Aromatherapy "Only Works If You Believe It Will" -- the beginning of a good debate

There was a general post on the idma list about an article in the U.K. journal New Scientist that debunked AT. I believe the reasoned responses and discussions of the U.K.-based AT people, below is a good step in taking AT to a more responsible level.  The post began a serious discussion on idma as to how to best begin research, and a research-oriented list may be born from this discussion. I think it's wonderful that it's finally starting, now if only the book authors realize it is a step towards relegating all their tomes to the garbage can (or recycling bin :-)


Damning Study Shows It Only Works If You Believe It Will
Reviewed by Dr Michael Peters
Apr 19, 2001 --

The popular complementary treatment aromatherapy may just be all in the mind
and is only likely to work if you believe it will, according to a new study.

Austrian and German researchers found the essential oils used in
aromatherapy did not have a direct effect on the brain but only affected
people if they thought the smell was stimulating.

Although most people's impression of aromatherapy is a scented candle or
bath, it is actually a form of alternative treatment where concentrated
essential oils are added to a base oil and massaged into the skin.

As well as relieving tension, the oils are claimed to have other medicinal
properties, such as improving wound healing, blood circulation and

However, scientists remain uncertain as to whether the oils enhance the
effects of massage or whether the effects of the treatment are just due to
the massage process itself.

'Scientific research on the effects of essential oils on human behaviour
lags behind the promises made by popular aromatherapy,' say the authors.

To scientifically test whether the oils had any effect, the researchers
studied whether essential oils that are supposed to make you more alert
actually improved people's reaction times.

Volunteers were all asked to wear surgical masks. Water was sprinkled on the
masks and their reaction times were tested.

Then some of the volunteers had oils such as peppermint, jasmine and
ylang-ylang sprinkled on their masks while others were given water again and
their reaction times were re-tested.

The researchers found no difference in reaction times between those people
given water and those given the essential oils. This suggests that the oils
don't have a direct effect on the brain when inhaled, says lead author Dr
Josef Ilmberger, at the department of physical medicine and rehabilitation,
Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich.

But they also found that the people's response to the oils was inconsistent.
The volunteers were asked to rate how pleasant, strong or stimulating they
found each scent. Those who rated the scents highly did show improvements in
reaction times.

This, says Dr Ilmberger, indicates the effects of essential oils are mainly
psychological. 'If people thought an oil was stimulating, they got faster,'
he says.

While previous animal studies of aromatherapy have shown definite effects,
experiments on people have produced contradictory results. This could mean
we are more complex in our reactions to smells, says Dr Ilmberger.

The researchers now plan to test the effect of massaging the oils into the
skin to see whether there is any effect when they are absorbed that way
rather than inhaled. The findings are reported in the journal, New

'Many studies, including this one, have not supported the case that
essential oils used in aromatherapy may be benefiting people,' says
Professor Edzard Ernst, head of the department of complementary medicine at
the University of Exeter.

But Professor Ernst tells WebMD aromatherapy can be useful if people
understand its benefits and limitations. 'If people enjoy aromatherapy and
see it as providing some form of healthy relief without actually being a
medicine then I see nothing wrong with it.'


>What do people think about this article?

Hi folks, Now that the press have got hold of this story in a big way over
here, I have been asked by several magazines for a comment this morning, so
I guess others have too....I'm not so sure that we need to get very excited
by the results of these studies just yet:, I am not sure you can damn
aromatherapy at a stroke like this. However it does make the need for an
evidence based medicine approach for our treatments much more pressing. We
need scientific credibility out there!.....


I think it's a load of crap. I don't know where they got the idea in the
first place that jasmine and ylang ylang are stimulating oils: were the oils
chosen for a specific reason?

Also, I went to a conference/seminar in March on medical uses of
EOs/scientific aspects of Icelandic EOs, and there were 2 German guest
lecturers, one a doctor and the other a physiotherapist in a German
hospital. The physio descried in detail how EOs are used in the hospital -
and the last thing they are used for is psychological stuff.

Originally they were used as room scenters, but then the physio used some
EOs in a footbath on a patient whose foot was about to be amputated as
nothing had worked on a festering wound for 4 months. Well, the EOs worked
and the foot wasn't amputated. That made the doctors sit up and take notice
and now 150 oils are used.

EOs were used first in surgery, then in intensive care, then in cancer care
(to aid with side effects of chemo etc.) and then the psychologists picked
it up. They are also used in gastroenerology, cardiology, endocrinology,
gynaecology, pain wards, in physio and occupational therapy, and in
geriatrics (but not in children's wards). No dermatologists visit the
dermatology wards as they don't need to - the EOs cure everything.

In surgery they do aromatograms first to find out which oils work best on
the bacteria in question. Eucalyptus is used for asthmatics. Lavender or
peppermint are used on first and second degree burns, drop by drop directly
on the burn. EOs are also used to calm anxiety and help with sleep problems
- in the latter, the nurse often puts some lavender + carrier oil in the
palm of her hand and wafts her hand up to the patient when saying good
night. That is enough.

