Aromatherapy: Myths & Facts

Aromatherapy is officially defined as a form of alternative medicine that uses volatile plant materials, known as essential oils, and other aromatic compounds for the purpose of altering a person's mind, mood, cognitive function or health1. This emerging industry has some solid merits, but similar to many nutraceutical/cosmeceutical products, seems to also be full of fictitious claims. The fundamentals behind aromatherapy are simply: essential oils & aromatic ingredients can sometimes have certain benefits such as anti-viral, anti-microbial, anti-mutagenic effects, thus when they are volatilized, these effects can be transferred nasally. While it has been proven that essential oils such as rosemary can lower the production of carcinogens during cooking of meat2, it is clear that simply smelling rosemary essential oil will not help prevent cancer.

Therapy, or treatment, is the attempted remediation of a health problem, usually following a diagnosis3. Thus, what can aromas emitted from essential oils treat?

From the point of view of a flavourist, good aromas should obviously produce positive emotions, such as smelling a food that you like. Certain aromas have been proven to trigger certain emotions, such as an apple pie & rotten eggs. In the later, the opposite of aromatherapy would normally occur. For the sake of this discussion, we could simply refer to it as "aroma-stress". Aromatherapy or aromastress can easily be induced by a number of different odours, but how does this suddenly become a therapy?

Certain odours have even been claimed to have aphrodisiac properties (see below & look at the credibility of reference 4)4,5, but would this classify as a therapy? These claims are not backed up by any scientific proof & if there was any basis to this, pharmaceutical companies would have been all over this a long time ago!

Licorice -  Contains plant estrogens and stimulates the sex glands, bringing oxygen to the female genitals 40% faster.
Pumpkin Pie or
Pumpkin Seeds
-  The top contender to increase penile blood flow an average of 40% faster.
Muira Puama -  The American Journal of Natural Medicine stated: “One of the best herbs to use for erectile dysfunction or lack of libido (also known as potency wood)
Cinnamon -  This sweet, spicy flavor and aroma has been used to aid in the treatment of impotence and proven to be sexually stimulating for men.
Basil -  Considered the sacred herb of India, it awakens the senses, stimulates blood flow, and relieves fatigue.
Artichoke -  Share this sex vitamin, high in Vitamin C, folic acid, magnesium, and phosphorus with your lover because it’s fun to eat together!
Celery -  Contains androsterone, a powerful male hormone released through sweat glands to attract women.

This table taken from:

There could be many semi-valid explanations for aphrodisiacal properties of smells such as smells triggering certain memories or simply being reminded of food. On a purely hormonal level, it is clear that our personal aroma does have certain impacts on physiology. The classical case of menstrual synchrony, where the menstrual cycles of women who lived together (such as in homes, prisons, convents, bordellos, dormitories, or barracks) reportedly became synchronized over time is a very clear example of this8.

In either case, cooking tasty or favourite meals should be automatically classified as being therapeutic. A smell can bring on a flood of memories, influence people's moods and even affect their work performance6. This is thought to be because the olfactory system (or bulb) is physiologically close to the brain's limbic system, which is responsible for memory & feeling. Thus when certain smells are detected, powerful thoughts & memories can be triggered.

As aromatherapy becomes more popular, new types of products, claims & companies are mushrooming, resulting in an even more diverse range of therapy solutions. Certain oils & aroma ingredients have been claimed to even help in self confidence, depression, fear, memory & focus7.

It is very clear that some aromas can produce certain therapeutic effects, such as calming versus agitating effects. A clear example of this would be to expose individuals to vanilla, lavender & apple pie odours, that usually produce positive emotions. Conversely, durian, blue cheese & rotten egg smells would result in negative feelings. However, durian fruits, which typically have strong onion-like odours, are a very popular fruit that is enjoyed by the Asian community, resulting in very positive emotions. There are evident reasons why you will typically smell lavender & other floral odours, instead of garlic & onion in spas.

Certain colours are said to have psychological effects9 & this is why hospitals, nursing homes & other institutions are typically coloured with the same tints. Colour theory states that colours will trigger certain emotions, such as "red is the color of fire and blood, so it is associated with energy, war, danger, strength, power, determination as well as passion, desire, and love"10.

Everything is relative to each individual & claims should be taken with a giant grain of salt. In today's information age, it is too easy to be able to be the authority on any subject. Consumer beware!

Please refer to the list of actually proven benefits of certain essential oils, which can be found in the NOVOeducation section of this website.