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Massage Today
April, 2013, Vol. 13, Issue 04

The Current Emphasis on Clinical Research and Essential Oils

By Shellie Enteen, RA, BA, LMBT

The use of essential oils to benefit body, mind and spirit greatly predates the modern era, the term "aromatherapy" and the current emphasis on clinical research. Empirical evidence and information passed down through generations and occasionally recorded in books was the norm.

Despite the advent of the microscope and aromatherapy research pioneers such as Rene Maurice Gattefosse, scientific investigation into the affect of essential oil components was not common. And of course, the recipients of essential oil blends responded in a positive way, even before the chemical components were identified and classified.

But as we massage therapists know, today it is important to have evidence backed up by scientific studies to create agreed upon facts and practices. Those branches of the healing arts that are given the Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) designation are working hard to present these facts. For aromatherapists, especially when they are hoping to teach this modality to other health professionals, the need to produce verification through research is paramount. The scientific community just won't respect this field without evidence that meets their criteria.

In the aromatherapy community, the idea of research and even the emphasis on the chemistry of essential oils has produced widely divergent points of view. Just as it would seem odd to have to prove the soothing effect of gentle effleurage, to some aromatherapists the historical evidence for the relaxing affect of lavender is enough. Some even fear that going the scientific route is an attack on the basic human element which is so important in both the selection and blending of essential oils. Some are in favor of the clinical case study as a middle ground for proving the reliability of their art. But, there is a growing movement in the aromatherapy community to investigate the chemicals on their own and find personal justification and acceptance through studies proving effects.

essential oils - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark Salvatore Battaglia tells us that while research can help create clients who need this proof and that it can also provide recognition and legislation in favor of essential oils there are some basic problems when approaching research in this field. In my opinion, the most important is this: "The essential oils are complex pharmacologically active chemicals. The whole essential oil will have different properties from that of any single constituent alone. Most pharmacological studies involve the use of individual chemical constituents." (The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy, 2nd Edition, 2003.)

A principle that describes this is called the "quenching affect," wherein the presence of all chemical components may reduce the potential intensity of one component. An example would be the chemical limonene. Considered a strong skin irritant, limonene is present in many citrus and citrus note oils where it is brought to a manageable level due to its amount relative to the other chemicals present. However, the focus on the effect of limonene on its own has resulted in legislation in Europe that leaves perfumers with the great problem of no longer being able to use the essential oil of lemon (Citrus limon) in their formulas because it contains limonene. Many of these perfumes have been worn for hundreds of years without ill effect.

Another issue for research in the field of aromatherapy was simply lack of funds. Much of what we knew about physiological and skin care properties of essential oils came from research conducted for the cosmetic and food industries, where the funds and the need for specific research on affects have been vital to ensure public safety. But, as the need for more effective methods of treating chronic pain, anti-biotic resistant bacteria and other health related problems has grown, more research has been going into the relevant properties of essential oils.

If there is a need to find research regarding essential oils, there are some online resources that will yield results. PubMed is one: And there are good texts that provide research information as well. These include the Aromatherapy Practitioner Reference Manual by Sylla Sheppard-Hanger, Natural Aromatic Materials – Odours and Origins by Tony Burfield, Essential Oils 2008-2011 by Dr. Brian Lawrence. Aromatherapist Jane Buckle, PhD, RN teaches clinically based aromatherapy and has two books, Clinical Aromatherapy and Clinical Aromatherapy for Nurses. She has also authored an article on how to conduct clinical research for aromatherapy that can be found in a special e-book, published in 2012 by the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy on the topic of research and essential oils.

On a happy research note, it can be said that the scientific conclusions about the dangers of lavender oil used by young boys has now been disproven. The New England Journal of Medicine had run an article some years ago concluding that the development of breast tissue in two pre-pubescent boys (gynecomastia) residing in the same town (not in the same family) was a result of minute amounts of lavender and tea tree essential oils in personal care products from the health food store. This prestigious scientific magazine was unwilling to publish letters from well known aromatherapists refuting this notion. Robert Tisserand, one of our foremost colleagues, posted a link on Facebook this week with the note, "Nice to know that Lavender oil is conclusively not estrogenic." (This hormone like effect was said to be the cause of the gynecomastia.) Read the whole story here:

Click here for previous articles by Shellie Enteen, RA, BA, LMBT.


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