Like so many holistic practices and beliefs, aromatherapy has ancient roots. The use of essential oils to affect mood and well-being can be found far back in Egyptian, Greek and Roman history.
In fact, when the three kings of biblical fame brought gifts, including gold, to baby Jesus, their other highly prized offerings were frankincense and myrrh… resins from these herbs are still in use today.
While scientific evidence about aromatherapy is scant, its long-standing role in spirituality and healing, along with strong anecdotal support of its benefits, gives essential oils an important role as a complementary alternative medicine therapy.
Aromatherapy's Role in Cancer Treatment
Cherie Perez, RN, quality assurance specialist in the department of GU Medical Oncology at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, is a strong proponent of aromatherapy, including as an adjunct for cancer treatment. She teaches monthly classes for patients on the topic. I recently asked Perez to tell me about how aromatherapy can be useful for people who are healthy, as well as those with chronic illnesses.
Used properly, Perez says essential oils can indirectly help bolster immune function in cancer patients, strengthening their ability to fight back against the disease by helping to ease pain, depression, sleeplessness and stress. The oils can also help relieve anxiety and improve memory, both frequent problems for people in cancer treatment. Furthermore, aromatherapy offers patients an opportunity to take time for themselves and enjoy a mental and emotional break from their world of medicines and doctors.
Essentials About Essential Oils
These essential oils have various scents such as floral, minty, citrus and masculine — and Perez advises using the ones you like best among the choices indicated for a specific treatment, since more than one oil may address the same problem.
She explains that the limbic system, which the sense of smell triggers, is the emotional seat of the brain, which is the reason why people often respond strongly to certain scents — positively or negatively. Lavender, for example, might bring back warm memories of a trip to Provence, or sour thoughts about a dour relative who wore it as a fragrance.
All oils are highly concentrated distillations of plant parts, including the flowers, leaves, branches and roots.
Essential Oil Safety
Because they are so potent (hundreds of times more concentrated than the culinary fresh or dried herb or herbal teas, and therefore easy to overdose on) they should be used only under the supervision of a knowledgeable practitioner, such as a naturopathic physician, registered nurse, massage therapist, clinical herbalist or aromatherapist. Some of the most popular oils include rosemary, eucalyptus, lavender and chamomile.
Essential oils can be inhaled (safest with a simple diffuser), enjoyed in your bath or massaged onto your skin (but never directly in their undiluted form… because they can cause a rash or burning sensation). Oils may come already diluted, and will say so on the ingredient label, but you can also dilute a pure oil yourself. Add three drops of an essential oil to a half tablespoon of scentless organic vegetable oil (such as sunflower or safflower) or to an unscented body lotion.
People with sensitive skin should do a skin test before topical use. How much to dilute an oil depends on the type of oil and your skin's sensitivity. Thyme, for example, is quite irritating to some people, so it should be used more sparingly and with caution, whereas lavender is non-irritating to nearly everyone, says Perez. Citrus oils may cause sensitivity to sunlight, so avoid skin application if you are going to be in the sun. Because they're so pretty and fragrant and highly toxic if ingested, they should be kept where children cannot reach them.
Menu of Options
Here's a list of popular oils that address some common problems, as well as those common among people in treatment for cancer…
- Lavender. Great as a general relaxant, it also treats migraines and relieves stress. It is excellent for insomnia resulting from cancer treatment.
- Rosemary. For muscle pain, low blood pressure (do not use if you have uncontrolled or high blood pressure) and cold feet and hands. Rosemary also aids a loss of appetite.
- Spearmint. Used to ease nausea and to help digestion. Also can help ease gas and other treatment-related digestive problems.
- Eucalyptus or peppermint. For rubbing on sore muscles. Eucalyptus may also help joints, including arthritic ones. Eucalyptus may increase the absorption of certain cancer drugs that are applied topically, so use caution and try a patch test first, avoiding application to the same area as the cancer drug.
- Pink grapefruit or juniper berry. Used with massage to encourage lymphatic drainage of toxins and waste. Pink grapefruit is one of Perez's favorites for cancer patients, as she believes it helps energize them and raise their spirits. This and all citrus-type oils should be avoided during chemo and radiation — and should not be used until speaking with your doctor.
- Lemongrass, tea tree and orange. Mix together into two cups of Epsom salts. Use five drops of each oil — a total of 15 drops — for a soothing bath (use one-half cup per bath).
Aromatherapy has become so popular that essential oils are now widely available, including in health food stores and supermarkets. However, Perez advises that it is far better to purchase them from a shop with a staff knowledgeable in aromatherapy.
Oils should come in dark blue or brown glass containers, which prevent light or heat damage. Avoid bottles with rubber droppers — the rubber breaks down and contaminates the oil. Finally, the label should feature both the common and the botanical name of the oil (for example, Peppermint/Mentha piperita).
If you would like to learn more about how to incorporate aromatherapy in your life, Perez recommends The Complete Book of Essential Oils & Aromatherapy, by Valerie Ann Worwood (New World Library), which she says is both thorough and easily understood.
Again, as in the case with skin sensitivities, people with asthma or allergies need to avoid things that might trigger an attack — for example, chamomile is in the ragweed family.
People who want to try inhalation aromatherapy should use only a few drops (two to three) of essential oils in a basin of water or diffuser, or on a napkin. And — always consult with your doctor before using aromatherapy or any complementary therapy.
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Cherie Perez, RN, quality assurance specialist in the department of GU Medical Oncology at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.