Aromatherapy

About aromatherapy

Aromatherapy is the practice of using essential oils therapeutically. Plant oils have been used as therapy and cosmetics for thousands of years with records going back to ancient Egypt, China and India.

The essential oils that aromatherapists use to treat conditions are complex substances containing many chemical components. The oils aren't concentrated from whole plant parts – unlike most herbal medicines – but are extracted from flowers, leaves, roots, peel, resin or bark.

Essential oils can be applied in a number of ways.

  • Oils can be blended in a carrier oil and massaged into your skin.
  • You can add a few drops of oil to warm bath water.
  • You can inhale some oils or add them to an aromatherapy oil burner or diffuser. The steam containing the oil spreads through the air in the room (however people who have asthma shouldn’t do this).
  • Oils can be blended into creams or lotions.

When you inhale essential oils, this stimulates your olfactory system – the part of your brain that is connected to smell. A signal is transferred to your brain's limbic system that controls emotions and stores and retrieves learned memories. This triggers chemicals to be released. These are thought to have different effects, causing you to feel relaxed or stimulated. In addition, the gentle massage often used to apply oils to your skin is likely to have a relaxing effect.

Aromatherapy is used for many conditions including:

  • anxiety
  • depression
  • stress
  • insomnia
  • pain relief
  • headaches
  • digestive problems
  • menstrual or menopausal problems

Although aromatherapy is used for many conditions, there is very little scientific evidence to show that it is effective.

You can choose to be treated by an aromatherapist, or you can buy certain oils at pharmacies and health shops and carry out the treatment yourself.

Where can I find an aromatherapist?

An aromatherapy practitioner should have some training in anatomy and physiology, as well as in the use of essential oils and massage. However, currently the title of aromatherapist isn't protected. This means that anyone can call him or herself an aromatherapist regardless of what training he or she has done.

There are regulatory bodies that aromatherapists can join, which set standards for the practise of aromatherapy. You can find a registered aromatherapist on the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC) website, which is the UK regulator for complementary healthcare practitioners. You can also search for an aromatherapist on the International Federation of Professional Aromatherapists website, which maintains a register of practising members.

Aromatherapy is widely available. Some nurses in hospices and nursing homes use it and many health clubs, sports centres, beauty clinics and complementary therapy centres now offer aromatherapy massage. It may also be possible to find a private practitioner who will come to your home.

What happens during aromatherapy

It's important to visit your GP before having aromatherapy, to help diagnose your condition and to ensure that aromatherapy is an appropriate treatment for you.

If you decide to visit an aromatherapist, you will first have a detailed consultation. Your aromatherapist will ask you questions about your medical history, diet, lifestyle and health problems. You can also ask any questions you might have. Your aromatherapist cannot make a medical diagnosis as he or she isn't trained to do so. However, he or she can advise you on a course of aromatherapy treatment.

Aromatherapists claim to treat you holistically. This means your treatment will take into account your mind, body and spirit. Your aromatherapist may recommend a single oil or a blend of two or three.

Your aromatherapist is likely to give you a massage using essential oils that have been diluted in a carrier oil. These light oils, mainly obtained from nuts or seeds such as almond or grapeseed, 'carry' the essential oils and provide lubrication for massage. It's important to tell your therapist if you have a nut or other allergy. He or she will advise you on other methods if massage isn’t suitable for you.

Your first session may last up to two hours because of the initial consultation. You may find that one session is enough or decide to continue with regular treatments at intervals of one to four weeks. Each of these will probably last about an hour to an hour and a half.

                                                     Aromatherapy massage

Is aromatherapy effective?

Although there is anecdotal evidence to support the use of aromatherapy, there is little scientific evidence. Research on whether aromatherapy can improve or alleviate health problems is scarce and results are conflicting.

Several studies have looked at the outcomes of different oils and aromatherapy techniques on a variety of diseases and conditions. Some of these have been controlled studies and may have involved using a placebo (dummy) treatment to see how it compares with aromatherapy. Other studies are less rigorous and therefore less reliable as evidence. The results of these experiments aren't conclusive and have led to conflicting views over how aromatherapy actually works, and even if it works at all.

Results from studies show that aromatherapy:

  • has a mild and short-lasting effect on relieving anxiety and depression
  • may help to reduce the feeling of agitation in patients with dementia
  • may improve the quality of life of cancer patients

However, much of this work has been inconclusive and more research is needed to test whether it works.

What are the risks?

As with every procedure, there are some risks associated with aromatherapy. We have not included the chance of these happening as they are specific to you and differ for every person. Ask your aromatherapist to explain how these risks apply to you.

In general, aromatherapy appears to be safe. However, it’s important to handle aromatherapy oils carefully and always dilute them according to the product instructions. Ask your GP or midwife for advice if you're pregnant or breastfeeding.

