Enhancing Mental Health Treatment with the Science of Aromatherapy

Enhancing Mental Health Treatment with the Science of Aromatherapy

The number of Canadians suffering from mental health disorders has increased exponentially, especially in recent years after the wake of the global pandemic. In 2022, a study by Statistics Canada revealed that more than 5 million Canadians met the diagnostic requirements for mood and anxiety, or substance use disorders. While the treatment of mental health disorders is both unique to the individual and complex to navigate, a widespread interest in holistic interventions such as aromatherapy is proving through scientific research to enhance mental health treatment by providing sufferers with additional support. Aromatherapy is impacting the emotional and psychological well-being of those suffering from anxiety and mood disorders by reducing symptoms and influencing the overall wellbeing of individuals. Using aromatherapy as a complementary approach to mental health treatment is no longer taboo, as the facts provided in this paper present a strong case. The science behind aromatherapy works, and when it is handled in a professional and safe manner, it does in fact provide relief by easing some of the mental, emotional, and physical disturbances that are experienced through mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety.

The history of aromatherapy dates back to 5000 BCE in Mesopotamia and continues to make an appearance among ancient civilizations, including ancient India, China, Egypt, Greece, and the Roman Empire. The art and science of essential oils is woven throughout history for their medicinal, cosmetic, and spiritual uses. Essential oils are most notably seen in ancient Egyptian artifacts, such as the Ebers Papyrus (1550 BCE), one of the oldest known medical texts. It wasn’t until 1935 that the term “aromatherapy” was coined by chemical engineer René-Maurice Gattefossé. After an explosion in his laboratory, Gattefossé treated his major burns with Lavender - Lavandula angustifolia essential oil, which inspired him to create The French Society of Aromatic Products. Through his organization, Gattefossé published scientific studies that would legitimize aromatherapy and reintroduce this holistic practice to the world of medicine. 

The science of aromatherapy is explained through the science of the olfactory system, which teaches us that there is a direct connection between aroma and human psychology. When an aroma is inhaled, its molecules will embark on a journey through the nasal passage and into the olfactory membrane, which contains receptors that send signals to the olfactory bulb, which is connected to the limbic system. The limbic system, often referred to as the “seat of the emotions,” has a primary function to process and regulate emotion, memory, learning, and behaviour. Additionally, the limbic system is directly connected to the amygdala, which is a key player in controlling and regulating emotional responses. The amygdala works as the body’s personal “alarm system” because of its ability to detect threats and stimulate fear. Those suffering from anxiety and stress disorders often have an overactive amygdala, and since aromatics can reach this part of the brain with such ease, their influence is often impactful.

Clinical trials on both animals and humans have showcased the beneficial effects of essential oils on the nervous system via the olfactory system, therefore impacting physiology and pathophysiology. Numerous studies demonstrate that essential oils not only ease the emotional triggers of mental health woes but also the physical symptoms that are experienced through mental disorders. Through inhalation, various essential oils including Lavender - Lavandula angustifolia, Rosemary - Salvia rosmarinus, and Lemon - Citrus limon activated the autonomic nervous system (ANS). A massage using Lavender - Lavandula angustifolia and Geranium - Pelargonium oils also affected the ANS by reducing heart rate and blood pressure and improving sleep quality. Additionally, cortisol levels and salivary chromogranin A were reduced using Bergamot - Citrus bergamia, Juniper - Juniperus phoenicea, and Grapefruit - Citrus × paradisi essential oils, as well as several other oils listed in the study. 

The Department of Rehabilitation Sciences at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University conducted a series of studies demonstrating that essential oils, when combined with conventional treatment, can effectively relieve anxiety and alleviate pain. Previous research specifically highlighted the potential of Lavender - Lavandula angustifolia essential oil in preventing and treating symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress in adults. Additionally, Ylang-ylang - Cananga odorata oil was discovered to be effective in decreasing symptoms of anxiety. Table 1 of the study summarizes the positive effects on physiological health, including a reduction in blood pressure levels, salivary cortisol levels, and the respiratory rate during panic attacks.

In another survey by Statistics Canada, research suggests that approximately 3.7 million Canadians may be coping with a sleep disorder. Poor sleep hygiene is a common challenge amongst aromatherapy clients, and it is quite common for aromatherapists to suggest essential oils to support sleeping habits, which may be linked to anxiety and other stress-related disorders. A study done on mice showed that Lavender - Lavandula angustifolia essential oil alleviates sleep disorders induced by anxiety by impacting the GABAergic system in the limbic system. As previously stated, the science of aromatherapy is its ability to stimulate the limbic system, which can impact mood and behaviour.

In 2023, Statistics Canada surveyed 4.1 million employed individuals. The survey found that 21.2% reported experiencing high levels of work-related stress due to heavy workloads and the challenges of balancing work and personal life. A study by the Department of Basic Psychology, Autonomous University of Barcelona, examined the effectiveness of aromatherapy in enhancing job performance and alleviating stress in the workplace. The results showed that inhalation of oils such as Bitter Orange - Citrus aurantium ssp. amara alleviated the anxiety, mood states, and heart rate of the participants, thus improving their overall performance in the workplace. Researchers concluded that, in addition to reducing stress levels, participants also increased their attentiveness and alertness. 

Moreover, the impact of essential oils can also be experienced through topical application. When essential oils are applied to the skin, the molecules penetrate through the skin, where they reach lymph nodes and blood capillaries, resulting in the molecules transporting throughout the body’s circulatory system. A study done on 120 female students diagnosed with premenstrual syndrome (PMS) demonstrated that an aromatherapy massage using Geranium - Pelargonium and Almond Oil - Prunus dulcis led to a significant reduction in physical and mental symptoms associated with PMS. 

In conclusion, with the rise of mental health disorders, the demand for additional care and support is much needed. As integrative medicine continues to trend and the scientific interest of holistic practices such as aromatherapy accelerates, those suffering from mental health issues, especially in the realm of stress-related disorders, can take comfort in knowing that science is proving there is an opportunity to enhance mental health treatment through the accredited science of aromatherapy. Essential oils provide mental health sufferers with options to individualize their treatment plan to better suit their emotional and psychological needs. The science supporting the effectiveness of aromatherapy provides relief by easing the anguish of mental health challenges and symptoms. Studies are proving that aromatherapy has the ability to directly impact the brain by stimulating the limbic system and therefore influencing emotions and behaviours. Additionally, research shows that physiological symptoms associated with mental health disorders are also being impacted through the use of essential oils and its influence on the ANS, including changes in a reduction in blood pressure levels, salivary cortisol levels, respiratory rate during panic attacks, and brain wave patterns, to name a few. While this paper does not aim to discredit the use of conventional treatment, including the use of psychiatric drugs, the research provided can lend itself as encouragement for individuals suffering from onset to mild mental health disorders who are interested in exploring options with less potential to cause severe side effects. Aromatherapy provides security, as the risks are very low when used under the guidance of a certified aromatherapist. Health and medical professionals can take comfort in knowing that the science supporting aromatherapy offers reassurance and confidence in the power of essential oils, and their ability to enhance mental health treatment and the overall wellbeing of individuals.



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