Do scents have the power to ease your pain or boost your mood?
Is aromatherapy a fad or an important part of a holistic approach to healing?
Is your nose a pathway to your brain?
Experts are looking at questions like these and discovering that potent, plant-based scents may just have a place in the science of health and healing.
As many people look for natural (and safe) remedies for trouble sleeping, chronic pain and more, essential oils such as lavender, jasmine, ginger and spearmint are surging in popularity.
It's true that the research is limited. But some small studies do suggest that aromatherapy can be beneficial. And when it comes down to it, how you feel may be the most important thing: Many people report that essential oils help them feel better by easing nausea, soothing sore muscles or promoting relaxation after a stressful day.
What exactly is an 'essential' oil?
Essential oils are extracted from flowers, fruits, leaves or seeds to capture the aromatic "essence" of the plants that they come from. The result is a super-concentrated oil that can be breathed in, massaged on, or added to lotions or bath water.
The idea is that these botanical scents target smell receptors in the nose, triggering effects that pass through the nervous system to the brain. When absorbed by the skin, some oils are also thought to have antifungal or antibacterial effects.
A word of caution: Some manufacturers sell essential oils that can be taken internally, but the practice is controversial since safety research is limited.
Can it help with pain management?
It might. Researchers looking at aromatherapy as a way to help with pain after surgery have found that those who try it not only have better pain management, but also report higher overall satisfaction with their care. Of course, essential oils are just one part of a post-op pain management plan.
Women in labor have also reported positive results using scents such as rose, lavender and frankincense. In one study, these scents seemed to help ease anxiety and fear, and reduce the need for pain medications.
Does it support better sleep?
Chamomile tea and lavender lotion at bedtime are well-known sleep promoters. But do they actually work? Studies of hospital patients would say yes; they've documented that these scents can encourage relaxation and improve sleep.
Even professional caregivers can benefit. In a study of nurses working rotating shifts, participants slept better after an aromatherapy massage at the end of a graveyard shift.
What about indigestion and nausea?
Stomach discomfort can be a side effect of many conditions, from pregnancy to cancer. But studies suggest essential oils may help.
People with leukemia who used their choice of lavender, chamomile or peppermint got relief from nausea and lack of appetite in one study. In another, peppermint essential oils helped some pregnant women find relief from nausea and vomiting during labor.
At Mayo Clinic, some patients are offered a cotton ball with a drop or two of ginger or spearmint essential oil to help with nausea.
How to smell your way to feeling better
Whatever the health benefits of aromatherapy, using scents that you enjoy or that make you feel good could help you relax and feel more positive. Experts at Mayo Clinic sometimes suggest lemon essential oil for headaches and mental fatigue, or mandarin to help with restlessness, anxiety, nausea and sleep.
How to use aromatherapy safely
When used the right way, most essential oils are safe. But it's important to remember that they are potent, and can't all be used in the same ways.
For example, an oil that is safe to use in a diffuser may not be safe to rub into your skin. In fact, some citrus oils can cause severe burns if you apply them directly to your skin and go into the sunlight.
It's also important to follow instructions and dilute oils correctly. For example, you might put a few drops into water for an aromatherapy diffuser or into a neutral "carrier" oil, such as vegetable, coconut or jojoba oil, before applying to skin.
As with any supplements or herb, it's a good idea to talk to your doctor about any essential oils you use.