Aromatherapy may not be appropriate for everyone, especially if you have:

  • allergies
  • epilepsy
  • kidney disease or problems with your liver
  • asthma
  • sensitive skin

Aromatherapy oils can have side-effects. These are the unwanted but mostly temporary effects you may get after having the procedure. Side-effects of aromatherapy may include:

  • feeling sick
  • a headache
  • allergic reactions
  • skin irritation

Some oils, including citrus ones such as orange, grapefruit and bergamot, react with ultraviolet light and can cause your skin to burn more easily in sunlight.

Don't use essential oils neat on your skin. Exceptions are lavender oil and tea tree oil but only use these in small amounts and not for long periods of time. Applying lavender and tea tree oils to your skin over a long period of time has been linked to breast enlargement in boys who haven't yet reached puberty. This is thought to be because the oils may act in a similar way to the female sex hormone oestrogen.

Don't use essential oils on broken skin and it's important not to swallow oils or apply them directly inside your body (for example, inside your nostril or ear).

Some essential oils may either reduce or enhance the effects of certain conventional medicines. If you're taking any medication, always check with your GP or pharmacist before using aromatherapy.

Using essential oils at home

It's important to get advice from your GP, pharmacist or a registered aromatherapist before using essential oils at home as they can have harmful effects.

If you do decide to use aromatherapy at home, it's important that you dilute the oils. Some of the ways you can use them include:

  • putting a few drops in your bath
  • adding them to steaming water for an inhalation
  • using them in an incense burner to give fragrance to a room
  • adding them to unperfumed creams, shower gels, lotions and shampoos

Always read the information leaflet that comes with your essential oil. This will tell you how it should be used and give recommended dilutions where necessary.

Make sure you buy essential oils from a reputable source and always store the oils in tightly-sealed containers in a cool, dark place. Treat them as you would conventional medicines and keep them out of the reach of children because they can be toxic if swallowed.

Is aromatherapy massage beneficial for people with cancer?

Answer

In the UK, up to a third of people with cancer use a complementary therapy, such as aromatherapy massage, at some time during their illness. Aromatherapy massage doesn’t help to treat or prevent cancer, but some reports suggest that it may help control the side-effects and symptoms of the disease.

Explanation

Aromatherapy can make you feel relaxed. Some studies suggest it may help you cope with stress and the side-effects of cancer treatment. However, there isn't enough evidence to recommend that all cancer patients have aromatherapy massage.

Some cancer patients decide to use aromatherapy massage to help cope with cancer treatment and to help feel in control and have an active role in their recovery. A skilled aromatherapist can provide support during and after your cancer treatment. Studies of massage, with or without aromatherapy, in cancer patients have found it relieves anxiety and aids more restful sleep. However, there is mixed evidence about whether aromatherapy itself adds to the benefits of massage therapy or whether the massage alone causes this effect.

Many cancer centres and hospitals offer aromatherapy massage to cancer patients. If you're interested in aromatherapy massage, speak to your doctor or nurse. He or she can give you more information about services in your centre or hospital and whether it's suitable for you.

How much does aromatherapy cost?

Answer

The cost of aromatherapy treatment will vary according to the type and duration of the treatment you have, but it usually costs between £20 and £60 for a 60 to 90 minute session. The cost of essential oils will vary depending on what plants the oils are extracted from and the quality of the oil – some can be very expensive.

Explanation

It's important that you choose a qualified aromatherapist who is insured and registered with a professional body. Confirm the cost of the treatment before booking. The price can vary depending on how many treatment sessions you have and the location of the practice.

Essential oils vary in price depending on their quality. High-quality essential oils can be costly. Some essential oils are diluted and blended with other products such as vegetable oils. These are often labelled as aromatherapy oil. If you're using aromatherapy at home, always choose a product that is labelled as being pure essential oil. It's important that you only buy products from a trusted supplier – the Aromatherapy Trade Council may be able to offer you some advice.

Keep your oils in a cool, dark place and away from sunlight. The oils will last for around two years once opened. Citrus oils have a shorter shelf life so store them in a fridge. Make sure you buy the oils in small quantities and always replace the caps.

Can aromatherapy help with pain management in labour?

Answer

Some women decide to try complementary therapies such as aromatherapy to assist with pain relief in labour instead of medical methods such as strong painkillers or an epidural. However, there is no evidence to suggest that aromatherapy is helpful beyond relaxation.

Explanation

There are a number of options for pain relief in labour including gas and air, a TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) machine, an epidural and strong painkillers such as morphine. Some women decide to use alternative therapies, such as aromatherapy, for pain relief. However, there is little scientific research to prove its effectiveness. Some research does suggest that it can help to reduce anxiety so it may be of benefit in this way. Essential oils are also thought to help reduce tension and enhance relaxation.

Conventional pain relief options have been shown to be definitely effective, whereas the effects of aromatherapy are uncertain.

If you're considering using aromatherapy oils to help with labour and birth, it's important that you consult a registered aromatherapist. He or she can advise you on the most suitable oils. You should also discuss aromatherapy with your GP and midwife so that the necessary arrangements can be made for your labour. Some midwives are qualified to carry out aromatherapy during labour.