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November 13, 2000
Aromatherapy: What Scents Does It Make?
You've bought the products because they smell good, but are they really affecting your health?
By Christine R. McLaughlin

illustration: Skipper Chong Warson

Every week while putting clean linens on the bed, Maggie Matturro sprays a sweet-smelling lavender and vanilla mist on the pillows and sheets as the final touch. She does so in hopes of inducing relaxation and a restful sleep, like the bottle claims.

"I don't know whether it works or not, but it smells nice," Matturro says. "It's hard to tell because I really didn't have any trouble sleeping before I bought it."

She is not alone. In fact, she is part of the large contingent of Americans who collectively will spend millions each year on aroma-releasing substances, called aromatherapy. Although aromatherapy is known to be thousands of years old, the movement has been picking up steam in the United States lately, especially in the past decade. But an important question has yet to be resolved: Is there bona fide therapeutic value to aromatherapy, or is it all in our noses?

Therapy or not?

According to Alan Hirsch, M.D., a neurologist and psychiatrist who has been studying the effect of scents and smells for more than 16 years, in order for something truly to be considered therapy it must be scientifically proven to affect a mood state or disease state. And at this point, he says, it's too early to tell if there's any real validity to aromatherapy.

Part of the problem with aromatherapy is explained by the general affective theory of odors, Dr. Hirsch explains. According to this theory, there are certain scents that people inherently like; obviously, these vary from person to person. So if a particular smell always brings a smile to your face, it probably puts you in a more positive mood.

What's inherently wrong with that, according to Dr. Hirsch, is anything that improves one's mood can be considered therapy. And in our research-driven medical culture that alone just doesn't cut it.

Ongoing research

Still, Dr. Hirsch and his colleagues from the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation, in Chicago, have published more than 200 double-blind, crossover scientific studies on the effect of smells on disease states. Some of the most interesting findings are that green apple smell can help reduce the length and severity of migraine headaches, that green apple/cucumber smell can reduce claustrophobia, that barbecue smell has been found to help reduce agoraphobia (fear of open spaces), and that mixed floral smell has been shown to improve learning ability.

So with all of these findings, can't any of these hold promise as therapy? Possibly. Yet many more studies need to be conducted, Dr. Hirsch says.

But Margaret Kershey Rivera, M.Ed., begs to differ. This aromatherapist has been practicing for 23 years and knows that since ancient times, aromatherapy has worked for a variety of conditions, such as muscular aches and pains, burns, infections, stress, and even arthritis. And that's reason enough to use it -- albeit safely, she says.

True aromatherapy works through the use of what are known as essential oils -- those that have been derived from plants. A strong whiff of an essential oil can trigger certain body responses. When used appropriately, essential oils can treat the mind, body, and spirit, according to Rivera, who consults and lectures on aromatherapy in Newtown, Pennsylvania.

Most of the time essential oils are diffused in the air with hot water; other times they are put on a tissue and inhaled or even added to a vegetable oil and used as a rub for a variety of conditions. For example, an individual with a cold might mix eucalyptus oil with vegetable oil and rub it on the chest at night to help break up mucus.

Buyer beware

However, much of what you'll find in stores that calls itself aromatherapy really is not, asserts Rivera. Many of these preparations are made with synthetic fragrances rather than with verifiable (and often expensive) essential oils. And synthetic fragrances don't provide the same health benefits, she adds.

Rivera explains that big businesses saw the popularity of aromatherapy and tapped into it. As a result, there are hoards of substandard products sold under the guise of aromatherapy. "The field of aromatherapy is fraught with fraud," she explains. "You have to be really careful of what you buy."

Not risk-free

As soothing as it may sound, aromatherapy is not without risks. People with asthma, liver disease, or odor-sensitive migraines may want to stay clear of anything called aromatherapy, according to Dr. Hirsch. And some odors, if absorbed through the lungs, have even been known to deactivate certain drugs, like birth control pills or anticonvulsant medications.

Some essential oils are even known to be carcinogenic, says Dr. Hirsch. "So before we can justify aromatherapy, we need to know that the risks are far less than the proven benefits, and we just can't do that today," he explains.

Yet Dr. Hirsch concedes that by 2010, scientists could have enough evidence to validate aromatherapy as part of treatment for various diseases.

If it smells good, use it

Regardless of the scientific merit of aromatherapy, smells can lift our spirits. If you like a smell and it makes you happy, then more power to you, says Dr. Hirsch ... just don't call it therapy.

Dr. Hirsch asserts that if you want to enhance your mood, you probably don't need to spend $20 on a so-called aromatherapy candle. Instead, he suggests, brew a rich pot of coffee or go to the supermarket and pick up some fresh flowers.

It may not be therapy, but it can still make you feel good. And there's nothing wrong with that.

Related links:

Rx.magazine feature story: Supplements: Lost in Lingo Limbo?

Outside link: For more information about aromatherapy, contact the National Holistic Aromatherapy Association