The proverb “Stop and smell the roses” takes on new meaning for anyone fighting the effects of an illness, including cancer. But I’m not talking about slowing down and savoring the little things in life. No, I literally mean smell the roses.
The research shows that there’s great physical benefit in doing so.
Rose oil, specifically, and a host of other aromatherapy oils can make your quest back to good health easier, quicker, and more enjoyable.
In addition, research is building to support the use of botanical oil blends to combat the challenges that come with battling cancer. Read on for more…
Aromatherapy had its start more than 5,000 years ago in ancient Egypt, where practitioners used essential oil of clove and cedarwood to embalm the dead and were the first to develop distillation machines to extract oils from plants.
The first use of aromatic oils for healing is believed to have taken place in Greece. Anthropologists believe that the great “father of medicine,” Hippocrates, used aromatic oils to improve the health of his patients.
Meanwhile, in Asia, early Chinese medical doctors began using aromatherapy to enhance mood and well-being.
Today, essential oils from plants are usually obtained through steam distillation and then applied directly on the skin through massage, or through inhalation using vaporizers, or absorbed through hot baths.
Why your brain appreciates a good smell
Science shows that the inhalation and absorption of essential “oil molecules” can prompt health improvement, but not merely because the smells are enjoyable.
When these molecules enter the body, they transmit messages to the limbic system, which is the area of the brain responsible for influencing the nervous system and controlling emotions.
Messages from the limbic system can affect multiple biological processes, including heart rate, stress levels, blood pressure, immune function, and breathing.
Essential oils relieve pain
In a study from the journal of Complementary Therapies in Medicine, nurses in a hospital setting administered aromatherapy to over 10,000 patients—mostly through inhalation.
They found that oil of sweet marjoram provided the highest average level of pain relief, while lavender and sweet marjoram both helped significantly with anxiety.
In patients undergoing chemotherapy, ginger oil performed best for relieving nausea, while lavender had a significant effect on anxiety and sleep quality.
In a separate study in breast cancer patients on the effects of ginger aromatherapy on chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, inhalation helped significantly with appetite loss, improved general overall health and quality of life.
Ease cancer-related emotional distress
Even more interesting, aromatherapy has positive effects on emotional distress caused by having cancer.
Multiple studies show reductions in anxiety and depression following the use of aromatherapy.
Also, some researchers found aromatherapy massage to be as effective as cognitive behavior therapy when it comes to managing emotional distress from all stages of cancer—which is saying something, since aromatherapy can be administered at home, more frequently, and at a lower cost than what you’d pay for regular sessions with a licensed therapist.
So which essential oils are best for cancer patients?
Here’s a basic rundown from the research:
- Lavender oil appears to help best with improving sleep.
- Rose oil is useful for anxiety, depression, stress, sleep, and headaches, including migraines.
- Tea tree helps ease anxiety, reduce inflammation, and fights bacteria (in an open wound).
- Eucalyptus helps reduce fever and fights migraines and bacterial infections. Inhalation can also help clear away mucus from a stuffy nose or congested lungs.
- Geranium can lessen anxiety, reduce depression, and help with sleep.
- Peppermint helps to fight fever and nausea as well as boost energy.
- Ginger and lemon can both help with pain and anxiety as well as relieve nausea and vomiting.
- Cedarwood helps to reduce stress and promote relaxation.
- And finally, a blend of oils that included bergamot, lavender, and frankincense induced reductions in pain and depression
Aromatherapy is very safe
In general, aromatherapy is considered safe. Most topical oils are low-risk, though someone with extremely sensitive skin may experience a redness or rash with oils that are used in large quantities and left on the skin for an extended period, say during a massage.
It’s important to note that some essential oils are harmful or downright poisonous if ingested, so avoid taking any oils internally. What’s more, some essential oils like lavender contain phytoestrogens, and if taken internally could cause unwanted effects on those facing hormone-sensitive cancers, like breast cancer.
Johns Hopkins Medical Center recommends three simple ways to safely use essential oils at home:
- Aromatherapy accessories: Necklaces, bracelets or keychains are available to absorb essential oils allowing you to sniff them throughout the day.
- Body oil: It’s a good idea to avoid using essential oils full-strength on skin. Mixing essential oils with a carrier oil such as olive oil, jojoba oil or coconut oil will dilute the essential oil and allow it to be safely massaged into skin. The Tisserand Institute, a leader in the field of aromatherapy, advises using 15mL of carrier oil, plus no more than nine drops of essential oil, to create a 2.5 percent concentration that’s safe for at-home use.
- Aroma stick: These are sometimes known as essential oil inhalers and resemble a tube of lip balm. Remove the lid and breathe in the oil inside the tube.
When it comes to diffusers, experts warn against using them for extended periods of time.
Kelly Holland Azzaro, RA, CCAP, LMT, an aromatherapist with nearly three decades of experience and past president of the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA), explains, “People unfortunately will put [a large amount of an essential oil into a] diffuser unit, which diffuses 500 to 1,500 square feet, in their bedroom, and that could be overpowering for their children or their pets. Or they might only need it for an hour before bedtime versus letting the diffuser run all night long. That can cause an issue where they become desensitized over time because they’ve been using lavender every single night to help with sleep.”
If you’d like to learn more about using essential oils at home, check out the theTisserand Institute, https://tisserandinstitute.org or The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA) https://naha.org
- “Aromatherapy History.”Retrieved 16 May 2020.https://www.aromatherapy.com/history.html
- “How Aromatherapy With Essential Oils May Help Patients With Cancer.” By JyothirmaiGubili, MS, et al. 14 May 2018. https://voice.ons.org/news-and-views/how-aromatherapy-with-essential-oils-may-help-patients-with-cancer
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- “Aromatherapy: The Effect of Lavender on Anxiety and Sleep Quality in Patients Treated With Chemotherapy.” By Ozkaraman A., et al. Clin J OncolNurs. 2018 Apr 1;22(2):203-210. doi: 10.1188/18.CJON.203-210. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29547610
- “Effects of inhaled ginger aromatherapy on chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting and health-related quality of life in women with breast cancer.” By Lua P.L., et al. Complement Ther Med. 2015 Jun;23(3):396-404. doi: 10.1016/j.ctim.2015.03.009. Epub 2015 Apr 21. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26051575
- “The ToT study: helping with Touch or Talk (ToT): a pilot randomised controlled trial to examine the clinical effectiveness of aromatherapy massage versus cognitive behaviour therapy for emotional distress in patients in cancer/palliative care.” By Serfaty, M., et al. Psychooncology. 2012 May;21(5):563-9. doi: 10.1002/pon.1921. Epub 2011 Mar 2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21370309
- “Health Benefits of Rose Essential Oil.”By Cathy Wong for VeryWellHealth, 14 November 2019.https://www.verywellhealth.com/the-benefits-of-rose-essential-oil-88790
- “Essential Oils and Cancer Treatment Side Effects.” December 28, 2018. https://arizonaoncology.com/about/blog/essential-oils-to-manage-cancer-treatment-side-effects/