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Aromatherapy may be relaxing, but smelling lemon and lavender didn't alter biology, researchers at Ohio State University said.
By JoNel Aleccia Health writer
updated 3/3/2008 5:30:13 PM ET 2008-03-03T22:30:13

Here’s some unsettling news for anyone who ever sniffed a scented candle, essential oil or pricey pillow spray, hoping for healing or another kind of physical boost.

It doesn’t work.

At least that’s the verdict on two of the heavy hitters in the world of aromatherapy: lemon and lavender. Researchers at Ohio State University conducted what they say is the most scientifically rigorous test of physical changes caused by smelling the popular scents — and came up with nothing.

Oh, lemon oil certainly boosted mood, husband-and-wife scientists Ronald Glaser and Janice K. Kiecolt-Glaser report in the March issue of the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.

But a randomized controlled trial that tested heart rate, blood pressure, stress hormones and immune function showed no significant changes before and after the big sniff.

In fact, some of the 56 men and women in the two-year study showed a stronger reaction to distilled water than to either of the identified aromas.

“It’s nice that lemon oil affects mood, but it doesn’t do anything physiologically,” said Kiecolt-Glaser, director of the division of health psychology at OSU.

The scientists admitted they were surprised by the results of the study, which subjected volunteers to mild stress and then measured how quickly they recovered. They expected to find at least some significant response to lavender and lemon, which figure prominently in essential oils, lotions and sprays marketed as remedies for a range of ailments by the multi-million-dollar aromatherapy industry.

Even ‘true believers’ didn't change
Volunteers had scent-saturated cotton balls taped beneath their noses. Biological responses were measured before and after they dipped a foot for one minute in icy water, a known stressor. Scientists also stripped away skin cells with tape and then measured how fast the participants healed.

But the physiological markers didn’t budge, even when some volunteers were told what scents they were sniffing, and what pleasant side effects to expect.

Nearly a third of the subjects were so-called “true believers,” people who attested to the power of aromatherapy and regularly bought good-smelling products to soothe themselves. Their minds were saying one thing, but their bodies didn’t follow, said Ronald Glaser, a professor of molecular virology, immunology and medical genetics.

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“Maybe lavender really does relax you, but guess what? We couldn’t find it,” he said.

The results of the study didn’t daunt Kathy Keville, a noted aromatherapist and author of a dozen books on the subject, including “Aromatherapy for Dummies.”

She didn’t dispute the science of the Glasers’ work, but she said that any of the more than 200 essential oils she uses regularly might have led to different results. Applying the essential oils topically instead of simply sniffing might also have produced different effects.

“If they had wanted blood pressure, they should have tried orange,” Keville said. “There are studies on chamomile being used for pain relief.”

Don't misjudge aromatherapy
It would be unfair to conclude that aromatherapy doesn’t work based on the results of even a rigorous single study, Keville said. Aromatherapy may not be a cure for specific illnesses or pain, but it’s a great adjunct therapy, she added.

That’s a view shared by Sue Repke, 44, one of the study participants, who believes the researchers’ findings — but doesn’t agree with them.

She’s an aromatherapy advocate who dabs lemon oil at her temples for alertness or eucalyptus oil to soothe a cold. She’ll turn to peppermint scents for a pick-me-up and her two girls, Alex, 13, and Andi, 10, are big fans of lavender-vanilla pillow spray.

“I think they need to keep looking, there’s something there,” said Repke, an occupational therapist in Columbus, Ohio. “It’s so frustrating when you know something works and they can’t find it.”

The Glasers say they would have been happy to report that a whiff of lavender or lemon cures what ails you — if it were true. Their work was funded by a two-year, nearly $374,000 grant from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health. Officials there said the small exploratory study offers a good basis for future research.

Nice smell, but not a cure
The study may have been small, but it raises important points for people who turn to aromatherapy for help, the scientists say. Users are welcome to take a sniff of whatever scents they choose, but they should regard it as a fun diversion, not a physical cure.

“In any case, it’s an awfully pleasant way to have a placebo effect,” Keville said.

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