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We Repeat: Aromatherapy is Bullshit
2005.06.07 (Tue) 00:21
As skeptics and promoters of rational thought, we have written about a wide range of topics on our site. More than any other topics, the paranormal/pseudo-science write-ups tend to attract some interesting readers who sit on the opposite side of the skeptical fence from us. Some have been perfectly nice people, while others have been outright loons. For example, we had one person chastise us for not believing that water has a memory in the same comment in which she instructed us on how to be more "credible." Seriously.
We recently received the following letter via our contact page. The author has asked that we refrain from using his name and contact information, but since he (we are randomly assigning gender here for ease in writing) only called himself "ABC," we think we're pretty safe using that. We'll present his letter in full without modification, but interspersed with our comments:
I agree with most of what I have read so far in your site.
I am an atheist biologist, I live in the UK.
One item where I disagree with you is regarding aromatherapy.
Okay — ABC clearly says that he is an atheist biologist who agrees with most of what he has thus far read on our site. Since our site is all about applying science, reason, and logic to a multitude of issues, it follows that ABC is probably a scientific, rational, logical person. So why would he disagree with our stance on aromatherapy?
First, let's read our statement on aromatherapy (we have only one reference to it that we are aware of) so we know precisely what ABC is disagreeing with:
Aromatherapy encompasses the idea that certain scents have certain physiological effects, ranging from promoting circulation to eliminating toxins. While it is certainly true that scents may trigger pleasant memories and/or bring about general relaxation, the claims of more biological effects are pure bullshit.
That's pretty straightforward. We are stating that aromatherapy is based on claims that various scents have different physiological effects. We admit that scents may trigger pleasant memories and may aid in relaxation, but we state our belief that "more biological effects are pure bullshit." Now let's see how ABC disagrees with us:
Aromatherapy (despite its name) does not only involve smelling/inhaling concentrated plant oils known as 'essential oils', it also involves the application of these oils onto the skin.
'Essential' oils are extracted from various parts of various plants (the word 'essential' here meaning essence or fragrance) which have got various potential effects when adminsitered to a person.
We'll need to pause here since what ABC has stated is not at all our understanding of aromatherapy. While we agree that some aromatherapy treatments involve rubbing oils onto the body, our understanding of that practice was that it aided in the inhalation of the aromas (think vapor rub), not that the effects of the oils were gained through application to the skin. We checked a few sites that offer aromatherapy services, and found the following statements...
From Body Balance:
Aromatherapy — is the use of essential oils, which are extracted from herbs, flowers, resin, woods and roots. Essential oils have been used as a healing technique for thousands of years by the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans aiding in relaxation, improving circulation, and helping to promote healing. They can affect mood, alleviate fatigue, reduce anxiety and promote relaxation. When inhaled, they work on the brain and nervous system through stimulation of the olfactory nerves. Therapeutic grade oils have antiseptic properties such as, but not limited to anti-viral, anti-inflammatory, pain-relieving, anti-depressants and expectorants.
The emphasis is ours, but this place clearly states that the oils work when inhaled by stimulating the olfactory nerves. So, it seems that Body Balance is claiming that it is the inhalation that leads to the healing effects and not the topical application. They aren't the only ones; from A World of Good Health:
Aromatherapy is the art of using the fragrant essential oils of plants to treat ailments of the mind and body. The scent of the oils evoke a variety of different responses by stimulating the olfactory organs, which are linked to the areas of the brain which control emotions.
A series of chemical reactions, initiated by this stimulation then takes place, effecting a physical or emotional change in the body.
To us (and to the aromatherapy practitioners above), the act of rubbing the oils onto the patient's body is merely the means of delivery to the olfactory receptors — it's on your chest, so you are therefore breathing it in. The supposed effects come from inhalation, and not topical application. So, if your experiments involve effects resulting from topical application, then that is not aromatherapy — it is something else entirely, and should not be lumped in with aromatherapy.
