January 16, 2017

Essential Oil Studies and The Sense of Smell

Apple pie fresh out of the oven, lilacs in bloom, sunbaked pine needles on a forest floor, bread baking—all these delicious aromas evoke pleasant memories and a sense of well-being for me. You could probably identify your favorite scents as well.

Of all our senses, smell has the strongest ties to memory. But our sense of smell also serves as an early warning system. Have you ever pulled a container of leftovers out of the fridge, popped the lid off, took a whiff and thought, “That doesn’t smell right!”? Our sense of smell can alert us to a natural gas leak, or assault us with the news that it’s time to change junior’s diaper.

Without our sense of smell, we wouldn’t be able to taste. That’s why we don’t want to put into our mouths that we can’t get past our nose. (Limburger cheese, anyone?) The sense of smell plays into our enjoyment of life, many physical responses, our motivations, the way we learn, and mood.[1]

Is it any wonder, then, that we might benefit from aromatherapy, a complementary alternative medicine that’s so strongly tied to the sense of smell? Of course, aromatherapy extends beyond the olfactory nerves, especially when applied topically. But we could still argue that even in those applications, the aroma of that essential oil continues to play a lead role in its effectiveness.

Studies on Essential Oils Exist, but are Difficult to Stage

Remember when your mother would massage your chest with Vick’s Vaporub to help sooth congestion from a nasty cold? Was it the aroma; the warm, gentle massage; or the loving care of your mother that you found so soothing? Probably all three!

This example begins to get at the problem of designing clinical tests to demonstrate the effectiveness of an essential oil. As with the example of Vick’s Vaporub, when evaluating a complementary therapy, it’s not always easy to tell which part of the therapy played which role.

Second, when trying to determine the efficacy of a new drug, researchers will often create a “blind” study involving two like groups: a control group receives a placebo and a test group receives the drug. But with essential oils, this methodology is very difficult to pull off.[2]

thyme EO stops snoring
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Also, essential oils are not standardized in their chemistry. The region, its soil, climate, and extraction methods all play into the chemical makeup of an essential oil. At this time, the International Standards Organization has set criteria for essential oils that measure a range of acceptable concentrations for their primary chemistries.[3]

Another difficulty with testing essential oils is the fact that individuals sometimes respond differently to the same oil. This is true of synthetic drugs as well. For instance, when I was a child my father smoked a pipe for a while. To this day, when I smell a certain pipe tobacco, it stimulates fond memories of my dad. But for others, the smell of pipe smoke may dredge up unpleasant memories, rendering the odor repugnant.

Finally, funding for research on essential oils is difficult to come by. Most major drug research is conducted by major pharmaceutical companies who stand to profit from the sales of that drug. These companies have little motivation to fund a study on a plant-based substance that cannot be patented and sold as proprietary.[4]

Still, there are numerous studies available on a broad selection of essential oils. In a blog article on lemon essential oil, Dr. Axe notes that at the time of his writing, he had found 519 scientific studies referring to lemon essential oils alone![5] So the studies are out there.

A Natural Remedy Approach to Essential Oils

Granted, we all like to read that something is backed up by scientific evidence. However, I know that when a trusted relative or friend tells us about a home remedy that worked for them, we generally accept their testimonial and may try the remedy ourselves.

Let me give you an example. Until recently, I knew nothing about essential oils. However, I did know that our youngest son snores like a sailor and sometimes his snoring drives his young wife from their bed. She finally had had enough of it and began looking for a remedy.

She read that thyme essential oil, when mixed with a carrier-oil and rubbed onto the feet before bed, stops the person from snoring. She ordered thyme oil and convinced her husband to try it. That night he mixed the oils, rubbed the mixture onto his feet and put socks on. He slept like a baby—NO SNORING! It has worked every night since. What can I say? I’m a believer.

Talk to people who use essential oils successfully and prudently. My guess is that asking an essential oil salesperson what oils to use is like asking a barber if you need a haircut. So ask someone you know, like and trust. Try out what they recommend and see if it works for you. But remember, not every solution works for everyone in the same way.

This way you can build your own experiences with essential oils and pass your knowledge on to others…but not your sense of smell. 🙂

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Rob Fischer has been writing professionally for over 35 years. His experience includes writing curricula, study guides, articles, blogs, newsletters, manuals, workbooks, training courses, workshops, and books. Rob has written for numerous churches, for Burlington Northern Railroad, Kaiser Aluminum, and Barton Publishing. He has also trained managers in effective business writing. Rob holds two Master’s degrees, both focused heavily on writing. Rob has published eleven books and serves as an editor and ghostwriter for other authors.
[1] Piet Vroon, Anton van Amerongen and Hans de Vries, Smell, The Secret Seducer, The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/v/vroon-smell.html.
[2] University of Minnesota, “What Does the Research Say about Essential Oils?” nd, http://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/explore-healing-practices/aromatherapy/what-does-research-say-about-essential-oils.
[3] University of Minnesota.
[4] University of Minnesota.
[5] Dr. Axe, “Top 10 Lemon Essential Oil Uses and Benefits,” nd, http://draxe.com/lemon-essential-oil-uses-benefits/.

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