There's a whole lot of aromatherapy out there these days, isn't there? Candles, room scents, body wash, hand soaps, shampoos and even dishwashing liquids claim to be able to relax and/or invigorate you, depending on your preference.
Of course, some say this isn't all there is to aromatherapy and is as much about olfactory healing as dumb little sandboxes on your desk are about Zen Buddhism.
Aromas allegedly affect the mind and body, and some say they can have incredible restorative effects and aid in the treatment of illnesses. There's some suggestion that they can help patients with dementia. Research is also being done on cancer and anxiety, though one study published in the Journal Of Clinical Oncology in 2003 found that aromatherapy not only doesn't reduce anxiety in cancer patients but may actually increase it.
And remember that crazy study in the 90s that proved that penile blood flow is increased most by the combined scents of lavender and pumpkin pie?
Well, that may be just the tip of the iceberg. If you like a smell and it relaxes you, there has to be something going on. On the other hand, my friend Buffy swears by lavender for her migraines even though she absolutely hates the smell of the stuff.
What the experts say
"It's been proven that relaxation techniques can reduce anxiety. These can be as simple as controlling your breathing, and doing aromatherapy automatically changes the way you breathe. Calming the breath calms the mind, and the fact that you're breathing deeply in order to smell may have that effect. Stress is connected to heart disease and many other conditions; some even say cancer. Aromas can remind people of pleasant times during their lives, like bathtime with Mummy. The smell of talcum powder can create a sense of well-being and inner calm. Aromatherapy can also be a ritual experience. You light a candle or put salts in the bath. Lying in the tub of warm water and putting your head back is therapeutic in itself.'
MARK BERBER , consultant psychiatrist, Markham Stouffville Hospital, lecturer, department of psychiatry, U of T
"Aromatherapy is a bit of a misnomer. It's not just the smell but the phytochemicals in the essential oils that are having an impact on the body. In some cases, the most aromatic components are not the ones that are most active. But we know smell does affect us - our minds and our emotions. There's a twofold action, a straight-up chemical reaction with body cells, similar to the way pharmaceuticals work, and the overlaying action triggered by the aroma, which works on the level of psycho-neural immunology. What appear to be miracles occur literally every day, in everything from little health problems to very serious ones. The problem is, people hear advertisements for Palmolive and think that's what aromatherapy is. I don't even use the word. I would call it aromatic phyto-therapy. It should be taken as seriously as traditional Chinese medicine, homeopathy or naturopathy. Of course, it's always used in tandem with mainline treatment. Nobody is going to say, Don't have chemotherapy. ''
SUZANNE CATTY , author, Hydrosols: The New Aromatherapy, Toronto
"I subscribe to what I call the general affective theory of aromas: when you like a smell it makes you happy, and when you're happy everything is better. Aromas may have an impact on inducing contextually dependent responses. For example, lavender is traditionally associated with the alpha waves in the back of the head and a more relaxed state, while jasmine is associated with the front of the head and an awakened, more alert state. However, if you provide someone who has to concentrate with jasmine and lavender, they do better with both even though the two should have opposite effects. The odour may induce you to be more responsive to the demands of the external environment. One of the challenges we have with what people call aromatherapy is that odours are often combined with massage and with talking to the [client], so you don't know what's doing what. In 10 or 20 years we may see aromas used as part of the physician's armamentarium and pharmacopoeia of treatments, but we're still in the process.'
ALAN HIRSH , founder and neurological director, Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation, Chicago
"A lot of the studies are on fairly small samples. Some show some promise, but much more research is needed that incorporates control groups and pre- and post-test evaluations of specific benefits. One of the problems in North America is that a lot of the work tends to be done from a biomedical perspective, and the focus tends to be on function. This is all well and good, but in later stages of disease, in addition to trying to address function we also want to provide as high a quality of life as possible, and that means trying to reduce anxiety and making interventions for enjoyment in life. That's where I see aromatherapy and massage playing a key role."
SHERRY DUPUIS , director, Murray Alzheimer Research and Education Program, University of Waterloo