Aromatherapy can benefit substance-use recovery, WVU study finds

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Aromatherapy can benefit substance-use recovery, WVU study finds
Study participants reported an increase of comfort and ease and a decrease in perception of stress. (Photo courtesy Jessica Rockowitz)

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Aromatherapy eases stress in people undergoing treatment for substance use disorder, which can enhance their chances of a successful recovery, according to research.

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The ongoing study incorporates the use of essential oils as an integrative therapy that is part of a bigger-picture model focusing on the whole person.

Researchers set out to determine whether the use of an aroma inhaler filled with bergamot essential oil produced an increase in comfort and ease and a decrease in stress. For the study, comfort was defined as the experience of relief, while ease was defined as calmness amid distress.

“Those in treatment struggle to handle everyday living, overwhelming demands from work, family, the disease itself, and even the treatment program,” said Marian Reven, assistant professor in the and a registered aromatherapist who led the study.

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“Those individuals have identified that relieving distress and increasing comfort during substance use recovery is vital to their success.”

Reven said various studies on substance use disorder treatment indicate that when people no longer have the drugs in their systems in sufficient amounts, they experience a loss of pleasure and an increased sensitivity to stress and anxiety.

Study participants, all in treatment for substance use disorder, report an increase in comfort and ease and decreased perception of stress after using the inhaler at least three times daily for one week.

Participants track the frequency of administering the inhalers and rate their comfort levels in daily logbooks. Results include a reduction in stress and anxiety and an increase in feeling calm and relaxed.

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Reven said she chose bergamot for the study because it is soothing to the central nervous system. She would also like to explore the effects of other essential oils, such as various citruses, lavender, and sustainably sourced sandalwood.

Extracted from the rind of the bergamot fruit, the essential oil has a fresh, citrus scent. It’s used in many perfumes and soaps and gives Earl Grey tea its signature flavor and aroma.

Not only do bergamot and other essential oils used in aromatherapy smell good and thus provide an uplifting psychological boost, but there’s also a physiological benefit, too, Reven said. Components in the essential oils act via the limbic system, the part of the brain responsible for processing and regulating emotion and memory.

Reven said exploring how essential oils can complement a treatment plan — for substance use disorder and other diseases — falls in line with the evolving approach to person-centered care. Other methods include acupuncture, mindfulness, meditation, and yoga.

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“The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health is calling for this groundswell of whole person health,” Reven said.

“This involves all the health choices people make. One example is integrating aromatherapy into a treatment plan to increase comfort, ease stress, and improve the person’s quality of life.”

The research is a spinoff of Reven’s 2020 aromatherapy study in which nurses reported feeling significantly less stressed, anxious, fatigued, and overwhelmed after wearing aromatherapy patches during their shifts at WVU Cancer Institute Mary Babb Randolph Cancer Center.

She said both studies fill a gap in the search for ways to promote health and well-being while bringing to light the need for in-depth research on dosage and frequency. She also hopes the findings can be applied to future research using various essential oils for patients receiving chemotherapy and other treatments such as palliative care and people seeking to improve their overall health.

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“The comments from this study with substance use disorder patients gave me hope, and I want to look at what populations need the same kind of support,” Reven said.

“This could also include people before they are sick because the need to be happy is part of the whole-person health. There is a lot of work to be done to show how aromatherapy can impact health and well-being, and I look forward to many years of discovery in research.”

Story contributed by Wendy Holdren, Director of Communications and Marketing, WVU School of Nursing.

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