Does Aromatherapy Offer Health Benefits? Unlikely

Studies of whether soothing odors affect people’s experience of pain reveal that they don’t.

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Aromatherapy may make you feel better, but there's no good evidence of any solid health benefits to date. Our laboratory conducted a very elaborate and detailed study to look at the effects of lavender and lemon oils on mood, heart rate and blood pressure, stress hormones, and immune function. Lemon did in fact enhance positive moods, but neither lemon nor lavender had any positive effects on the participants' physiology or biochemical markers over a period of several hours. In one part of the study, participants had their foot immersed in ice water for a minute; their pain ratings when they were smelling distilled water were no different from when they were inhaling the lavender or lemon scents. 

A group of British researchers reported that men and women who placed their hand and forearm in ice water for up to 15 minutes reported more pain when the ambient odor was either pleasant (lemon) or unpleasant (machine oil) compared to a no-odor condition. And Florida researchers who used heat and pressure pain found that none of their odors (lavender, rosemary, and distilled water) were related to how much pain participants reported. The absence of any analgesic benefits across all three studies is notable, because pain reduction is a primary reason for aromatherapy's widespread use in health-related applications ranging from labor pain to post-surgical discomfort. 

So by all means, stop and smell the flowers if that makes you feel better, but don't expect the good smells to work like a drug. 

  • Related: Managing Your Pain Without Becoming Addicted to Painkillers
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