An early morning review of: Clinical Aromatherapy

Written by Jade Shutes on the 29th Day of October 2011 at 5am.


Yesterday I sat down to read Jane Buckles article “Clinical Aromatherapy” which was recently published in the Massage Magazine.  Yet again I am amazed at how we have transitioned from Holistic to Clinical and how the previous ‘Holistic’ has somehow taken on the implications that it was somehow not therapeutic or somehow without purpose or direction. Indeed, this is reflected in Buckles statement that ‘there is another, lesser-known face of aromatherapy: clinical aromatherapy’.

Buckle defines ‘Clinical Aromatherapy’ as: a form of aromatherapy that ‘targets a specific, measurable clinical outcome, such as decreased nausea or inflammation, and utilizes the chemical components found in essential oils to achieve that outcome’.  The implication here is that the known major chemical components of essential oils are solely responsible for the therapeutic activity of essential oils. Do I dare ask “why don’t we simply use isolated compounds such as 1,8 cineole, or alpha-pinene or linalyl acetate?”

Don’t get me wrong: I love being able to spout off “Ahhh, its the ester linalyl acetate and the sedative alcohol linalol in Lavandula angustifolia that provides it with its sedative quality or menthol and menthone that support peppermints application as an analgesic or thymol that provides Thymus vulgaris with its antimicrobial activity or even that the chemical component carvacrol supports oregano’s wide spectrum of antimicrobial activity.” Its fun and to a degree quite enlightening.

“Comprehending the biochemistry of plant constituents is not a requirement for grasping and utilizing herbal energetics but it can be helpful in getting a sense of the dynamic complexity of an herb and give us insights into the underlying nature of a specific medicine.” Kiva Rose Hardin, Elemental Energetics

What is potentially tragic about this however is that we seek to confirm the validity of essential oils solely through those aspects which have been confirmed through scientific documentation and we forget to approach an essential oil as a whole substance capable not only of specific actions based upon its chemistry but also on specific actions based upon its unity as a collection of chemicals and energy extracted from the plant. We may forget to engage the inherent intelligence of the essential oil to support an individual in healing and awakening.

While thinking about all of this I pulled out my original essential oil datasheets from when I was a student in England so many years ago. I am thankful that I studied at a time when less emphasis was placed on the chemistry as it allowed me to accept what I was taught and empowered me to explore the impact of any given essential oil based upon observation of: a/ the essential oil itself by spending time with it, b/ the plant if I had access to it, could grow it or came across it through my travels, c/ the ‘observed results’ achieved on clients, self and family and d/personal use and reflection on the essential oil.

I look at the datasheet on Bergamot (just to note: 20+ years ago, essential oil datasheets were typically one page, now they can be 3 to 4 pages long!).  The sheet states that Bergamot is helpful in relieving anxiety, is uplifting, useful for skin infections, antiseptic, antifungal, calming and a few others.

And over the years of practice, these qualities have been witnessed.  However, these days I could say bergamot is uplifting potentially due to its monoterpene content, antifungal and useful for skin infections because I have a few scientific papers which studied this (e.g. In vitro activity of Citrus bergamia (bergamot) oil against clinical isolates of dermatophytes by M. Sanguinetti, et al. published in the Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy (2007) 59, 305-308). I could go on to say that its sedative or calming actions are due to the presence of the sedative alcohol linalol and the ester, linalyl acetate.

So where does that leave me? What came first? The science or the learning of the traditional uses of a plant or the observations/experiences of using the essential oils and observing their therapeutic properties? Where shall I lay my emphasis? Solely on the chemical components, of which only a handful have been studied in relation to the total number that exists?  Do I negate my own knowledge and experience because science has yet to discover what I know?

What other ways are there in understanding the nature of essential oils? There are many ‘systems’ of healing including: Ayurveda, Traditional Chinese Medicine, and traditional/folk medicine itself. We could begin to develop a relationship and understanding of the energetics of essential oils, their ayurvedic energetics, be it cold/hot, heavy/light, oily/moist or dry etc. We could understand that each essential oil has prabhava or a  specific action/intelligence that goes beyond its chemical composition.

