Harvard Women's Health Watch

In Brief: Aromatherapy's benefits limited to mood improvement

In Brief

Aromatherapy's benefits limited to mood improvement

Lemon oil may lift your mood, but aromatherapy is no better than distilled water in relieving pain, healing wounds, boosting immune function, or easing stress. Those are the key findings of a rigorous investigation into the purported benefits of this scent-based approach to health and wellness. The study, conducted by researchers in behavioral medicine at Ohio State University, examined the effects of the two most studied odors — lemon oil (promoted as a stimulant) and lavender oil (promoted as a relaxant) — on various physiological systems that influence health. Results were published in the April 2008 issue of the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.

Aromatic plant oils have been used since ancient times to improve mood and health. Today, such oils, also known as essential oils, are incorporated in massage, added to baths, or inhaled in steam or through a diffuser. Little systematic empirical research has been devoted to aromatherapy, and many of the available studies are inadequate. The Ohio State study is particularly well designed and should set a standard for future research on the health effects of aromatherapy.

Researchers monitored the blood pressure and heart rate of 56 healthy volunteers who wore cotton balls infused with lemon, lavender, or distilled water (placebo) taped under their noses. Half the group were told which scent they'd be exposed to and what to expect — for example, that lavender has a calming effect and might lower heart rate or provoke warm memories. The other half were told only that they would be sniffing various floral and fruit scents.

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