This is hardly a new angle for quack medicine. Acupuncture is another great example of how the goalposts are constantly in motion for these types of bullshit claims. Originally, acupuncture was all about sticking sharp objects (like knives) into the body to affect the energy flows that supposedly governed all aspects of health and well-being. Now, the term acupuncture is used by some to include the delivery of electric shocks via very specific needles. When this methodology, including the application of electricity, is seen to have a physiological effect, "acupuncture" as a treatment is deemed validated — despite the fact that acupuncture is all about the "energy flows" and not about the effects of electrical stimulation. Expanding the meaning of aromatherapy to include topical ointments and salves is exactly the same ploy, and we completely disagree that it validates aromatherapy in any way.
To further illustrate what we mean, consider another example of misappropriating efficacy to validate a brand of bullshit: let's say that we believe that all ailments in the human body are caused by tiny little fairies that live all over the scalp. According to our hypothetical belief, any ailment can be addressed and cured by manipulating these Follicle Fairies with different cooking implements. For our first test, we decide that insomnia can be cured through an aggressive application of a cast iron skillet to the Follicle Fairies that live in the area of the right temple. We conduct some tests in which people who cannot fall asleep are whacked in the head with a skillet (made from proper cast iron), and we note that in the overwhelming majority of cases, these people almost instantly lose consciousness. We declare success, and annouce that our Follicle Fairy theory is thoroughly accurate.
However, we have failed to consider and test the other factors of our treatment, so we don't know what is actually causing the desired effect. Does the treatment work if the skillet used is teflon coated instead of cast iron? What about if we use a crock pot? Or an egg beater? Or a non-cooking implement like a hammer? What happens if we apply the manipulation to the area of the left temple instead of the right? Or to the base of the skull? Perhaps if we conduct proper scientific testing, we might even find that Follicle Fairies aren't real at all (wow!), and that the effects were a result of completely non-fairy-related phenomena. This is, basically, analogous to the scientific testing of alternative medicine, including aromatherapy.
To conduct a proper study of the effects of aromatherapy as it is generally defined, the effects of inhalation would have to be isolated and tested separate from the effects of topical application. This could be done, crudely, by applying the oils to a patient who is breathing from an alternate air source, then later allowing the same patient to inhale the oils without allowing them to come into contact with them. To our knowledge, there hasn't been a conclusive study which has done this. The same can be said for most forms of medical quackery, including acupuncture.
I can tell you with absolute certainty, because I have performed scientific experiments, that show that (at least in vitro) essential oils can and do have certain effects.
For example, I found that lavender oil increases the release of potassium from erythrocytes (red boold cells). The mechanism for this is still to be deduced, but the effect is there and is measurable and observable.
So ABC's own studies have involved in vitro applications of essential oils, which would seem to indicate that he performed these experiments in a test tube. Since a whole person can't fit into a test tube, we'll assume that his tests weren't tests of either the effects of inhaled or externally applied oils, but rather more closely resembled an internal application, which all of the aromatherapy sites we visited were clearly against. So, without explicit knowledge of ABC's actual research, we can say that what he studied appears to have little relationship to any form of aromatherapy, and in fact bears more resemblance to injecting essential oils directly into the bloodstream. This is not aromatherapy, and we doubt that even the most starry-eyed practitioner of quackery would say that it is.
Let's keep marching through ABC's letter. He goes on to explain:
Whilst I'm not claiming that aromatherapy will cure cancers or AIDS (though one day we may find that it can be of use to treat them), I can tell you that certain effects claimed by aromatherpay such as relaxation, increased or decreased blood pressure, etc. may be correct.
Actually, our original statement about aromatherapy says something quite similar to this. We are perfectly comfortable saying that aromatherapy can assist with relaxation. In fact, any of the forms of medical quackery that we call bullshit can result in relaxation, including even the most incredible forms of lunacy. Along with general relaxation, a patient may also experience other physiological changes associated with being relaxed, including a temporary reduction in blood pressure. However, this does not indicate that any of these treatments are themselves effective, since a placebo can have an identical effect.
Here's another example of what we mean. Watching The Crow at night has the effect of making Tom (one of our members) go to sleep, even when he is restless. In roughly 95% of his trials, when he watches The Crow at night, he is asleep by the time Tin Tin is dead. It is almost uncanny how precise the exact moment can be. Does this mean that watching The Crow is an accepted means of relaxation for people in general? Does it mean that there's some chemical interaction taking place between Tom and the DVD player? Does it mean that others will have the same experience? No, it means that this particular activity helps Tom to relax in the same way that essence of lavender might cause someone else to relax. In point of fact, essence of lavender causes Tom to become quite perturbed and agitated since he's allergic to it. In further point of fact, we are pretty certain that Tom is allergic to most or all of the aromatic oils associated with aromatherapy, which means that none of them would have the intended effect on him. It's all subjective.