We could see that the biological role of essential oils within plants is reflected in their medicinal uses within humans. We could expand on our understanding of the importance of what Claude Bernard called the ‘milieu interieur’.  We could remember that health and healing are multifaceted and that true health and healing is about addressing multiple areas of life so that we are living more fully in ‘health’. We could utilize the elemental energetics of TCM. We could grow the aromatic plants and deepen our relationship with their essential oil by observation, by touching and smelling direct form the plant, by tasting, by sitting with them and allowing them to express something beyond their chemistry to us.

We could use any and all of the above along with our understanding of the chemistry of essential oils to deepen our understanding of essential oils without laying undue emphasis on either but rather merge the two (or more) to enhance one another.

“If we consider constituents interlocking facets and overlapping colors that result in the miraculous synergy and intelligence of the plant matrix, we are then able to see the usefulness of understanding the separate pieces without losing sight of the whole.” Kiva Rose Hardin, Elemental Energetics

Am I going off on a tangent? Back to the term “Clinical Aromatherapy”.  As I have stated in a previous article, we all (for the most part) are practicing clinical aromatherapy, whether we choose to call it that or not.  I don’t believe that 20 years have passed without individuals being ‘trained’ or better yet, inspired to observe how an essential oil or combination of essential oils affected an individual or condition an individual was having. E.g. Did German chamomile reduce the inflammation on the skin? Did the inhalation of lavender/clary sage/geranium over a period of several months reduce pms symptoms? Did the aroma of cardamom inspire an individual to see their life differently and hence make better choices for their health?

I know I shall succumb to the words one day since I seem to be asked at least once a week if we teach ‘clinical aromatherapy’ as if somehow this is new or more valid than what came before it and which continues to exist today. I am still unclear as to what else a school would be teaching in a full aromatherapy certification program other than the therapeutic applications of essential oils, but people ask any ways.

Perhaps it is from a lack of confidence in a/ourselves b/aromatherapy c/public perception, that has us turning so much to the chemistry of essential oils. It somehow feels empowering to be able to say that there is ‘evidence’ which supports what we say, it is true, it is real, it has been confirmed by scientist (typically using rats or parts of other small animals or in a lab with isolated components on bacteria/viruses/fungi). Yes, yes, we have been validated. (Breathe of relief)

But lets not pull the rug from under our own feet. If we continue down this path of believing that clinical aromatherapy is somehow better, different, or seeks a higher result than ‘therapeutic’ or ‘holistic’ aromatherapy, then we forget our foundation, our purpose to be in relation with essential oils as whole substances and our passion for using essential oils in the first place.


NOTE: I have great respect for Jane Buckle and her work as a Nurse Clinical Aromatherapist and her contributions to the field of aromatherapy. This review is not about her, it is about my own ongoing struggle to understand why ‘clinical aromatherapy’ is becoming the ‘thing’ of the day.


  1. Jade,
    I am glad you wrote this article because I am looking at different schools and trying to decide which program would be best for me. I am very much interested in the subtle affects of aromatherapy, but of course want a solid foundation and understanding of the properties of the oils. Honestly, what is the difference between clinical aromatherapy and holistic aromatherapy anyway?

  2. Tanya LaMothe says:

    Thanks for writing this. We think on the same wave on this one.

  3. Considering that 8 years ago, reiki and aromatherapy were considered devilworkings here in my home town; I think that we all get confused. As to why it is now popular, consider my own experiences with an ortho dr. He does not believe in treating the pain for the year before surgery. The things he wants me to take are like oisen to my system. I now look to aromatherapy to help.

  4. Thank you for writing and posting this – I couldn’t agree more :)

  5. I am studying my aromatherapy certificate at another school,which I love, but I am finding that I wish I could afford to take the online certification courses at several schools, like yours, because there are so many perspectives and approaches and so much information that no one school has it all. One cannot. I love this post. Thank you for writing it as it really got me thinking about my approach. I find I swing back and forth between holistic and component thinking and sometimes I feel I should choose one or the other. But my aroma program also addresses this issue in demonstrating different approaches and your blog post here really touches my heart that we may need to find ways to use our intuition, not so much to blend as to choose our approach to blending for any given situation. You really got me thinking here. I love reading your blog. Thank you for sharing your heart and thoughts. The discussion is so worth having!

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