Marian “Marnie” Reven’s passion for calming the waters of recovery and exploring the benefits of aromatherapy didn’t just happen. After a horseback riding accident in 2007, she was riddled with uncertainties. She still recalls the inner rumbles of fear, the worry that she’d be known for her symptoms instead of for herself, and of course, the nagging pain.
Luckily, her care team at J.W. Ruby Memorial Hospital recognized she needed something more to boost her healing.
“My nurses figured out that I liked music, so they got a man to come in and play the mandolin for me,” said Reven, assistant professor in the WVU School of Nursing. “I really felt that was a watershed moment. Indeed, I felt seen, I felt heard.”
As a nurse and educator for 30-plus years, the experience left her with a swell of optimism for the powers of integrative care –conventional treatment coupled with complementary methods such as acupuncture, mindfulness, meditation and yoga. A few years later she was introduced to aromatherapy and saw similarities in how it – like her mandolin serenade – could diminish symptom-related stress.
That wasn’t enough to satisfy her curiosity-turned-mission. She became a registered aromatherapist and read everything she could “to determine how this practice could fit into the health care community and how hospitals and clinics might use aromatherapy as adjunct support for different kinds of ailments.”
What she didn’t find was any solid study, so she set out to conduct her own. First, a pilot 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. Her current, ongoing study shows aromatherapy eases stress in people undergoing treatment for substance use disorder – a population she wants to help as they struggle to get back their lives. In 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,” Reven said. “Those individuals have identified that relieving distress and increasing comfort during substance use recovery is vital to their success.”
For the study she chose bergamot essential oil, a fresh, citrus scent extracted from the rind of the fruit and known to have a soothing effect on the central nervous system. 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 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 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 of comfort and ease and a decrease in 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 reduction in stress and anxiety, and an increase in feeling calm and relaxed.
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, as well people seeking to improve their overall health.
However, Reven points out that aromatherapy is not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for treatment of any medical condition, which is likely a reason why clinicians are reluctant to use it in their practice.
“Conversely, public acceptance of aromatherapy has never been higher,” she said. “But this is not always a good thing. Although information about aromatherapy abounds on the internet, many of the claims are based on personal experience. This is not scientific evidence.”
Thus, the reason for more research. As part of her ongoing efforts, she founded Aromatic Research Quality Appraisal Taskforce, an international organization that aims to set and maintain standards for conduct and reporting of nonpharmacologic aromatic intervention studies. The group and has created a checklist to assess the quality of aromatherapy studies. She also plans to continue research that includes other essential oils.
Outside of Reven’s studies, other ongoing research is showing promising results in treatment for insomnia, pain, anxiety and for cancer patients.
“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,” Reven said.