MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

aromatherapy

HRH, The Prince of Wales has supported quackery on uncounted occasions. Several years ago, Charles even began selling his very own line of snake-oil. Now he surprises the British public with a brand new product: the ‘Baby Organic Hamper’. It is being sold for £195 under Prince Charles’ Highgrove-label and advertised with the following words:

A limited edition, hand-numbered hamper box packed with our new gentle organic bath and body products and a Highgrove Baby Bear. An ideal gift for new babies and parents. The blend of organic Roman chamomile and mandarin has been developed to be calm and gentle on delicate skin.

Roman chamomile has been known for centuries for its calming and relaxing benefits and also acts as an anti-inflammatory. Mandarin, known as ‘happy-oil’, has been chosen for its antiseptic properties and ability to boost immunity. Combined, this blend of ingredients produces a calming, protective barrier helping babies to relax. The exclusive, fully jointed Highgrove Baby Bear in antique mohair is made by Merrythought.

Provenance The unique bath and body collection has been created with Daniel Galvin Jr. in collaboration with Alexandra Soveral. Daniel Galvin Jr. has pioneered and developed organic products for hair and beauty over the last decade and Alexandra Soveral is a renowned and highly respected aromatherapist and facialist.

This new collection has been formulated in accordance with The Soil Association’s standards for health and beauty products, ensuring the purity of the range. Hamper Contents Body Lotion 100ml. Bath and Massage Oil 100ml. Flower Water 100ml. Bath and Body Wash 100ml. Balm 50ml. Highgrove Baby Bear.

Terms like relaxing benefits … anti-inflammatory … antiseptic properties … ability to boost immunity … protective barrier … helping babies to relax do undoubtedly amount to medical/therapeutic claims which, by definition (and by English law), need to be supported by evidence. I fail to see any sound evidence that either chamomile or mandarin oil or their combination have any of these effects on babies when applied as a body lotion, bath oil, massage oil, flower water, body wash.

The only RCT for mandarin-oil I could find concluded that results do not support a benefit of ‘M’ technique massage with or without mandarin oil in these young postoperative patients. Several reasons may account for this: massage given too soon after general anaesthesia, young patients’ fear of strangers touching them, patients not used to massage. For Roman Chamomile, I also identified just one relevant study; its results do not seem to suggest that the oil is the decisive factor in producing relaxation: Massage with or without essential oils appears to reduce levels of anxiety. Neither of these trials were done with babies, and crucially, no clinical trial at all seems to exist of the combination of the two oils as used in the Charles’ products.

As Charles and his team are clearly not scientists or health care experts, they took advice from people who might know about such matters: Daniel Galvin Jr. in collaboration with Alexandra Soveral. Daniel Galvin Jr. has pioneered and developed organic products for hair and beauty over the last decade and Alexandra Soveral is a renowned and highly respected aromatherapist and facialist.

This might look responsible at first glance; at closer scrutiny, Daniel Galvin turns out to be more an expert in cosmetics than in medicine; his own website explains: Born into the country’s most influential hairdressing dynasty, Daniel Galvin Jr, has been instrumental in the growth of the organic beauty market for the past 12 years and has been in the industry for 27 years. As a salon owner and creator of natural, organic professional haircare, he is at the forefront of colour expertise, with a client list including a ‘who’s who’ of TV personalities, British actors, royalty and London’s most beautiful socialites.

Alexandra Soveral might have once worked as an aromatherapist, but today she is the co-owner of a firm marketing natural beauty products; her website explains: We use rare & organic ingredients of the highest quality to create products that work in synergy with nature. We work towards a synthetic chemical free world. The scents from our essential oils evoke mind, body and soul reactions that promote well-being. We aim to continue our journey by always ensuring we source out new ways to improve our products and be kind to the planet.

At this point, two questions emerge in my mind: 1) is this just foolish nonsense or is it more sinister than that? 2) Why on earth does Charles venture into this sort of thing?