We also think it is important to note that while ABC may not make claims beyond relaxation as to the benefits of aromatherapy, there are plenty of people who do. The claims we have seen on various aromatherapy sites would have us believe that you can smell your way to health over such ailments as arthritis, allergies, asthma, bruises, bronchitis, colds, constipation, cold sores, cellulite, dyspepsia, earache, exhaustion, flatulence, flu, gingivitis, gout, headaches, irritable bowel, menopause, migraine, neuralgia, palpitations, PMS, periods (heavy, painful, scant, or irregular), rheumatism, scarring, shingles, sprains, sciatica, sinusitis, sore throat, stretch marks, toothache, vaginal thrush, varicose veins, warts, and wrinkles. Check out some of the lists we found online. Of course, there are others which keep the benefits more abstract, listing such things as relaxation and promoting general well-being — presumably to avoid lawsuits.
From here, ABC moves on to a discussion of the medical applications of plants:
Many modern medicines (and 'illegal' drugs) have a basis on chemicals produced by plants. Essential oils contain many such chemicals and thus can produce an effect on the human body.
We know that aspirin produces various effects on the human body. We know that cannabis produces various effects on the human body. Both aspirin and cannabis are derived from plants, plants produce the chemicals in aspirin and cannabis. Essential oils are also derived from plants and have plant chemicals in them and thus it is not unreasonable to suggest that essential oils (and aromatherapy) may also produce certain effects on the human body.
The essential oils are very volatile and thus when one inhales them, one can inhale the plant chemicals in them. Through the nose, the chemicals enter the blood stream and can produce their effec(s).
When applied on the skin, the chemicals in the oil can be absorbed by the skin and enter the system, and go on to produce their effect(s). A nice little example of how oils can be absorbed through the skin is to rub fresh garlic (you may have to do it for a while, fresh garlic will not be as concentrated as an essential oil) onto the sole of your foot. A while later your breath will smell of garlic !
Thus, in summary, I would like to correct you on your statement that "Aromatherapy is bullshit".
We certainly agree that many drugs (illegal or otherwise) are derived in some way from plants. So, rubbing these oils on the skin can certainly have some effects. For one, we'd imagine that it could give you oily skin (thereby combating dry skin). Others may dry the skin. With just these two possible effects of topical application, we can imagine that some oils would work to clear up acne, while others may soothe rashes. But this is not aromatherapy.
What has been proven about the medical benefits of aromatherapy? The UC San Diego Medical Center addresses this very question on their site. After noting that there is no scientific evidence for the claims made by aromatherapy practitioners, they go on to state the following:
It is known that small traces of a scent can activate nerve cells in the nasal cavity that trigger the olfactory and limbic areas of the brain. The limbic system is the memory and emotion center of the brain. Most doctors believe whatever relief might be provided by aromatherapy stems from an emotional response to the scents rather than any physiological effects.
Bingo. Certain scents may evoke happy memories in certain people, which may lead to increased relaxation and the general effects that relaxation can bring. Of course, that same scent could evoke unhappy memories in someone else, thereby creating an atmosphere not conducive to relaxation. It's all subjective, and it isn't any more medically potent than shooting the shit with your friends and reliving the good old days.
We do know that our sense of smell is based on actually inhaling molecules of a substance (if you can smell it, it is physically in your nose — think about that the next time you walk into a public restroom) — so it is possible that inhaling these scents could carry some physiological effect, but so far there is absolutely no scientific evidence that any of these oils are thus effective. So we're not saying that aromatherapy has been proven wrong, we're simply saying "prove it." Prove that inhaling one or more of these oils — not application to the skin or injection — actually has a repeatable and consistent physiological effect and we'll listen.
Until someone does, we stand firmly by our statement that aromatherapy is bullshit.
Check out the Skeptic's Dictionary and Quackwatch for more information on aromatherapy.
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[ Filed under: % Bullshit ]
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