Scan the shelves of the local bath and body stores and one is sure to find products labeled for aromatherapy. Many might be surprised to learn the science behind it. So what is aromatherapy, how is it used and will those products actually work?
Cherie Perez, a supervising research nurse in the Department of Genitourinary Medical Oncology, teaches a monthly aromatherapy class to answer those questions for cancer patients and caregivers undergoing treatment at M. D. Anderson Cancer Center. Perez's classes are offered free of charge through M. D. Anderson's Place... of wellness, a center within the institution that focuses on helping patients and caregivers deal with the non-medical issues of living with cancer, and is the first complementary therapy facility to be built on the campus of a comprehensive cancer center.
Perez, who first became involved with aromatherapy to help relieve the physical pain and discomfort caused by fibromyalgia, shares her professional knowledge of the basics of aromatherapy, safety precautions and interactive demonstrations in each hour-long class.
Oils and healing
While essential oils may not directly stimulate the immune system, they can complement cancer treatment by boosting the system's ability to fight off infections, says Perez.
Certain oils can also stimulate lymphatic drainage or have antibacterial properties. Since it has many potential uses ranging from managing anxiety and nausea to helping with sleep, general relaxation, memory and attention, many individuals, including cancer patients, can benefit from aromatherapy [See 1: Five Oils to Reduce Stress and Relieve Ailments.]
There are a variety of different products and methods of diffusion to obtain the healing benefits of oils. Some oils - like lavender, ylang ylang and sandalwood can be applied directly to the skin - while others are too concentrated and need to be diluted into carriers such as massage oils, bath soaps and lotions [See 2: Everyday Uses for Aromatherapy.] Most typically, Perez advises patients to put a few drops of an oil, or a combination of oils onto a handkerchief and "fan themselves like Scarlett O'Hara." Burning oils or incense is not recommended because most are poorly constructed and give off unhealthy fumes and soot.
Who should, or shouldn't, use oils?
Widely sold in health food stores and beauty chain stores, essential oils do have chemical properties that can affect the brain and enter the bloodstream, and for some patients may be toxic when combined with common cancer therapies such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Perez says essential oils, like many medicines, can increase a person's sensitivity to the sun and should be used with caution. Patients should always inform and discuss with their physicians before using aromatherapy oils to complement a medical condition.
People with high blood pressure should avoid hyssop, rosemary, sage and thyme, while diabetics should avoid angelica oil. Women who are pregnant or nursing should avoid a number of oils that stimulate the uterus including star anise, basil and juniper to name a few and should use with caution peppermint, rose and rosemary in the first trimester. According to Perez, pediatric patients can use aromatherapy essential oils in very low concentrations. [See 3: Tips for Buying Oils.]
Aromatherapy's role in cancer treatment
"The nature of aromatherapy makes it challenging to study due to the fact that it is difficult to create a placebo and every person is different in their nasal sensitivities and skin absorption rates," says Perez. In the future, however, she would be interested in designing research to examine how aromatherapy can be used to treat/heal burns caused from radiation treatment safely and effectively, soothe pre-treatment anxiety and manage loss-of-memory issues in cancer survivors.
1: FIVE OILS TO REDUCE STRESS AND RELIEVE AILMENTS
- Lavender - First used as perfume by ancient Egyptians 2,500 years ago, lavender is now used to treat insomnia, migraines and provide stress relief.
- Rosemary - This fragrant plant relieves muscle pain, low blood pressure and cold feet and hands.
- Spearmint - The oil from spearmint aids digestion and eases nausea and vomiting.
- Masculine scents - Scents such as bay laurel and ylang-ylang appeal to men for their deep scent. They also treat skin rashes, rheumatism and stomach ailments.
- Muscle Relaxation Bath Salts - 2 cups of Epsom salts, 5 drops of each oil - lavender, lemon grass, tea tree & orange. Use 1/2 cup mixture per bath.
- Room Spray Diffusion - Use any oil 5-20 drops along with 2 to 4 ounces of distilled or spring water. Common sense precaution - don't spray in your eyes.
- Energizing Carpet Cleaner - Combine pink grapefruit oil with baking soda and sprinkle before vacuuming.
- Natural House Cleaner - Blend lemon and ravensara leaf oils with distilled water and non-sudsing soap.
When purchasing oils for themselves, Perez gives the following guidelines:
- Essential oils from a bath or general store may be of questionable quality; shop for oils in a specialty store, staffed by salespeople with aromatherapy training.
- Quality oils, which are light and heat sensitive, will be in a blue or brown light protective glass.
- Labeling on the bottle should provide should provide both the common and botanical name for the oil.
- Steer clear of concentrated oils with rubber eyedroppers since the oils react with the rubber causing it to break down and contaminate the oil.