapy works. The first claims the essential oils are absorbed through the skin and into the somatic tissues. When massaged into the skin, essential oils may activate the skin’s thermal receptors and destroy fungi, bacteria, viruses, and other microorganisms. Some individuals believe a number of essential oils possess anti-inflammatory effects and provide soothing relief for arthritis, burns, and muscular pain.

The second theory posits that essential oils stimulate the olfactory nerve and send signals to the brain’s limbic system—a complex neural network that is closely associated with memories, emotions, and instincts. This stimulation is believed to trigger the release of chemicals that contribute to feelings of calm, relaxation, or stimulation.

Mental Effects of Common Essential Oils

Aromatherapy may produce a wide range of mental effects, depending on the oil being utilized. Common reactions to a few widely used essential oils are listed below.

  • An euphoric mood is often characterized by heightened emotions and increased sensuality. Oils used include rose, sandalwood, jasmine, clary sage, and ylang-ylang.
  • A sedated mood may be characterized by less intense emotions, relief from anxiety and tension, and calm. Oils used include lavender, neroli, sweet marjoram, and mandarin.
  • A balanced mood might be characterized by adjusted or regulated emotions. Oils used include rosewood, geranium, clary sage, grapefruit, and bergamot.
  • In a stimulated mood, an individual might feel awakened emotions and increased awareness. Oils used include basil, lemon, peppermint, and rosemary.

Issues Treated with Aromatherapy

People from cultures around the world have attested to the stress-relieving and refreshing effects of aromatherapy. Common issues that are often treated with this therapeutic approach include:

  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Respiratory, digestive, or circulation issues
  • Cold and flu
  • Joint, muscular, or chronic pain
  • Sleep issues
  • Headaches, body aches
  • Menstrual/menopausal issues

Aromatherapy and Mental Health Issues

Several studies that investigated aromatherapy’s impact on anxiety reduction have reported positive results for this type of treatment. In a review of 16 randomized controlled trials conducted between 1990 and 2010, researchers reported that aromatherapy treatments reduced symptoms of anxiety, with no adverse effects.

A review of studies from 2000-2008 that explored the effectiveness of essential oils administered to people with depression found that aromatherapy may have some benefit as a form of complementary or alternative medicine to treat primary or secondary symptoms of depression.

Other experiments have suggested aromatherapy can help relieve stress and stress-related conditions. In one study, researchers found the use of lavender oil may be beneficial in relieving the effects of acute stress on cognitive function.

Who Can Practice Aromatherapy?

In the United States, several academic institutions provide comprehensive training programs in aromatherapy. The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA) is a leading organization in the U.S. and on the international scene. NAHA provides oversight, regulation, and guidance for many aromatherapy schools and educational programs.

At present, NAHA offers two approved standards for professional aromatherapy education:

  • NAHA Level One – Foundations Aromatherapy 30 hours
  • NAHA Level Two – Professional Aromatherapy Certification

Under current consideration is a third standard:

  • NAHA Level Three – Clinical Aromatherapy Certification

Concerns and Limitations of Aromatherapy

As with other treatment modalities, aromatherapy may be risky or dangerous in certain circumstances. Some plant oils such as pennyroyal, camphor, and wintergreen may be toxic if ingested. Many commonly used oils are highly potent, and they can cause adverse reactions if applied to the skin in concentrated form.

Women who are pregnant and those with issues such as asthma, nose bleeds, epilepsy, skin conditions, and high blood pressure should consult a doctor before undergoing aromatherapy treatment. Essential oils may also elicit allergic reactions in some people.

While several studies have indicated aromatherapy may provide some therapeutic benefits, there is currently little empirical evidence that supports the approach. As a result, researchers have called for more comprehensive studies into this treatment modality.


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Last Updated: 12-10-2015

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