Questions about Aromatherapy

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IN CASE you've stumbled upon this page through a search engine, this is part of the website of Rick Lavin, associate professor at the Prefectural University of Kumamoto. This section of the site is composed of various personal interest pages I made at one time or another since 1996.
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These are some questions and reservations I have regarding aromatherapy.

Is it scientific?

Born in the late twentieth century, and having been through many years of formal education, I like things to be scientific. My experience with meditation has convinced me that we can't afford to wait for everything to be sanctioned by established science before enjoying its benefits, but part of me still needs scientific justification for any kind of therapy.

What is science?

But what does scientific mean? I don't claim to be exhaustive or even accurate here, but these are some of the characteristics I associate with the term:

Founded in experience

Isaac Newton feels an apple falling on his head, and comes to the conclusion that some force must be causing it to fall. A child burns his hand on the stove and concludes that fires are dangerous things.

Confirmed experimentally

On my aromatherapy home page, I mentioned various oils my wife and I have used to help promote sleep. The sceptical among you will have been less than convinced. Who can say that my wife wouldn't have fallen asleep anyway? After claiming that lavender and chamomile helped promote sleep, in the neroli section I talked about times when they had no effect. And although I claimed that neroli worked when all else failed, maybe in reality the other oils had had a cumulative effect. Or maybe after being awake so long, she got so tired that she just fell asleep naturally.

For all these reasons, scientists like to conduct experiments. Ideally, these should be:

statistically significant
If you take 100 people diagnosed as having a sleeping disorder and give them lavender to inhale, and 70 of them fall asleep within five minutes, you can say there's a fairly strong possibility that lavender is helpful in the treatment of sleeping disorders.
controlled for other factors
It's also possible that the 70 people who fell asleep quickly were just responding to the attention. So to factor out that possibility, you might give half of them a different treatment which is supposed to have no medical effect (a placebo). If more of the subjects receiving the lavender treatment respond favorably, then that difference is likely to be due to the medical effects of the lavender.
But if the subjects know what they are getting (either because they are told or because they can see or smell the difference), any effect may be due to anticipation. So those designing the experiment have to find ingenious ways of fooling the subjects. Further, if those conducting the experiment know what they are administering to whom, their expectations may influence their interpretation of the results. So tests are ideally conducted double blind.

A scientific consensus exists

Although new developments in science are generally accompanied by controversy, there is a large degree of consensus on a wide range of subjects that impact directly on our lives.
Nearly all doctors would agree that protein and a certain number of vitamins and minerals are necessary for a healthy life. Nearly all would agree that aspirin can lower temperature and relieve headaches. Most would agree that a sedentary lifestyle in conjunction with a diet rich in animal fats increases the risk of heart disease.

How does aromatherapy shape up?

Is it based in experience?

As in all kinds of traditional medicine, most essential oil uses are based very strongly in experience. Someone notices that lavender helps them relax, and tells other people what they found. In that way, everyone can share in the benefits.
"Most essential oil uses are based very strongly in experience."

Is it backed up by experiments?

This unfortunately has to be answered with a qualified "no". Although some clinical trials of essential oils have been conducted, these tend to be limited to certain well-known oils such as lavender and tea-tree. And scientists have hardly started to test the effects of even the more common combinations of oils.

Is there a scientific consensus?

This also has to be answered with a qualified "no". Mainly due to the lack of clinical trials, many claims for various essential oils are based on little more than the individual's impression of their effect on him/herself.

Consequences of these failings: the case against aromatherapy