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Is aromatherapy nothing more than a placebo effect?

What is the placebo effect? You have probably heard about it before. It is, in a nutshell, when your brain convinces your body that a treatment will work, even though it may not be the actual “medicine” (Harvard Health Publishing, 2021). It is about a strong mind-body connection. The placebo effect may not remove a blockage from an artery for example, but it may help you deal with pain, stress, anxiety, fatigue and more. Even though it is not fully understood, the placebo effect is a strong neurobiological reaction that can result in you feeling better.


So why do we tend to see this as a bad thing? I can see from the pharmaceutical perspective, if a case study group receiving a placebo (not the drug) has the same effect as the group taking the drug, they can’t prove that it is the medicine causing the effect. But people are feeling better! I don’t see anything wrong with that unless you are trying to sell medicine of course.



Ok let’s talk about this with respect to aromatherapy.


Let’s start by defining aromatherapy. It is a holistic therapy that involves the use of plant extracts, including essential oils and carrier oils/ butters/ waxes to help various conditions of the body, mind, and spirit. The extracts come from leaves, flowers, wood, fruit, seeds, roots and resins from trees, grasses, and other herbaceous plants. These extracts contain compounds that have healing potential. Beneficial effects can be achieved by application to the skin in a variety of ways, via massage or bath for aches, pains, bumps, and bruises, and of course, by inhalation for stress and anxiety as well as for respiratory and other issues.




There is continuing scientific research on the effectiveness of aromatherapy and the pharmacokinetics of essential oils (how the chemical constituents move through and affect the bodily systems). One needs only to look in PubMed or Science Direct to see that in 2022 and 2023 there are several clinical trials being undertaken in aromatherapy on topics such as aromatherapy for nausea and vomiting, sleep, anxiety and depression, injection pain, as a complementary support for patients undergoing treatment for various cancers and more.


There are decades worth of evidence-based research from case studies and experiences of the original trail blazers like Jean Valnet, René-Maurice Gattefossé, and Marguerite Maury, as well as the new generations of practitioners and scientists that are building on the evidence and scientific validity of aromatherapy. We must still be careful of myths that have carried down along with the evidence over time, but by looking at current research and by using common sense we can overcome that. Unfortunately, we still seem to have a long way to go before it is fully accepted as a legitimate complimentary health practice. The increased popularity of essential oil use is bringing more awareness to the benefits of essential oils BUT the barrage of misinformation found on the internet is not helping aromatherapy advance as it should.


Ok, back to aromatherapy as a placebo effect.


I love this definition by Gabriel Mojay “Aromatherapy can be defined as the controlled use of essential oils to maintain and promote physical, psychological, and spiritual wellbeing.” It is truly a modality for healing the mind- body -spirit.


Aromatherapy is about more than just the chemical components doing their thing; that’s what pharmaceuticals do. By ONLY taking the reductionist view of breaking down essential oils into their chemical parts and learning what those parts do we are taking away from the aspect of that mind-body connection that we get when we use aromatherapy and making it more pharmaceutical. There is nothing inherently wrong with that BUT that powerful memory that is elicited and the good feeling we get when we smell the aroma of for example black spruce or rose or another favourite essential oil is evidence of that mind-body connection, regardless of knowing what the constituents are and how they are acting chemically on the body. Maybe that reduction in stress when we inhale an essential oil is not always related to the chemical components causing an effect on our body chemistry that can be measured, like say an antidepressant. Is that feel good reaction that makes us feel better the placebo effect? Maybe. Maybe not. But if it is, is that a bad thing?




Don’t get me wrong; I am a scientist and firmly believe that knowledge is power, but because science has not “proved” something to be true yet, or has not shown HOW something works, doesn’t mean it doesn’t work and doesn’t mean it isn’t true. It just has not been thoroughly evaluated. Does that mean we should throw out decades of evidence and say it is just a placebo effect? Should we delay use until science shows us otherwise? No, absolutely not. What we can do, is look at the evidence we have and re-evaluate new evidence as it comes in. I am not attempting to undervalue the knowledge we gain by understanding the chemistry and pharmacokinetics of essential oils, I am saying that we need to also keep in mind what aromatherapy does, that is connect us to nature, and supports our healing via the mind-body-spirit connection.


Remember the placebo effect is a strong mind- body connection that makes you feel better. Aromatherapy embodies the mind-body-spirit connection so if you want to call it a placebo effect, then I am going to keep using my placebos because they sure have helped me and many others too.




References:


Mojay, G. (1997) Aromatherapy for Healing the Spirit. Restoring Emotional and Mental Balance with Essential Oils. Healing Art’s Press. Rochester, Vermont.



 

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Fawn Last is a life long learner and educator with degrees in biology and geology. She left an academic career to become a certified aromatherapist and continues to learn as she helps others find ways to support their wellbeing using aromatherapy.



 


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DISCLAIMER: The information on this site is not intended to be a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, and is for educational and informational purposes only. When incorporating any complementary alternative therapy into your health care regimen, always seek the advice of your medical doctor or qualified healthcare provider, and watch for any possible interactions or side effects. Statements made on this site have not been evaluated by Health Canada or the FDA (U.S. Food & Drug Administration)





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