Aromatherapy can significantly lift anxiety and depression. It’s the sort of statement you see on alternative-therapy websites and pamphlets for practitioners who massage fragrant oils into people’s skin. And you’ve probably always suspected that there was little to back it up.
Today all that changes. According to an authoritative study by Cancer Research UK, in the latest issue of the Journal of Clinical Oncology, that assertion is true. The new study is significant, and not just because it indicates that after chemotherapy and other treatment, aromatherapy helps to relieve anxiety and depression much quicker than other approaches.
The researchers believe it is the first large randomised controlled trial (the highest standard of research, which doctors take most seriously) to be conducted on a complementary therapy in several centres in the NHS. And it indicates that health service workers and research funders are beginning to take seriously the potential contribution of complementary medicines. “I think it’s enormously exciting,” says the lead researcher, Amanda Ramirez, the director of the Cancer Research UK London Psychosocial Group at King’s College London. “I’m unaware of other treatments, including talking therapies, that can achieve such fast improvements in people with cancer who are anxious or depressed.”
The study, which cost £300,000 (most multi-centre trials cost £500,000), examined 288 people with all types of cancer and at various stages of the disease who had had anxiety or depression diagnosed after treatment. Many had severe symptoms such as panic attacks, inability to sleep and needle phobia. Recent studies have indicated that about half of cancer sufferers get some such problems in the first year. Half of the subjects in the trial received a course of weekly aromatherapy massage and half received normal support services, such as counselling and, in severe cases, psychotherapy and medication. Their symptoms were monitored for 12 weeks.
The results were so clear that they surprised Ramirez, a professor of psychiatry. Symptoms lifted far earlier in the aromatherapy group than in the nonaromatherapy group; within two weeks of the treatment beginning as opposed to six weeks. And although by ten weeks after the trial started the two groups showed equal alleviation of symptoms, members of the group receiving aromatherapy consistently reported more improvement in anxiety than the other group right though the trial. However, aromatherapy seemed to bring no significant improvement to pain, fatigue, nausea and vomiting.