Do essential oils have any healing benefits, or are they just a fad?

Using the essential oils of plants and flowers to improve one's health or mood has been practised since ancient Egyptian times. But aromatherapy, as we now call it, is currently having a boom. Hundreds of thousands of Australians are buying and using these botanic compounds in a bid to improve health and wellbeing.

Vara Maranda, who has practised and taught aromatherapy for more than 25 years, confirms that interest in traditional plant-based treatments is growing rapidly.

Studies have found inhaling aromas of rosemary and sage did improve memory slightly.Credit:Stocksy

"I have never seen more people studying aromatherapy and setting up their own companies with natural, plant-based essential oils," she says. "I think it's all part of this lifestyle shift towards natural and organic foods which is going on."

Maranda, a lecturer at Nature Care College in Sydney, says this growth in Australia is in large part due to the work of giant American marketing firms like Doterra and Young Living.

"Those larger companies have really encouraged people to get a little bit of home knowledge, and then they want to know more, so they do a proper course," she says

The spike in interest in essential oils has also given rise to a new lexicon. Oils are dispersed into the air using a small device called a "diffuser". A person who sells essential oils is sometimes referred to as a "wellness advocate". And a "rollerball" is a glass bottle with a ball-bearing topper which allows a diluted blend of essential oils to be applied, or "rolled", directly onto the skin.

But is there any science to prove that essential oils work?

Psychologist Mark Moss from Northumbria University in the UK has conducted clinical trials on a number of oils and says the results were positive but subtle.

Our studies found that inhaling the aroma of rosemary and sage essential oils did improve memory function slightly, while lavender and camomile oils were found to have a mild sedative or calming effect," says Dr Moss. "We're also studying the effects of peppermint oil to see if inhaling it can improve driver alertness.

"Even if use of essential oils triggers the placebo effect, that can be good. Surely engaging in behaviour that is not harmful in any way, and in fact makes you feel better, is beneficial."

Moss says science is now trying to understand how aromatherapy affects the human body from a chemical perspective.

"We can prove that the active compounds are absorbed into the bloodstream of humans," he explains, "so we know they are getting into the blood. And studies using animals have shown that there are related compounds found in the brain following exposure to these aromas."

"But no one has done a direct study to show that when you inhale these compounds they end up in the brain. That would be quite a difficult study to perform in humans."

Naturopath and author Katherine Maslen uses essential oils to treat her clients but urges caution when it comes to what she calls a "Tupperware-type" mentality.

"There's nothing wrong with people being entrepreneurial with essential oils – mums trying to make a bit of money, for example," says Maslen. "But where it goes wrong is when so-called wellness advocates advise people to ingest essential oils, or to use them undiluted on their skin. This is dangerous."

Maranda agrees: "Essential oils can be 70 times stronger than the mother plant they've come from. We need to respect them."

This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale March 31.

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