Oh, and relevant to the study reported in New Scientist, the Munich medics
use rosemary for people who are disorientated and it works very well. I
could go on, but I won't here (I might repost a version of this to the list
when it's up again though). I seem to have got somewhat carried away, but I
took copious notes as the university will refund me for the conference and I
thought I ought to glean as much info as I could.

Bye for now, Lowana

Hi again, Further to Lowana's mail, which I found interesting, and which
adds to our general knowledge of what is actually happening in AT practice,
I'd like to make a couple of further points. There are lots of people like
me who progressively collect data, write and lecture on essential oils,
amass papers from all possible sources including conferences. I have maybe
5000 to 6000 (I'm guessing) in my own library, of which maybe half are on
ethnobotanical or properties with a view to therapeutic uses. I'm sure there
are many individuals with larger collections.

It goes to show that there is an absolute wealth of data here on eo
properties, the potential of which for eventual therapeutic uses must be
very considerable. This in itself is difficult to consign to the scrap heap
on the basis of this one study, which has unfortunately set alight criticism
of our industry (now featured on UK National TV last night).

It is also unfortunate in my opinion, that many of the spokepeople who are
making these media comments seem to be drawn from the clositered academic
world who have little experience of actual AT practice, essential oils or
life outside of campus....but thats just my personal prejeudice coming out!

Lowana dealt at length with current aromatherapy practice which is great,
and the more widespread the belief and use of AT in clinical situations, the
more significant will be our credibility. However weeding through the papers
and magazines on AT and eo's, and looking for studies which has been
conducted say using double blind, randomised crossover trials, and which
show statistically significant results, and which have been critically
reviewed and proclaimed sound, there are really not too many. This is the
litmus test which the media (via the scientific community) is applying to
AT, not so much the practice or belief in the system as such.

I am willing to be persuaded that persuing this latter evidence based
medicine path is too difficult a prospect for many of us in AT in the
moment, I know that I have talked to many representatives of professional AT
groups in the UK who believe that even applying project studies to AT
coursres is not practically possible to this sort of level, and many of
these people in small colleges are actually resisting involvement.

I am interested in what others think on this - after all we are all in this
together. We have I believe 7000 registered AT professionals in the UK, out
of maybe 50,000 + who have studied AT at college (my own estimates). The
number engaged in AT projects is infinitessimal, yet we all believe
anecdotally in the evidence we see with our own eyes during the course of
our own work. There must be a better way forward so we dont get all this
adverse media attention....

Hello again, Scuse me catching up - John has just sent me the posts from
Lowana and Tony below and I have some comments to make ~ I think few
professional AT's and everyone connected with and having a interest in the
legitimacy of Aromatherapy will disagree that in theory, we need proper
trials and studies.

The main obstacles to achieving this seem to be:

1. Money
In conversations I have had with people on the subject over the years, It
has always been stated that it is really only the large pharmaceutical
companies / corporations that have the kind of money needed to do this and
that if they did put any money up, It would only be for reasons of trying to
extract particular active compounds that they could utilise, patent and
market for the purposes of making more money so would not be in the
interests of Aromatherapy.

2. Expertise
Because Aromatherapists very seldom have a scientific back-ground, we do not
know the procedures for designing trials.

3. Time
Always a problem, because everyone is so busy, however, there have been
various hypotheses for possible trials whizzing around in my head for some
time and it only needs a few committed individuals to discuss the viability
of ideas that we all may have ~ In short, it needs the fusion of
Aromatherapists / Scientisits to discuss these things and work something out
that is workable.

I would be happy (if not excited) to be involved the first and last bits ~
ie. give the ideas and on completion of a properly designed trial, then
organise it (inc. whipping up enthusiasm ) ~ It is the middle bit that is
difficult. *~>~ *~>~ *~>~

My very first Aromatherapy teacher was an ex-nurse and the course I did with
her was very clinical, In fact, at the time, I was somewhat perturbed at the
lack of spirituality, but looking back, I am grateful for the amount of
thorough clinical applications that we covered, time and time again.

Also,she was always making reference to various hospital departments so I
can relate very much to what Lowana says - I have heard all that too :-)

Within the applications we covered there seems to be clear anecdotal
evidence for persuing various trials. One of these, to give you all an idea
of the kind of thing I am thinking, is to do with Chemotherapy.

Whilst it is the case that Aromatherapy can be very useful in dealing with
the side-effects of Chemotherapy and Radiotherapy, it
can go father than that even ~ My old teacher Ann, to this day in her
practice, will give a massage to someone three days before their' next
chemotherapy appointment, because she knows that by using a small amount of
Lemon and Tea-tree she is confident that when her client attends the
hospital appointment and blood is taken to accertain whether the white blood
cell count is high enough for treatment to be allowed, the doctor will
exclaim with surprise, that yet again, the wbc count is higher than would be

This happens over and over with any and every client she sees. (many people
are refused chemo. tretment because after waiting an hour for the results of
their blood test, they are informed that yet again, the wbc count is too

I think it would be really exciting to have properly designed trials, but
then, would these ideas be workable? there a many questions / variables to
be considered and at the end of the day I have these exciting ideas but am
not a scientist (sigh) Anyway, maybe we can do something?

Bfn, Kendra


Note from Anya McCoy, author of these pages -- yes, Kendra, hopefully we can do something. It is about time.