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I would be inclined to file Charles’ baby-hamper under the category of ‘foolish nonsense’. Ok, it exploits the love of parents for their new-borns - £195 per item is not exactly cheap (even considering that it is HAND-NUMBERED!) - but the type of customer who might buy this product is probably not on the brink of financial hardship. The ‘foolish nonsense’ does, however, acquire a more sinister significance through the fact that the heir to the throne, who arguably should be an example to us all, yet again is responsible for unsubstantiated therapeutic claims. So, on balance, I think this is more than just foolish nonsense; in fact, it is yet another example of Charles misguiding the public through his passion for quackery.

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Why does he do it? Does Charles need the money? No, unlike other quacks, he is not motivated by commercial interests. Is it for boosting his public image? Charles has certainly had an alternative bee under his royal bonnet for a very long time; in his quest to spread his abstruse notions of integrated health care, he has aquired an image to live up to. This new foray into quackery seems nevertheless baffling, in my view, because it is so obviously and cynically disregarding the law, regulations and evidence.

The way I see it, there are only two explanations for all this: either Charles is less aware of reality than one might have hoped, or he delegates trivial matters of this nature to one of his many sycophants without caring about the embarrassing details. Both of these possibilities are neither flattering for him nor reassuring for us…GOD SAVE THE QUEEN!

Where I live, some of the old-fashioned, privately-owned shops that used to dominate our high streets have survived the onslaught of the supermarkets. Our bakery is such a quaint remnant from the past. Surprisingly, it also is more holistic and more therapeutic than any alternative health centre I have come across.

The first thing that strikes anyone who enters the premises is the irresistible smell. Customers’ well being hits the ceiling, and the local aromatherapists are in danger of going out of business. The intense stimulation of the customers’ olfactory system relaxes their mind and puts them into a meditative state as they patiently wait to be served. Everyone in the queue has a little word with the baker’s wife, and progress is therefore slow – but we don’t mind: the chat is holistic counselling at its best, and our slow movements towards the counter are healthier than tai chi.

“You are looking well today,” says the baker’s wife, thereby gently arousing me from my aroma-induced meditation and indicating that she is about to focus her shaman healing-energy on me. Her diagnosis is spot on; the alternative therapies I enjoyed while waiting have re-balanced my chakras and got my qi flowing nicely – no wonder I am looking well!

The whole-wheat scones are finely balanced and nutritious; so I order three—one for the walk home and two for tea later. Prices have gone up a bit but, as with all holistic therapies, the more you pay, the more it’s worth. “Here you are,” she says, handing me her dietary delights. As I pay, our hands touch ever so briefly, just long enough for me to experience the instant transfer of healing energy that is so characteristic of Therapeutic Touch.

“Take care now, and God bless”, she says. As I walk out of her aura, I contemplate her words full of empathetic spiritual guidance and ancient wisdom. “That was expensive”, my wife mutters back home. I beg to differ: not only did I get the most wholesome food for my physical body, but I received holistic and patient-centred aromatherapy, counselling, meditation, tai chi and energy healing for my emotional, psychological and spiritual needs.

If only our Health Secretary knew about this traditional, yet integrated and therefore cutting-edge approach to cost-effective health and holistic well-being. We could all have it for free, and it might even save the NHS from its current crisis!

My aim with this blog is to eventually cover most of the 400 or so different alternative therapies and diagnostic techniques. So far, I have focused on some of the most popular modalities; and this means, I have neglected many others. Today, it is time, I think, to discuss aromatherapy, after all, it is one of the most popular forms of alternative medicine in the UK.

Aromatherapists use essential oils, and this is where the confusion starts. They are called “essential” not because humans cannot do without them, like essential nutrients, for instance; they are called “essential” because they are made of flower ESSENCES. The man who ‘discovered’ aromatherapy was a chemist who accidentally had burnt his hand and put some lavender essence on the burn. It healed very quickly, and he thus concluded that essential oils can be useful therapeutics.

Today’s aromatherapists would rarely use the pure essential oil; they dilute it in an inert carrier oil and usually apply it via a very gentle massage to the skin. They believe that specific oils have specific effects for specific conditions. As these oils contain pharmacologically active ingredients, some of these assumptions might even be correct. The question, however, is one of concentration. Do these ingredients reach the target organ in sufficient quantities? Are they absorbed through the skin at all? Does smelling them have a sufficiently large effect to produce the claimed benefit?

