I journeyed into the mainstream healthcare system in 2013. At the time utilizing aromatherapy as a non-pharmacological option in senior care was rare. However, evidence was emerging to support its efficacy and I happened upon an opportunity to put my essential oils to the test.
I began working with an ambitious and compassionate director of nursing (DON) for a large long-term care center in Minnesota. She was interested in using essential oils and blends with their population. They had already attempted some aromatherapy on their own but with mixed results. A full floor was devoted to memory care residents. Several residents had advanced Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, exhibiting extreme symptoms that were not responding well to the current medication protocols.
After a discussion with the DON, we concluded we would address anxiety, mood, sleep, focus and appetite. We also addressed cravings for an alcoholic and an unique issue for a WWII survivor. We replaced their collection of “aromatherapy” (which ranged from synthetic lavender-scented Febreeze and lotion to low quality essential oils purchased from the local grocery store) with the premium therapeutic essential oils I source for my brands. The following are just some of the findings from these trials. I want to emphasize that while these were simple in-house studies for internal use and were not set up according academic or clinical research standards, they still held immense value.
A male resident was experiencing agitation, up at night walking, calling out, and even becoming violent at times. He was not responding well to pharmaceutical intervention and staff became concerned the medications were making him worse. They wanted avoid relying on pharmaceuticals if possible.
A chart was created to track resident behavior. Behaviors were scaled from 0-10 both before and after aromatic intervention, with a “10” being the worst. Essential oil/blend and method of application were also recorded. We found the following:
The most common method of application was via inhalation. The resident was violent and reactive on several occasions and staff considered him a level 10. During each recorded incident he was successfully calmed after inhalation of our essential oil blend. Results were consistent for this gentleman and staff was able to avoid the use anti-anxiety/antipsychotic pharmaceuticals. Within several weeks he hardly needed the medications. No side effects were reported from the intervention and the staff felt comfortable administering the aromatherapy.
A gentleman with a history of alcoholism was struggling with his transition into long-term care. He was craving a drink and would exhibit anxious behaviors. In his case, I addressed both the neurological element of addiction and the aroma of the blend. My goal was to mimic the flavor and effect of his favorite drink. This gentleman loved rum and cokes. I blended sweet, spice and vanilla notes with essential oils that were sedative, emotionally balancing and somewhat euphoric. He was provided an inhaler and instructed to use it when he felt a craving. The gentlemen reported that he like the blend and felt it helped him. Staff reported the gentleman would calm down and was better cope with the transition.
An elderly woman was admitted into the transitional care unit to recover after a surgery. She was having a difficult time sleeping at night, experiencing symptoms of PTSD including hallucinations and flash backs from World War II. She was also diagnosed with post-operative delirium. The DON was concerned because she was not improving and further medicating was adding to the problem.
In this case I wanted to address her physical pain, her emotional/spiritual state and support deep, quality sleep. The blend included powerful anti-inflammatory essential oils, sedatives and those aromatics historically known for their spiritual significance. I instructed staff to dilute the blend and massage it into her feet and legs, while avoiding her incision site on the knee. The DON called me back after a week of use and said: “Whatever you made, it’s working – and we need more!” This patient’s delirium was calmed, her perception of pain reduced and her sleep improved. She was able to return to a normal sleep/wake cycle and better participate in her recovery from surgery.
Other Positive Results
There is always more than meets the eye during an aromatic intervention. Those working directly with patients often feel helpless when traditional interventions do not work and/or produce more challenges due to negative side-effects. When a simple and non-invasive solution is available to staff, they feel empowered and their stress level is reduced. Having a safe non-pharmaceutical alternative that works without producing side effects allows them to feel more confident and successful in their jobs.
Staff can enjoy the benefits of aromatherapy also. They might use a stimulating blend to perk up during a long shift, take a whiff of their favorite essential oil when unpleasant odors are present, or take advantage of natural anxiety relief when they are having a bad day. They can even relieve debilitating headaches and find relief when feeling under the weather.
In each situation, aromatherapy not only reduced the patient’s symptoms but it also reduced or eliminated the challenges associated with pharmaceuticals (ie: side effects, waiting for them to begin working, wearing off before they can be re-administered). Because the blends are expertly formulated with high quality essential oils, they are safe to use alongside pharmaceuticals. Since aromatherapy is inhaled it directly impacts the brain through the olfactory nerve. Improvement is observed much faster than waiting for a drug that is administered orally to kick in.
We even found the need for a drug was often avoided when aromatherapy was used. The reduced reliance on pharmaceuticals proved to be an invaluable benefit considering now there is stronger regulation in place regarding the use of anti-psychotic and anti-anxiety medications and certain pain relievers. In fact, today the Centers for Medicaid Services require non-pharmaceutical options be utilized in long-term care. Aromatherapy turned out to be the perfect solution.
Perhaps the most important benefit to note is that each resident received tailored care that was gentle, holistic and person-centered without being a major strain on resources or time. Staff simply selected the oil that matched the symptom and administered without the need for a prescription.
