Medical aromatherapy (also known as clinical aromatherapy) is a practice that is rapidly gaining acceptance in the medical world. Education, awareness and practice-based evidence have been the drivers behind the emergence of this new aromatic healing paradigm. 

Each plant-derived essential oil has unique uses, benefits and healing properties, and many oils work synergistically when combined. Most essential oils fight bacteria, fungi and viruses and can even stave off the bacteria MRSA, making them ideal for use in health-centered settings. 

Clinical aromatherapy seeks to define and target a particular clinical symptom (e.g., anxiety), determine the best treatment materials and methods, and measure the outcome with care. Certain essential oils are particularly effective at addressing pain and inflammation, ameliorating sore joints and arthritis, while others have nervine and sedative properties to help with sleep issues, insomnia and fatigue. Essential oils such as chamomile, frankincense, bergamot and orange reduce stress, anxiety, depression, headaches and migraines, while others alleviate nausea and other side effects of chemotherapy. Additionally, essential oils can balance hormone levels, regulate digestive function and boost the immune system.

The History of Aromatherapy

Modern clinical aromatherapy originated in France in the 1930s, pioneered by a chemist Rene-Maurice Gattefosse, medical doctor Jean Valnet, and a nurse, Marguerite Maury. The work of these three individuals laid the groundwork for the medical aromatherapy movement, as essential oil treatments became integrated into the medical mainstream in France, Germany, Switzerland, Scandinavia and Great Britain. European medical aromatherapy encompasses inhalation, topical application and even oral use of therapeutic essential oils specific to the condition being treated. 

While newer to the U.S., clinical aromatherapy is one of the most promising therapies that can be practiced by nurses and other health professionals in hospital, hospice and community living settings. The gentle, non-invasive nature of medical aromatherapy makes it an ideal practice in these environments.

A 2019 Global Wellness Trend

The Global Wellness Institute, an industry research organization that tracks the emergence of groundbreaking health trends worldwide, believes that medical aromatherapy is a phenomenon whose time has come. Evidence-based studies, olfactory research and the technological advancements required to integrate aromatics into medical practice are currently in the spotlight. Terpenes, major constituents of essential oils, are being analyzed by neuroscientists for their benefits to brain, mind and body. A Japanese company is developing a ‘smart’ diffuser that can be operated via a smart phone to activate the multi-chamber diffuser at various times, starting your day with energizing oils such as rosemary or lemon, and winding it down with relaxing, sleep-promoting aromas like lavender or sandalwood. 

The most popular method of utilizing aromas for wellness is through the use of an ultrasound diffuser. These easy-to-use devices safely disperse micro-droplets of the selected oil(s) into the immediate environment, without the use of heat or chemicals. 

How Aromatherapy Works

Aromas have instant psychological and physiological effects, stimulating smell receptors in the nose which send messages through the nervous system to the limbic system of the brain. The limbic system (or “smell brain”) comprises the amygdala, hippocampus, anterior thalamus and hypothalamus. The amygdala plays a critical role in processing emotion, emotional response and the formation of new memories.

The hippocampus governs learning and semantic, episodic and spatial memory.

The molecules of essential oils are small enough to cross the blood-brain barrier when inhaled or topically applied. For these reasons, essential oils may ultimately unlock the answers to Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and other brain conditions.

In the U.S., topical application via massage with oils, creams and lotions is the best-known medical aromatherapy modality. The friction of various massage and bodywork techniques causes blood vessels in the skin to dilate, which increases absorption. Essential oils are lipid soluble, so their components can access lipid-rich areas of the body. Massage can be customized to be warming or cooling; it relieves the localized trauma of bruises, sprains and burns; it is anti-inflammatory, anti-spasmodic, and excellent for relieving neuralgic conditions. Other methods of application include compresses, patches, sprays, gargles, chest rubs and formulas for baths and soaks.

As the recognition of clinical aromatherapy grows, so does the demand for research, education and training. Many valuable resources exist for those wishing to learn more. The National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy ( is the leading professional education-based aromatherapy association in the USA, with a strong international community. The Aromatherapy Registration Council ( promotes the advancement of essential oil research and practice and maintains a membership of practicing clinical aromatherapists. Both organizations are committed to the furtherance of all branches of aromatherapy – aesthetic, holistic and clinical – in the U.S. and globally. 

Clinical aromatherapy offers us a new, welcome avenue to explore to support health of body, mind and spirit.

Julia Meadows has spent 35 years in the essential oil industry and is the founder of Aromax Health and Sub Rosa Apothecary in La Quinta. She can be reached at (760) 831.8333 or [email protected].

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