There is a lot to be said for pleasant aromas, but their having the ability to cure significant medical conditions should not be among them. Still, some people make such assertions, but these notions have no backing from double blind studies, clinical trials, or empirical evidence.
Last month, however, news about lavender inhalation being effective for treating anxiety was published in the mainstream press. The stories weren’t about persons being able to be put at peace after a rough day of work and traffic by burning lavender incense and playing R. Carlos Nakai and gazing at a lava lamp. The authors were claiming that someone suffering a known psychiatric disorder could be cured by sniffing a Mediterranean herb.
As a skeptic blogger and anxiety sufferer, the pseudonymous Gid M-K took note of these assertions. While the suffering part of him hoped it was true, the epidemiologist and skeptic side of him knew to approach the news cautiously. And when he examined the research, he learned the study merely compared caged mice who had been exposed to linalool for 30 minutes with those who had not.
The study’s authors found that, following this exposure, the rodents performed slightly better when measured for some aspects of anxiety. But that is a light year away from lavender aroma curing the disorder in humans. It was one study with a small sample size, rodent studies seldom translate into human successes, and the research did not involve lavender.
Gid M-K noted that lavender contains hundreds of chemicals, one of which is linalool. Linalool is also found in many more substances, including cinnamon, cannabis, and a majority of cleaning supplies. Huffing Mr. Clean won’t wipe out heightened levels of unease, dread, and worry, and neither will sniffing lavender bath pearls. In fact, M-K cited a systemic review of nearly 50 studies which all found aromatherapy to be of no medicinal value.
There’s also the issue of mice traits probably not transferring to humans. M-K wrote, “Even if you could extrapolate this study to people — and you can’t — the treatment was a half-hour exposure while locked in a cage saturated with the chemical. Imagine trying to replace anxiety medication with popping off into a dark cell every few hours to sit in silence while being sprayed with perfume. It’s not exactly a realistic treatment.”
Yet this was lauded by outlets like the Daily Mail as a breakthrough treatment via the extraordinary power of olfactory sensors. Sadly, we often see one-sided shoddy journalism like this in publications that don’t specialize in science.
Over the past year in Moline, the Dispatch-Argus has written flattering, uncritical articles about healing oils, ghost hunts, and psychic awareness. I have written letters to the editor when this has happened and the dismissive missives been published. I have also noted to myself that I should offer the paper my services as an amateur but seasoned skeptic when the next psychic and paranormal fair rolls around – an event the newspaper covers with an annual fluff piece. Let me now make a public declaration that prior to next year’s fair, I WILL contact the Dispatch-Argus and offer to provide another viewpoint. And I’ll be in especially good shape if next year’s fair has an aromatherapy booth.