The pleasurable impact of aromatherapy quickly reaches the body, mind and soul in a unique and nurturing way. As demand for natural alternatives grow among all consumers today, so does the demand for such care among the aging population as they approach their last stages of life. As we move into the future we will continue to expect long-term care that embraces the needs of the whole person over simply treating their symptoms with medication, as we have seen in the past.
Although these were not official studies, they produced the initial evidence to support my ongoing research and formed the foundation for what I do today. In this case, we used our findings to gain financial support from stakeholders and build a full aromatherapy program for this particular nursing home. We have since expanded my program into their entire health system including assisted living, memory care, and transitional care and they are seeing amazing results. I am proud to see aromatherapy becoming one of the hottest topics in medical literature and know I have been a part of transforming the way we help people age.
Sleep – it is essential. We’ve all experienced a night of bad sleep that left us feeling fatigued and crabby the next day. That is because sleep is crucial for our mental and cognitive health. The REM stage in particular is responsible for processing stress and emotions. When we we sleep our organs also perform vital functions and our cells regenerate. The liver and kidneys are active around 3 a.m. conducting important metabolic functions, removing toxins from our body. These essential functions support a strong immune system. Yes, sleep is a big deal.
Since it is paramount to our existence, a lack of or poor quality sleep can quickly lead to problems. Chronic sleep challenges are directly connected to chronic disease because the body is unable to perform vital tasks. Those who suffer from long-term sleep challenges are at much higher risk for memory problems, mental health issues, heart attacks and disease, stroke, COPD, cancer, arthritis, kidney disease and diabetes.
Fortunately, the science is settled on aromatherapy and sleep. Just look at this list of research supporting the use of essential oils as a gentle and effective way to promote better rest!
A systematic review of the effect of inhaled essential oils on sleep
Quantitative human studies on the effect of inhaled essential oils published between 1990 and 2012 were reviewed. A majority of the findings revealed a positive effect of essential oils on sleep.
An olfactory stimulus modifies nighttime sleep in young men and women
Aromatherapy intervention increased deep/slow wave sleep in men and women and all subjects reported feeling more energetic in the morning. Lavender serves as a practical way to promote deep sleep in young people.
Effect of Inhaled Lavender and Sleep Hygiene on Self-Reported Sleep Issues: A Randomized Controlled Trial
College students with self-reported sleep issues received lavender and found improved sleep quality and waking feeling more refreshed.
The sleep-enhancing effect of valerian inhalation and sleep-shortening effect of lemon inhalation
Valerian inhalation had a noticeable impact on sleep.
The Effect of Aromatherapy on Sleep Quality of Elderly People Residing in a Nursing Home
Lavender oil was applied to pillows at night for one week. Aromatherapy was found to improve sleep onset, quality and duration in the elderly population.
New approaches to health and well‐being for dementia day‐care clients, family carers and day‐care staff
A gentle hand treatment was administered to the elderly using three essential oils. Benefits included increased alertness, sleeping at night, reduced levels of agitation and withdrawal and wandering.
Effects of aromatherapy on sleep quality and anxiety of patients
Patients received 2% essential oil via inhalation for 15 days. Lavender essential oil increased quality of sleep and reduced level of anxiety in patients with coronary artery disease.
A single-blinded, randomized pilot study evaluating the aroma of Lavandula augustifolia as a treatment for mild insomnia
Outcomes, according to the Pittsburg Sleep Quality Index, favored lavender essential oil diffusion for insomnia.
Effects of lavender aroma on sleep quality in healthy Japanese students
Results showed nighttime exposure to lavender relieves sleepiness upon awakening in healthy students.
Lavender Fragrance Essential Oil and the Quality of Sleep in Postpartum Women
This is clinical trial regarding the effects of aromatherapy on sleep quality in women during postpartum period. It was determined that aromatherapy improves the quality of sleep in postpartum women.
Effect of aromatherapy on the quality of sleep in ischemic heart disease patients hospitalized in intensive care units of heart hospitals of the Isfahan University of Medical Sciences
Quality of sleep in ischemic heart disease patients was significantly improved after aromatherapy and the study concluded using aromatherapy can improve the quality of their sleep and health.
Trial of Essential Oils to Improve Sleep for Patients in Cardiac Rehabilitation
Patients received a blend of lavender, bergamot and ylang-ylang on a cotton ball for 5 nights. Sleep quality was significantly better than placebo.
The Effect of Aromatherapy on Insomnia and Other Common Symptoms Among Patients With Acute Leukemia
Aromatherapy is a good intervention for improving insomnia, lack of appetite, depression, anxiety, and well-being experienced by patients with acute leukemia.
Comparison of the effect of lavender and bitter orange on sleep quality in postmenopausal women: A triple-blind, randomized, controlled clinical trial
Bitter orange and lavender had a substantial positive effect on the sleep scores of postmenopausal women when compared to the control group.
Aromatherapy: The Effect of Lavender on Anxiety and Sleep Quality in Patients Treated With Chemotherapy
Lavender produced an improvement in sleep for chemotherapy patients according to the Pittsburgh Quality Sleep Index.
Effect of aromatherapy via inhalation on the sleep quality and fatigue level in people undergoing hemodialysis
A mixture of sweet orange and lavender essential oil improved sleep quality and decreased fatigue in hemodialysis patients.