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Modern Scents for Your Psyche: Scientists Validate the Relaxing Effects of Essential Oils

It's taken some time, and some (maybe a LOT) of the Western medical establishment will still make fun, but aromatherapy has been officially validated by science. Not just the killing of microbes by Tea Tree, mind you, but the practice of 'aroma-therapy' - the inhalation of essential oil vapors to effect the psyche. Now we can all breathe an even hardier sigh of relief, knowing we're not crazy for thinking we feel better when inhaling Lavender oil, but stressed out lab rats feel better, too! The natural health and wellness movement gets one more feather in its cap. Yes, this may not be news to long-time practitioners, but this validation has important implications for a therapeutic environment where unnatural medicines currently dominate the landscape.

In recent years, more and more clinical and laboratory research is uncovering the efficacy of essential oils used for their anti-anxiety effects. Thankfully, the application of the oils in these studies is relatively simple: both the inhalation of aroma and the topical application have demonstrable therapeutic activity. These methods are easily replicated by the professional and aromatherapy enthusiast alike. The oils can be diffused an any diffuser (as the concentrations from high end nebulizers are not required for this practice), used in aromatherapy massage, or simply worn as natural perfume. Several readily available essential oils have statistically significant data to support their use in stress reduction - here's a look at some of the most often studied ones...

Lavender has been the most frequently studied of all the essential oils. Its anti-anxiety (or simply 'relaxing') action has been documented both in the laboratory (using stressed-out mice and rats) and in clinical environments with actual human beings. Many, many studies have reported the same thing: inhalation of lavender oil brings calm under a great variety of conditions. At least one study compared Lavender oil aroma to that of Juniper, Cypress, Geranium, Jasmine and Frankincense. It was only the Frankincense that had a somewhat similar effect, but not nearly as effective as Lavender. Several studies compared Lavender's effect to diazepam (Valium) with Lavender's aroma having similar (but likely more healthy) calming results. In other studies, Lavender has been shown to improve sleep, decrease conflict between animals, and reduce the amount of pain medication needed by recovering hospital patients.

Sandalwood oil is another well-known stress reducer. For those that may not enjoy the floral aroma of Lavender, Sandalwood could be the oil of choice. Its warm, earthy scent is grounding and centering, being used by some spiritual traditions to enhance relaxed, focused meditative states. The science shows similar results - Sandalwood oil topically applied relaxed the body while stimulating psyche. Studies on sleep/wake cycles using Sandalwood oil topically improved the quality of sleep and lessened waking episodes. A small study using Sandalwood suggested the oil may be helpful in reducing anxiety for palliative care patients. Beyond the scope of Western scientific inquiry, Sandalwood oils and pastes have been used for centuries in Ayurvedic medicine for the treatment of psychological disorders, utilizing its sublime mental-health promoting actions.

While Sandalwood and Lavender have the most data to back them up, many other essential oils have had positive test results. Rose is a standout; it has also been tested alongside Valium (apparently the anti-anxiety gold standard) with better and longer-lasting results. The rose aroma's effect seem to increase over time, where as benzodiazepines' effect will tend to decrease - and the test subjects appeared less confused or sedated. Rose, like Lavender, reduced conflict between test subjects as well. For a little variety, you can mix Rose and Sandalwood together (try a 1:4 ratio)...this is a classic Indian aromatic blend combining two of the world's best known anti-anxiety scents.

Other oils found in research databases include Angelica, Chamomile, Lemon, Lemongrass, Tagetes and Ylang Ylang. Some oils tested didn't show repeatable results in the laboratory environment, but if you find and oil aroma that you find relaxing, it's more than likely not purely 'in your head'; the olfactory (smell) sense is the one of the five senses most directly wired to the brain's emotional centers. These are, in turn, directly wired to the autonomic nervous system controlling functions such as heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure - all of which are closely tied to one's level of stress.

So what to do with these stress relieving wonders? They're really easy to use - one of the great features of aromatherapy. Both topical application and inhalation show repeatable results in laboratory tests. A common method of topical application is to dilute the essential oil in a carrier oil like Jojoba down to 10% or less. Essential oils tend to pass easily into the bloodstream when applied to the skin, so nearly any technique will do. A few drops of your mixture can be placed on the wrists and rubbed together (this is nice, as you'll smell the aroma as well). For inhalation, there's a great many aromatherapy diffusers available, from little, inexpensive plug in units, to professional models which make a cloud of pure, intense aroma. For anxiety relief, any model where you can smell the aroma will do the job - the higher end diffusers tend to bathe a larger area in your aroma of choice.

Choosing an oil for yourself (or helping your children / family / loved one's decide) is easy. What do you (or they) like to smell? One of the simplest yet most profound aspects of aromatherapy for the psyche is the legitimacy of individual of aroma preference. As uncovered by the laboratory studies, oils of greatly differing aromas can have similar anxiolytic action. While some people love flowery scents, others are drawn towards woods and resins. And it may be that someone who likes the relaxing/stimulating aroma of Rose needs that dual-effect; others loving Sandalwood might be better off with its centering/grounding action. In a word: experiment. Many companies will offer small sizes or even samples. Once you find one or more aromas that suit your needs, play with them - have fun! Whatever way you choose to indulge your senses, health, and wellness with essential oils...you can take comfort in knowing the science of aromatherapy is there to back you up. 

The author has been a contributor of aromatherapy articles and information around the internet. Her websites contain useful information for beginning and advanced aromatherapists alike. More information on http://www.anandaapothecary.com therapeutic grade essential oils and http://www.anandaapothecary.com/essential-oil-blends.html essential oil blends is available at the Ananda Apothecary.