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    Aromatherapy! Whoa, isn’t that some pseudoscience? Or not? What is it really about?

    Aromatherapy is the vaporization of essential, plant-based oils that are supposed to cure ailments – either through aroma dispensers (see picture below) or applied topically as massage oils. 

    I am not an expert on this topic at all, but I will find 10 arguments why aromatherapy is real and 10 reasons why it is a scam. That way, we will be able to come to a much more informed decision whether this is worth looking further into or most likely pseudoscientific fraud.

    We will also see how to find two sides to every argument. Discussing aromatherapy this way and finding for/against arguments will open my mind to stances that are different from my own.

    I am actually a little familiar myself with aromatherapy. Back in my hippie days in high school (I guess I am still hippie if you look at my hair ;-), I had an aroma lamp at home for some time. I thought it could impress girls, but… nah. Did not do the trick.

    Moreover, some ointments – for example, “Wick MediNait” are actually helpful: the aroma that emanates over night when you apply it to your chest can actually free your nose when you have a cold.

    So 10 arguments for (a) or against (b) aromatherapy – let’s see what they are!

    Aromatherapy Lamp

    One example to apply aromatherapy

    #1 (a) – It is non-invasive and “mild”.

    We don’t need to inject it into the body, and there are no “harsh” chemicals that could wreak havoc with unintended side effects. We just subtly change the composition of the air in the room.

    #1 (b) – It is less controllable when it’s in the air.

    It does not really matter how the drugs reach the body. If we apply them orally or via injection, we can control the amount of medication we apply. If it is in the air, we are constantly exposed.

    #2 (a) – We can easily increase or decrease the dose without immediate harm.

    We can easily increase or decrease the concentration of the aroma by burning more or less oil.

    #2 (b) – We can still apply too much.

    Aromatherapy Paracelsus

    “All things are poisons, for there is nothing without poisonous qualities…it is only the dose which makes a thing poison.” – Paracelsus

    Without knowing much about the composition of the oils or the substances in them, we can still cause harm. Chemicals have varying efficiencies. According to Paracelsus, any substance can be a poison when you chose the dosage right. After all, you are not smelling mercury vapors, are you?

    #3 (a) – It is geared towards long-term effects

    What was an advantage in #2 can even be a bigger advantage here: it is better to treat someone consistently with a low dose than a strong dose aiming at immediate effects.

    Burning oils can even be a lifestyle where we permanently strengthen our immune system and thus prevent the occurrence of several diseases. A constant presence of ‘healing effects’ in the atmosphere.

    #3 (b) – Long-term effects can be dangerous.

    Toxic substances can accumulate in the body without noticing at first. Examples for this are: asbestos, mercury (as mentioned in #2), lead. Then, after enough toxins have accumulated, the effect appears “over night”. 

    #4 (a) – Homeopathy has shown that small doses are efficient in curing diseases.

    This means by just dispersing a small amount of the efficient aroma oil substances in the air, we get a great effect on health.

    #4 (b) – Homeopathy is unproven and pseudoscience.

    There is no double-blind scientific study that shows homeopathy effects are anything but beyond placebo. Increasing the efficiency by diluting substances until they are practically gone, “water memory”etc. – concepts that do not hold their weight when probed in the lab.

    #5 (a) – It calms the mind and has beneficial spiritual side effects.

    Warming up essential oils by lighting a little candle is a nice daily ritual that can make you happy in and of itself. It forces you to switch off outside noises and calms you down.

    Having a spiritual practise actually makes sense when you want to bring some routine and purpose into your life. It can help you get control over your life. A healthy soul and spirit will also strengthen you and therefore make you less susceptible against diseases.

    #5 (b) – Redefining treatments as an extension of spirituality can be fatal.

    While I agree that it is good practise to have a daily spiritual routine, a disease can be an acute emergency and may have to be cured with more aggressive and fast measures. You can’t delay them by replacing the doctor’s visits with lighting a candle and vaporizing scented oils.

    Such behavior delays the start of efficient treatment and gives you a false sense of security. After all, you “did something” every day – even if that is only lighting a candle.

    #6 (a) – It has already helped a lot of people!

    At the very least, you can try it out yourself. Very easily.

    #6 (b) – The efficacy of aromatherapy is based largely on anecdotal evidence.

    There are currently no clear studies that show the effectiveness of aromatherapy on curing any major disease. People do report that it helps them against back pain, sleeplessness (amongst others) and generally improves their mood, but we don’t know whether those are general trends or just personal observations.

    #7 (a) – Aromatherapy is relatively inexpensive.

    The oils are cheap, and you only use a few drops for each application.

    #7 (b) – You can still lose a lot of money.

    You pay extra for the machines needed to use aromatherapy, your health insurance will likely not pay for it; and if you can’t trust your medication, there may be additional costs if you mistreat your disease and then have to get actual medication.

    #8 (a) – No research animals are harmed when developing this medicine.

    This is an alternative healing method the recipes of which have not been developed in any research lab. The oils are distilled from herbs and grasses, not animals. And they are not tested on animals.

    #8 (b) – Since no animals are harmed, we don’t know about the medical reliability.

    Research animals are not just tortured and killed for fun or as a ritual. We apply the medication to mouse, rats etc. – then analyze their tissues and cells to learn about how the drugs actually work on the body. So if there is no animal research, it is less trustworthy. You might “feel fine”, but there is no way of knowing how healthy your organs actually are.

    #9 (a) – It is not “Big Pharma”

    No “evil corporations” are involved in producing the oils.

    #9 (b) – It is still “Big Esoterica”.

    You believe sellers of aromatherapy don’t want to make money? And may cut corners by promising effects that are not there?

    #10 (a) – It smells good.

    That’s what the “aroma” in “aromatherapy” stands for.

    #10 (b) – “Good smell” can conceal a lack of efficiency.

    Yeah, sure. Of course the aroma oils smell at least agreeable, because that is by and large the only argument to buy it, right? Smelling is believing.

    Aromatherapy is aimed at making us “feel good”. It is dangerous though to base the choice of medication on an emotional appeal based on the beauty of the medicine.

    In conclusion

    Would I try aromatherapy as a remedy when I am sick? Probably not when it is about an acute emergency, or if I have a chronic condition that requires strong medication. If I suffered from sleeplessness or back pain, or if my mood was down in general, I guess trying aromatherapy can at least not hurt, as long as we accept that the reported effects could be due to a placebo effect.

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    Have you used aromatherapy yourself?

    Has it helped you?

    Thanks for reading and let us know in the comments below!

    (Pictures taken from Wikimedia Commons.)