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The Power of Aromatherapy

Several studies show breathing in essential oils could benefit your health—but only if done right.

Essential oils have grown into a $1.5 billion business. The plant-extracted, highly concentrated oils have historically been used in beauty and cleaning products—but now research proves that when inhaled properly, they can also be beneficial to ones health, says Brent Bauer, M.D., Director of the Complementary and Integrative Medicine program at the Mayo Clinic.

Studies have found that essential oils can both protect your long-term health and alleviate symptoms of common ailments. They can help in decreasing stress levels, easing pain, enhancing mood, increasing energy, decrease cravings and help nausea. Essential oils have also been shown to kill flu, E. coli, and cancer cells.

The uses of essential oils and aromatherapy come with a warning however, "Whatever is powerful enough to exert a beneficial effect in the body is powerful enough to exert a negative effect," says Bauer. Essential oils release volatile organic compounds (VOCs), off-gases often linked to paints and pesticides. (Some VOCs are more hazardous than others, and "volatile" just means a substance can evaporate.) So while, for instance, moderate exposure to essential oils can be heart-healthy, prolonged exposure can pose cardiac risks.

The key is staying within a 15-to 60-minute sweet spot—never breathe in essential oils for more than one hour at a time. Always follow the instructions on the bottle, and if you are taking any medications or suffer from a chronic health condition, ask your doctor before you start practicing aromatherapy. Just as with any other medicine, essential oils must be used correctly to yield huge health rewards.

Before You Buy...

Follow these tips to make sure you purchase genuine products:  

  • Beware the blanket aromatherapy label, often slapped on diluted oils laced with synthetic fragrances.  
  • Look for 100 percent pure and organic oils free of fillers, pesticides, and synthetic chemicals.  
  • If a label says therapeutic grade or steam distilled, even better.
  • Most essential oils have long shelf lives—more than a year if stored in a cool, dry place. 

Let's Begin:

A diffuser is the most effective way to unleash essential oils into the air, but if you don't have one (they run from $25 to $200), you can drip oil into a bowl of steaming hot water. In either case, use one or two drops of one oil at a time. Stand a few feet away and take 10 deep breaths, then breathe normally. If you stick within the safe time limit and open a window when you're done, you can practice aromatherapy every day.   Aromatherapy is not for everyone, and a no-no if you're pregnant, so check with your doctor to see if aromatherapy is right for you before you begin.

Essential Oil: Sage

Best for: Blood-Pressure Reduction

In a July 2013 study, women who smelled clary sage experienced reduced blood pressure and breathing rates; they were also able to relax during a stressful medical exam.

Bonus perks: Helps amp up memory and attention

Essential Oil: Peppermint

Best for: Stress Relief

Research shows that breathing in eau de peppermint can decrease the body's levels of cortisol, a stress hormone.

Bonus perks: Reduces both fatigue and (score!) chocolate cravings

Essential Oil: Orange

Best for: Decreasing Anxiety

A study found that people who sniffed it before a stressful test were able to stay calm under pressure, sans anxiety spikes, possibly because the scent can help slash stress hormones.

Bonus perk: Elevates mood

Essential Oil: Rosemary

Best for: Enhancing Brainpower

Breathing it in can improve speed and accuracy during demanding mental tasks, per a 2012 study. Other research found its scent left people feeling refreshed and mentally stimulated.

Bonus perks: Boosts energy; lowers fatigue

Essential Oil: Cinnamon

Best for: Improving Focus

It may stoke the area of the brain that governs alertness. For example, research found that drivers were more focused and less flustered after breathing in cinnamon-oil scents.

Bonus perks: Increases concentration; reduces frustration

Essential Oil: Lavender

Best for: Relaxation; Relieving PMS

The scent can trigger the body's "rest and digest" response, promoting relaxation. A 2013 study found that it also eases pre-period symptoms such as mental confusion and depression.

Bonus perks: Decreases anxiety, insomnia, and migraine pain

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