The ‘acid test’ for any therapeutic claim is, as always, the clinical trial. As it happens a new paper has just become available. The aim of this randomised study was to determine the effects of inhalation aromatherapy on pregnant women. Essential oils with high linalool and linalyl acetate content were selected and among these the one preferred by the participant was used. Thirteen pregnant women in week 28 of a single pregnancy were randomly assigned into an aromatherapy and a control group. The main outcome measures were several validated scores to assess mood and the heart-rate variability. The results showed significant differences in the Tension-Anxiety score and the Anger-Hostility score after aromatherapy. Heart rate variability changes indicated that the parasympathetic nerve activity increased significantly in the verum group. The authors concluded that aromatherapy inhalation was effective and suggest that more research is warranted.

I have several reasons for mentioning this study here.

1st research into aromatherapy is rare and therefore any new trial of this popular treatment might be important.

2nd aromatherapy is mostly (but not in this study) used in conjunction with a gentle, soothing massage; any outcome of such an intervention is difficult to interpret: we cannot then know whether it was the massage or the oil that produced the observed effect. The present trial is different and might allow conclusions specifically about the effects of the essential oils.

3rd the study displays several classic methodological mistakes which are common in trials of alternative medicine. By exposing them, I hope that they might become less frequent in future.

The most obvious flaw is its tiny sample size. What is an adequate size, people often ask. This question is unfortunately unanswerable. To determine the adequate sample size, it is best to conduct a pilot study or use published data to calculate the required number of patients needed for the specific trial you are planning. Any statistician will be able to help you with this.

The second equally obvious flaw relates to the fact that the results and the conclusions of this study were based on comparing the outcome measures before with those after the interventions within one intervention group. The main reason for taking the trouble of running a control group in a clinical trial is that the findings from the experimental group are compared to those of the control group. Only such inter-group comparisons can tell us whether the results were actually caused by the intervention and not by other factors such as the passage of time, a placebo-effect etc.

In the present study, the authors seem to be aware of their mistake and mention that there were no significant differences in outcomes when the two groups were compared. Yet they fail to draw the right conclusion from this fact. It means that their study demonstrated that aromatherapy inhalation had no effect on the outcomes studied.

So, what does the reliable trial evidence on aromatherapy tell us?

A clinical trial in which I was involved failed to show that it improves the mood or quality of life of cancer patients. But one swallow does not make a summer; what do systematic reviews of all available trials indicate?

The first systematic review was probably the one we published in 2000. We then located 12 randomised clinical trials: six of them had no independent replication; six related to the relaxing effects of aromatherapy combined with massage. These 6 studies collectively suggested that aromatherapy massage has a mild but short-lasting anxiolytic effect. These effects of aromatherapy are probably not strong enough for it to be considered for the treatment of anxiety. We concluded that the hypothesis that it is effective for any other indication is not supported by the findings of rigorous clinical trials.

Since then several other systematic reviews have emerged. We therefore decided to summarise their findings in an overview of all available reviews. We searched 12 electronic databases and our departmental files without restrictions of time or language. The methodological quality of all systematic reviews was evaluated independently by two authors. Of 201 potentially relevant publications, 10 met our inclusion criteria. Most of the systematic reviews were of poor methodological quality. The clinical subject areas were hypertension, depression, anxiety, pain relief, and dementia. For none of the conditions was the evidence convincing. Our conclusions therefore had to be cautious: due to a number of caveats, the evidence is not sufficiently convincing that aromatherapy is an effective therapy for any condition.

Finally, we also investigated the safety of aromatherapy by assessing all published data regarding adverse effects. Forty two primary reports met our inclusion criteria. In total, 71 patients had experienced adverse effects after aromatherapy which ranged from mild to severe and included one fatality. The most common adverse effect was dermatitis. Lavender, peppermint, tea tree oil and ylang-ylang were the most common essential oils responsible for adverse effects. We concluded that aromatherapy has the potential to cause adverse effects some of which are serious. Their frequency remains unknown.

And what is the conclusion of all this? To me, it seems fairly straight forward: Aromatherapy is not demonstrably effective for any condition. It also is not entirely free of risks. Its risk/benefit profile is thus not positive which can only mean that it is not a useful or recommendable treatment for anybody who is ill.

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