Essential oils and aromatherapy: The good and the bad

Dec 2 2012 - 11:47am
Too much aromatherapy can have an opposite effect for health
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Researchers have found the aroma of essential oils can help lower blood pressure and heart rate, but only when exposure is no more than an hour. The finding suggests aromatic chemicals that come from plants and known as VOCs can have a beneficial effect on heart health, but prolonged exposure can be harmful.

The new study, published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, was performed on 100 men and women working in spas in in Taiwan who were exposed to aromatherapy on three occasions as part of the study.

Researchers measured the workers heart rates and blood pressure during aromatherapy. One hour of exposure to essential oils lowers blood pressure and heart rate, but more than 60 minutes had the opposite effect.

What do allergists say?

Studies suggest exposure to VOCs – volatile organic compounds – can lead to respiratory problems. They are known respiratory irritants.

Some of the chemicals in the compounds that are harmful include formaldehyde, petroleum distillates, limonene, esters and alcohols.

The American College of Asthma, Allergy and Immunology (ACAAI) presented findings last year that home fragrances don’t destroy, but only mask home odors, despite marketing claims.

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High levels of exposure are linked to memory problems in addition to respiratory symptoms. Air fresheners can also pose problems for children with asthma.

According to Stanley Fineman, MD, president-elect of the ACAAI, “About 20 percent of the population and 34 percent of people with asthma report health problems from air fresheners. We know air freshener fragrances can trigger allergy symptoms, aggravate existing allergies and worsen asthma.

Researchers have repeatedly warned that air pollution – indoor and out – raises the chances of heart disease, asthma and other respiratory problems.

Fineman says even products labeled ‘green’ should be avoided. His recommendation is to open the windows to keep your home fresh.

Aromatherapy is advertised for use in the home through a variety of diffusers. Oils are popular for use in potpourri.

The take home message is that it’s important to limit indoor pollutants in the home until more studies are done, especially if you already suffer from respiratory or heart problems.

Essential oils can have a calming effect and were shown in the study to lower blood pressure and heart rate with short-term exposure, but can have negative consequences for heart health after 60 minutes of exposure. Allergists recommend getting rid of home fragrances, even those marketed as ‘green’ to protect respiratory health.

Source:
European Journal of Cardiology
doi:10.1177/2047487312469474
November 29, 2012

Image credit: Morguefile

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