Smells Good to Me: What about Aromatherapy?

 ADHD Weekly 2017-03-02

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Although many essential oils smell nice, there is no scientific evidence they produce positive measurable outcomes consistently across a given population. Nevertheless, you may have seen online articles and advertisements for essential oils to alleviate ADHD symptoms. But do essential oils actually help?

What are essential oils?

Essential oils are the fragrant oils of flowers, herbs, or trees. When you inhale the sweet smells of an orange or a rose or your nose itches after sniffing cedar wood in a closet, you’ve breathed in small amounts of these plants’ essential oils. They can be removed from the plant and bottled for use by steam distillation or by pressing the plant. Essential oils can be used by putting them in a diffuser, which releases the scent into the air; putting them in a bath; or mixing them with a carrier oil such as almond or olive oil and rubbing on the skin. 

The claim: 

Some people believe using essential oils will diminish symptoms of inattention, anxiety, depression, anger, and hyperactivity and increase one’s ability to focus on a task.

Essential oils have been used for thousands of years in various cultures to attempt to treat various ailments. The use of essential oils is known as aromatherapy. When combining aromatherapy with treatment for any medical condition, it is considered a complementary health approach; meaning it is used in addition to other forms of treatment. 

  • Some people use aromatherapy in an attempt to enhance their quality of life, such as reducing stress and anxiety.
  • Laboratory studies and animal studies have suggested that certain essential oils may have antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal, calming, or energizing effects.
  • Safety testing on essential oils has found very few negative side effects. 
  • Aromatherapy products do not need approval by the US Food and Drug Administration because no specific medical claims are made.

–Adapted from Aromatherapy and Essential Oils (PDQ®)–Patient Version

The research:

Research focusing on aromatherapy and ADHD is limited. Studies often look at aromatherapy or the effect of specific essential oils on ADHD and co-occurring anxiety and depression. Other studies look at aromatherapy on cognitive disorders including Autism Spectrum Disorder and Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers have studied individual essential oils and multiple oils mixed together, known as blends, as complementary treatments.

Matricaria chamomilla may improve some symptoms of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. A small sample of teen boys was given chamomile oil preparations to address the ADHD symptoms of hyperactivity and inattention. When evaluated using the Connors evaluation tool, the researchers saw some improvement in the boys’ scores. Researchers concluded, “Although the sample size is very small and therefore generalization is very difficult, this observation indicates that Matricaria chamomilla [the chamomile preparation] might be a slightly effective treatment also for ADHD” symptoms.

The effectiveness of aromatherapy for depressive symptoms: a systematic review. Researchers reviewed a collection of studies that considered the effects of various essential oils and blends of oils on the symptoms of depression, a condition that frequently co-occurs with ADHD. The analysis found enough evidence to suggest that aromatherapy, when combined with massage therapy, may be helpful for some people affected by depression. They write, “Aromatherapy showed potential to be used as an effective therapeutic option for the relief of depressive symptoms in a wide variety of subjects. Particularly, aromatherapy massage showed to have more beneficial effects than inhalation aromatherapy.”

There are more studies, in addition to the ones referenced here, exploring aromatherapy as a complementary approach. For more information on aromatherapy as an adjunct approach to treatment, visit the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.

The conclusion:

Is aromatherapy a complementary approach for some people in addressing their ADHD symptoms? Here are some considerations in answering this question:

  • The available research provides some peer-reviewed studies that seem to indicate that symptoms may lessen; however, few people participated in these studies (suboptimal sample size).
  • Repeating these results may be difficult because the essential oils are derived from plants, are not regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration, and, therefore, the amounts and effects are not standardized. 
  • The research is inconclusive because other factors―including massage, memory association with some scents, and the effect of the carrier oil—were not controlled in these studies and therefore can be neither quantified nor ruled out as dependent variables.
  • In some studies, the results were not reliably measured in numbers but only in descriptive data.

Although using aromatherapy as a complementary approach may be helpful for some people, the evidence isn’t strong enough to broadly suggest its use.

As with all complementary, alternative, and traditional treatment approaches to ADHD, discuss with your health care provider before adding essential oils to your routine. Many people will also consult with a trained aromatherapist when first learning about essential oils; your health care provider or local health clinic or hospital may be able to direct you to professionals in your area.

You can find more research on this topic and other topics related to ADHD in our ADHD Research Library.

This article appeared in ADHD Weekly on March 2, 2017.