Does Aromatherapy Really Work?

Holistic Medicine 4

Click play above to hear The Nurse Practitioner Show Podcast Episode 31 CAM: Aromatherapy – An Interview with Joyce Harrel, RN

The Effectiveness of Aromatherapy by Dr. Rachel Silva, NP of Accessible Healthcare Institute, LLC | The Nurse Practitioner Show It was stressful balancing the demands of going back to school full-time with working full-time. I looked forward to the weekends when my family and I would go to the New York Botanical Garden. I jokingly referred to these weekends as “horticultural therapy.” Eventually, I longed to be at the NY Botanical Garden more than time allowed. It truly did seem relaxing to be surrounded by nature. My interest blossomed (pun intended) into terrariums and transitioned into incorporating aromatherapy. I truly didn’t know if there was any science to support the benefits of aromatherapy, but who doesn’t love a good fragrance?

One day I had a severe headache and decided to try peppermint. Doubtfully, I placed a dab of peppermint on each of my temples, placed a few drops on a cotton ball and sniffed away (and prayed my co-workers wouldn’t see me inhaling a cottonball!) for about 20 minutes. I couldn’t believe it. Although my temples felt a bit tingly, my headache was gone! That evening my teen daughter, the lover of neuroscience, said it made perfect sense. She continued by describing how research has revealed the therapeutic benefits of aromatherapy through the olfactory nerve’s pathway to the brain.

For over 6,000 years the ancient Chinese, Indians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans used the therapeutic benefits of essential oils for hygiene, spiritual ceremonies, and in their medicines, perfumes and cosmetics. A French chemist,  René-Maurice Gattefossé, discovered the healing properties of lavender after using it on a burn acquired from a laboratory explosion. This peaked his interest in essential oils; therefore, he continued to study their chemical properties used to treat World War I soldiers’ wounds, skin infections, burns, and gangrene. As a result, Gattefossé founded the science of aromatherapy. Although aromatherapy began to be used in the 1950’s by massage therapists, beauticians, physiotherapists, nurses, physicians, and other health care providers, it was not until the 1980’s that aromatherapy began to be more widely used in the United States.

Plant oils are extracted and distilled to create the highly concentrated oils, called essential oils. Essential oils are either inhaled or applied to the skin via lotions, bath salts and massage. Indeed, research studies indicate essential oils effect brainwaves and alter behavior. Aromatherapy most likely works by stimulating smell receptors in the nose sending messages through the olfactory nerve system. These messages are received in the limbic system of the brain that controls emotions. According to the Mayo Clinic, essential oils used for aromatherapy may help symptoms of anxiety, depression, and improve quality of life for those with chronic health conditions. Aromatherapy has been defined as “the holistic therapeutic application of genuine and authentic plant derived essential oils for enhancing the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health of the individual.” Used professionally and safely, aromatherapy can be of great benefit as an adjunct to conventional medicine or as alternative medicine.

According to the National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy, the most commonly used essential oils are:

Roman Chamomile Essential OilRoman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile):
antispasmodic, menstrual cramps, sedative, relieves anxiety/stress, insomnia, great for children (comforting, soothing), anti-inflammatory

Clary Sage Essential OilClary sage (Salvia sclarea):
antispasmodic, relieves menstrual cramps, aphrodisiac, relaxing, relieves anxiety/stress, labor pain management

Eucalyptus Globulus Essential OilEucalyptus globulus:
expectorant, decongestant, beneficial for flu/cold season, clearing to the mind, energizing, bronchitis (avoid with children under 2, use Eucalyptus       radiata instead)

Eucalyptus Radiata Essential OilEucalyptus radiata:
expectorant, this eucalyptus species is indicated for children with respiratory congestion, useful for colds and flu, antiviral

Fennel Essential OilFennel (Foeniculum vulgare var. dulce):
digestive, menstrual irregularities, antimicrobial

Frankincense Essential OilFrankincense (Boswellia frereana):
strengthens the immune system (CO2 extract), soothes inflamed skin conditions, cell regenerative

Geranium Essential OilGeranium (Pelargonium x asperum syn. graveolens):
PMS, indicated for hormonal imbalance, antimicrobial, nerve pain

Ginger Essential OilGinger (Zingiber officinale):
digestive, useful to eliminate gas, constipation, relieves nausea, warming emotionally and physically, anti-inflammatory, relieves pain, immune modulator

Helichrysum Essential OilHelichrysum (Helichrysum italicum):
cell regenerative, wound healing, anti-inflammatory, indicated for bruises and swelling

Lavender Essential OilLavender (Lavandula angustifolia):
calming, reduces anxiety, wound healing, burns, cell regenerative, insect bites. reduces itchiness, general skin care, great for children, antispasmodic

Lemon Essential OilLemon (Citrus limon):
antiviral, great for cleaning home, cleansing to environments (room spray), uplifting, detoxing

Lemongrass Essential OilLemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus):
cleansing, antiviral, insect repellant, use for cleaning, antimicrobial

Mandarin Essential OilMandarin (Citrus reticulata):
calming, great for children (can combine with lavender), slightly more warming citrus aroma

Neroli Essential OilNeroli (Citrus aurantium var. amara):
relieves and reduces anxiety, antispasmodic, PMS, antidepressant, nourishing, postpartum depression, pregnancy/delivery

Patchouli Essential OilPatchouli (Pogostemom cablin):
antidepressant, anti-inflammatory, soothes the nervous system

Peppermint Essential OilPeppermint (Mentha x piperita):
relieves nausea, analgesic for muscular aches and pains, relieves/reduces migraines, energizing, antispasmodic, do not use on children under 30 months of age

Rose Essential OilRose (Rosa damascena):
the queen of essential oils, cell regenerative, nourishing the emotions, aphrodisiac, relieves/reduces stress/anxiety, PMS

Rosemary Essential OilRosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis):
indicated for respiratory congestion, bronchitis, colds/flu, expectorant, expands and deepens the breath, energizing, clears the mind, sinus congestion, circulatory stimulant

Tea Tree Essential OilTea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia):
antimicrobial, supports/enhances immune system, antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral

Vetiver Essential OilVetiver (Vetiveria zizanioides):
cooling, grounding, astringent, useful for varicose veins, calming

Ylang Ylang Essential OilYlang ylang (Cananga odorata):
aphrodisiac, antispasmodic, antidepressant, nourishing

Aromatherapy is frequently intertwined with massage and by chiropractic practitioners. In addition, aromatherapists may have training in other forms of therapy and healing. As with any contemporary alternative or holistic medicine, there are limited research studies in comparison to pharmaceuticals. However, the research is promising towards their therapeutic benefits. Albeit rare, consult with your provider regarding potential side effects of essential oils with specific conditions. Although aromatherapists are not required to take certification boards or to be licensed, many aromatherapists are members of professional organizations. You may contact the National Association of Holistic Therapy ( to search for an aromatherapist near you and to learn more about aromatherapy.

A special thanks to Gebauer’s Pain Ease for sponsoring this episode of The Nurse Practitioner Show™.

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