Aromatherapy has been around for thousands of years - the Greeks, Romans and ancient Egyptians all used aromatherapy oils. The treatment uses essentials oils and aromatic compounds from plants to combat a whole range of ailments ranging from depression to arthritis. Recently aromatherapy has become popular again and it is used by millions of people in the UK to relieve stress, insomnia and even the pain of childbirth.
In a study by researchers from Ohio State University, two particularly popular aromas used in aromatherapy – lemon and lavender – were used in a series of tests to discover their effectiveness. The team wanted to find out if the aromas go beyond increasing pleasure and actually have a positive medical impact on a person’s health.
Lemon and lavendar
The study, published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, found that lemon did indeed seem to enhance a person’s mood, but that was about the limit of its powers. Lavender made no difference at all to how a person felt. Both lemon and lavender seemed to have no effect when it came to boosting the immune system, healing wounds or controlling pain. In some experiments, even distilled water showed more positive effects than lavender.
'This is probably the most comprehensive study ever done in this area, but the human body is infinitely complex,' explained William Malarkey, professor of internal medicine at Ohio State University. 'If an individual patient uses these oils and feels better, there’s no way we can prove it doesn’t improve that person’s health. But we still failed to find any quantitative indication that these oils provide any physiological effect for people in general.'
How the study was done
The US study looked at 56 healthy volunteers, who all had a good sense of smell, and asked them to undergo a series of tests over a three-day period. Regular blood samples were taken and blood pressure and heart rate were monitored.
While they were exposed to the two smells, the research team assessed their ability to heal using a standard test where tape is applied and removed repeatedly from the skin. They were also checked for their reaction to pain. Psychological tests were used to gauge mood and stress.
The team found that neither lemon nor lavender had any positive impact on stress, pain control or wound healing.
Sue Mousley, Vice-chair of the International Federation of Aromatherapists, questioned the validity of the study.
'In aromatherapy, the way the treatment is undertaken is very important. The various tests undertaken here would all have raised stress levels, making the experience far from relaxing. If something makes you feel good, then it will probably lower your stress levels and stress is one of the biggest killers.'