The Science and Benefits of Aromatherapy

A woman smells an essential oil container
  • Aromatherapy is a complementary therapy that uses essential oils derived from plants and other natural ingredients to promote healing, both mentally and physically.

  • There are several natural essential oils, each with their own benefits. Essential oils have the potential to help with stress relief, pain management, improved sleep, and more.

  • Choosing the right essential oils is key to incorporating aromatherapy successfully. When picking essential oils, be sure to stay away from words like “fragrance” or “additives.”

What is Aromatherapy?

Aromatherapy is the process of using essential oils derived from plants and other natural ingredients to promote healing. In order to effectively reap the benefits of aromatherapy, be sure to read the directions carefully. Some essential oils can be applied to the skin, and some are best infused into the air and then inhaled.

Aromatherapy is a useful alternative treatment that has minimal side effects, and can be used to improve sleep, relieve stress, support the immune system, and more.

Origins and history

Used for therapeutic purposes for over 6,000 years, aromatherapy has played an important role in the development of medicinal practices across the world. The treatment was present in almost every ancient civilization, and continues to grow in popularity to this day.

The modern science of aromatherapy was developed in 1928 by a French chemist named René-Maurice Gattefossé.

He discovered the healing properties of lavender oil after burning his hand in a lab accident. This prompted further analysis of other essential oils, testing the effectiveness of using them to treat soldiers during World War I suffering from burns, skin infections, gangrene, and other wounds.

But aromatherapy didn’t gain traction in Western medicine until the 1980s, when another French scientist — Pierre Franchomme — founded the Prânarôm laboratory, the first to market essential oils of medicinal quality.

Principles and science

Though it is not scientifically proven, many researchers believe that aromatherapy works through influences on the system that supplies the sense of smell – the olfactory system.

It is believed that receptors in the nose communicate with parts of the brain – the limbic system – that store memories and emotions. Breathing in the molecules of essential oils seemingly stimulates these parts of the brain, influencing mental, emotional, and physical health in positive ways.

5 bottles with herbs and flowers sticking out of them, representing essential oils.

Benefits of Aromatherapy

Stress relief and relaxation

The most common use of aromatherapy is as an aid for relaxation and stress relief. There are specific scents that calm the levels of cortisol – the stress hormone — in the brain, allowing for deeper relaxation throughout the body.

These essential oils, known for their calming properties, include:

  • Lavender

  • Chamomile

  • Bergamot

Improved sleep

Similarly, certain scents ease the body into a deep relaxation, allowing for longer, more restful sleep.

In addition to the essential oils listed above, these scents are productive in promoting improved sleep:

  • Cedarwood

  • Ylang-ylang

  • Clary sage

  • Sandalwood

  • Marjoram

Mood enhancement

Essential oils can be useful tools in boosting your mood. Some essential oils are known to lift energy levels, improve mental clarity, and help relieve symptoms of depression.

These oils include:

  • Citrus, such as lemon and orange

  • Peppermint

  • Bergamot

  • Rosemary

Pain management

Researchers have found evidence that certain essential oils can aid in pain relief due to their anti-inflammatory properties. Pain management is best handled by a combination of traditional medicinal treatments and complementary treatments like aromatherapy.

The following essential oils have been proven to aid in relieving symptoms of pain:

A bottle of lavender essential oil

Immune System Support

Essential oils contain over 400 natural compounds that can adjust how the body reacts to antigens. Certain oils are known to increase the innate response in the immune system.

Some of these include:

Safe and Effective Aromatherapy Practices

Choosing essential oils

If you are interested in using aromatherapy to treat any of the mentioned conditions, it is important to select high-quality, pure essential oils from reputable sources. Low-quality or synthetic oils can do more harm than good.

There are certain ‘red flags’ to look out for when it comes to choosing the right essential oils. These include words on the labels like ‘fragrance’, or ‘natural’ when no other information is given.

Reliable essential oils should also be sold in dark-colored glass containers, as this will preserve the quality of the oil. The label should include information about where the oil was extracted, as well as the botanical name of the plant.

Using essential oils

Once you’ve chosen the right essential oil for you, the next step is to safely incorporate it into your treatment plan.

Typically, the safest way to use essential oils is by inhaling them using essential oil-infused candles, incense, or essential oil sprays. Using a diffuser can be very useful; just be careful not to leave it going at all times to prevent overexposure.

Topical application is also a possibility with some oils, but must be done carefully. Make sure to read the directions on your specific essential oil bottle before applying it topically. Incorporating one or two drops of essential oil into a carrier lotion or body oil with no fragrance is usually a good way to safely apply the oil to the skin.

A diffuser sits next to a bed and diffuses essential oils into the air.

Potential risks and precautions

It is important to be cautious when choosing to use essential oils, as there is always the possibility of allergic reactions or increased sensitivity to certain compounds in the plants.

This is why it is advisable to seek medical guidance before beginning aromatherapy, especially if you are pregnant, breastfeeding, or have any other specific medical conditions that may make you more vulnerable to sensitivities and reactions.

Incorporating aromatherapy into daily life

The first step to beginning aromatherapy is finding the right way to bring it into your life to create lasting effects. There are several ways you can reap the benefits of essential oils throughout the day, including:

  • Taking a bath with a couple of drops of essential oils mixed into the bathwater

  • Giving yourself a facial massage with a diluted blend of oils while completing a skincare routine

  • Investing in a diffuser to incorporate the essential oils into the air

  • Lighting an essential oil-based candle or spritzing yourself with an essential oil spray

If you're considering incorporating aromatherapy as a complementary medicine, be sure to engage in open communication with your doctor. Make an appointment at LifeMD to talk with a dedicated healthcare provider about exploring this complementary therapy.

Dr. Anthony Puopolo

Dr. Puopolo holds a B.A. in Biology from Tufts University, M.A. in Biology from Boston University, and Doctor of Medicine from the Boston University School of Medicine. He also completed a Family Medicine and Psychiatry residency program in the U.S. Army.

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This article is intended for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice. Consult a healthcare professional or call a doctor in the case of a medical emergency.

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