The art of aromatherapy to soothe and heal

A bubble bath that improves memory. A kitchen cleaner that wards off nausea and energizes. A scented handkerchief that calms a patient entering the MRI. The benefits of aromatherapy are real.

Here are some of the healing properties and basic how-tos of using aromatherapy to heal and de-stress.

woman holding fragrant plumeria flower

Benefits of aromatherapy and essential oils

Scan the shelves of the local bath and body stores, and one is sure to find products labeled for aromatherapy. Many might be surprised to learn the science behind it.

So what is aromatherapy, how is it used — and will those products actually work?

Cherie Perez, a supervising research nurse in the Department of Genitourinary Medical Oncology at the University of Texas’ M D Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, teaches a monthly aromatherapy class to answer those questions for patients and caregivers undergoing treatment at the cancer center.

Perez, who first became involved with aromatherapy to help relieve the physical pain and discomfort caused by fibromyalgia, shares her professional knowledge of the basics of aromatherapy, safety precautions and interactive demonstrations in each hour-long class.

5 oils to reduce stress and relieve ailments

  • Lavender: First used as perfume by ancient Egyptians 2,500 years ago, lavender is now used to treat insomnia, migraines and provide stress relief.
  • Rosemary: This fragrant plant relieves muscle pain, low blood pressure and cold feet and hands.
  • Spearmint: The oil from spearmint aids digestion and eases nausea and vomiting.
  • Masculine scents: Scents such as bay laurel and ylang-ylang appeal to men for their deep scent. They also treat skin rashes, rheumatism and stomach ailments.
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Oils and healing

While essential oils may not directly stimulate the immune system, they can complement cancer treatment by boosting the system’s ability to fight off infections, says Perez.

Certain oils can also stimulate lymphatic drainage or have antibacterial properties. Since it has many potential uses ranging from managing anxiety and nausea to helping with sleep, general relaxation, memory and attention, many individuals, including cancer patients, can benefit from aromatherapy.

>> Stop and smell the flowers: Scents really do soothe stress

MUJI Essential Oil Summer BlendThere are a variety of different products and methods of diffusion to obtain the healing benefits of oils. Some oils — like lavender, ylang ylang and sandalwood can be applied directly to the skin — while others are too concentrated and need to be diluted into carriers such as massage oils, bath soaps and lotions

Most typically, Perez advises patients to put a few drops of an oil, or a combination of oils onto a handkerchief and “fan themselves like Scarlett O’Hara.” She says that burning oils or incense is not recommended, because many burners are poorly constructed and give off unhealthy fumes and soot.

Everyday aromatherapy

  • Muscle relaxation bath salts: 2 cups of Epsom salts, 5 drops of each oil — lavender, lemon grass, tea tree & orange. Use 1/2 cup mixture per bath.
  • Room spray diffusion: Use any oil, 5-20 drops, along with 2 to 4 ounces of distilled or spring water. Common sense precaution — don’t spray in your eyes.
  • Energizing carpet cleaner: Combine pink grapefruit oil with baking soda and sprinkle before vacuuming.
  • Natural house cleaner: Blend lemon and ravensara leaf oils with distilled water and non-sudsing soap.
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Who should, or shouldn’t, use oils?

Widely sold in health food stores, beauty chain stores and now online, essential oils do have chemical properties that can affect the brain and enter the bloodstream. For some patients, therefore, they may be toxic when combined with common cancer therapies such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

Perez says essential oils, like many medicines, can increase a person’s sensitivity to the sun and should be used with caution. Patients should always inform and discuss with their physicians before using aromatherapy oils to complement a medical condition.

>> Trust through the fragrance of lavender

People with high blood pressure should avoid hyssop, rosemary, sage and thyme, while diabetics should avoid angelica oil. Women who are pregnant or nursing should avoid a number of oils that stimulate the uterus, including star anise, basil and juniper, to name a few; and in the first trimester, should be cautious when using peppermint, rose and rosemary oils.

According to Perez, pediatric patients can use aromatherapy essential oils in very low concentrations.

Tips for buying essential oils

When purchasing oils, Perez gives the following guidelines:

  • Essential oils from a bath or general store may be of questionable quality; shop for oils in a specialty store, staffed by salespeople with aromatherapy training.
  • Quality oils, which are light- and heat-sensitive, will be in a blue or brown light-protective glass.
  • Labeling on the bottle should provide should provide both the common and botanical names for the oil.
  • Steer clear of concentrated oils with rubber eyedroppers since the oils react with the rubber, causing it to break down and contaminate the oil.
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Aromatherapy’s role in cancer treatment

“The nature of aromatherapy makes it challenging to study due to the fact that it is difficult to create a placebo, and every person is different in their nasal sensitivities and skin absorption rates,” says Perez.

In the future, however, she would be interested in designing research to examine how aromatherapy can be used to treat and heal burns caused from radiation treatment safely and effectively, soothe pre-treatment anxiety, and manage loss-of-memory issues in cancer survivors.

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