Does aromatherapy aid in healing?

The human nose can detect 10,000 different smells in less than a second. Being the first sense to develop, scent also has a direct connection with emotions. And this forms the basis of aromatherapy, an age old practice of healing through aroma, which in recent times has gained tremendous popularity.

Aroma oils and claims
Aroma oils, obtained from various parts of plants, are also known as ethereal oils which mean they evaporate easily. The final oil procured from the plant is acquired through a laborious and lengthy procedure of distillation.

Aromatherapy experts say that to get two grams of rose oil, you would need 100 kilograms of rose petals. This is why aroma oils are expensive and can lighten one’s pocket by a few thousand rupees for just a few whiffs!

Aroma oils claim to have a wide range of uses. Cosmetic application of these products make claims of reducing cellulite, smoothing wrinkles, bringing a glow to the skin, reducing hair fall and so on. They also claim to soothe the senses in case of a wide range of disorders right from stress induced ailments, anxiety and depression, joint pains, headaches and tummy troubles.

Lavender, one of the most common and user-friendly aroma oils, aids in diverse needs such as relaxation, skin allergies, concentration, depression and sound sleep. Another aroma oil, mostly used in India, is lemongrass, known to help in stress, pain relief and lethargy.

The other view
Over time, aroma oils and their use as a form of healing have been placed under the scanner. Does a bottle labeled Sound Sleep, containing a potpourri of aroma oils, actually send the user to dreamland? Or is it simply a case of self-fulfilling prophecy that works because the user believes in it.

In the absence of scientifically valid research there is little that can be said on the therapeutic claims of aroma proponents. Dr Stephen Barrett, medical communicator, author and board chairman of Quackwatch Inc, a US-based organization, says, “It’s not a therapy, it’s a set of products with odors. If people like the odors and want to pay for them, I would have no objection.

Dr Anjana Agarwal, who has done extensive research on aroma oils during her doctoral thesis and now lectures a foundation course in aromatherapy says, “It cannot be used in isolation and must be combined with whatever corrective medicinal treatment the body needs.”

Another criticism leveled against aromatherapy is that some people with overly sensitive skins or smell senses may find aroma oils intrusive and irritating.

Without proper knowledge, the unsuspecting consumer does not know better. Shikha, an undergraduate student who attended an introductory talk on aromatherapy, says she got excited and purchased a whole host of aroma oils which she experimented with. To her horror, she burst into skin allergies and had a pounding headache for several days. “I’ve sworn off aromatherapy forever. I paid a bomb for expensive aroma oils hoping for cure only to land up with worse problems”, she exclaims.

According to Dr Anjana Agarwal, people need to approach the use of aroma oils with care and pay a lot of attention to the dose or quantity in which the oil is used. Even innocuous oils such as lavender can burn the skin if applied in large amounts.

The popularity and easy availability of aroma products have made us aware of their possible therapeutic benefits but half-baked knowledge and lack of care and judicious use may have far-reaching negative impact.

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