Anyone who has enjoyed the aroma of lavender, eucalyptus, or frankincense during a massage already knows firsthand the relaxing properties of essential oils. Wafting into the senses, these aromatic essences immediately improve the state of mind, inducing a state of soothing calm.
It may come as a surprise to learn that aromatherapy is also very useful as a supportive measure in addiction recovery. As a complementary treatment element in detox, treatment, and recovery, aromatherapy has a multitude of wellness benefits. The mind-body connection is one that must be considered in recovery, as the mind is a powerful engine that can influence recovery outcomes. Aromatherapy is useful in helping individuals in recovery restore that mind-body connection.
The mental health component to addiction recovery cannot be overstated. Our mental wellness can literally make or break any attempts to live a sober, healthy life. Increasingly, addiction treatment programs are embracing holistic measures, including the use of essential oils, as complementary therapies to the conventional evidence-based protocols.
Learning about the role of aromatherapy in recovery offers the newly sober an additional tool to help achieve a more serene and balanced state of mind. Coupled with therapy and recovery support groups, aromatherapy offers just one more tool to aid the process of restoring health and reshaping one’s lifestyle.
What is Aromatherapy?
The use of essential oils is ancient. Originating in Eastern medicine thousands of years ago, aromatherapy has a proven history of efficacy in providing medicinal effects, both physical and psychological. Essential oils are created from the most potent parts of various plants and flowers. The distillation process, using water or steam, yields medicinal grade oil, with each variety having its own healing properties. Today, essential oils are an increasingly popular drug-free alternative to achieve a state of relaxation or to improve mood.
Essential oils are utilized to benefit a multitude of health and wellness conditions. Aromatherapy, using the scent and medicinal properties of the essential oils, is beneficial in the healing of mind and body. There are a multitude of essential oils that can produce healing effects, such as by reducing inflammation and improving the immune system. In summary, aromatherapy can help relieve symptoms of various ailments, reduce stress, and to bolster the immune system.
There are two basic methods of using aromatherapy:
Topical. Essential oils can be absorbed through the skin. When applying the essential oils to the skin it is important to first dilute the oil with carrier oil, such as coconut oil, almond oil, jojoba, or olive oil before massaging it into the skin. Essential oils are best applied to the soles of the feet, the palm of the hand, and the temples and the scalp.
Inhalation. The vapor from a diffuser that is produced by drops of the essential oil added to water stimulates the olfactory system, entering through the nasal passage, into the lungs, and reaching the brain. A differ is not necessary, as just placing two drops of the essential oil on the palms, rubbing them together, then cupping them to the nose while inhaling deeply can also provide immediate effects.
Other uses of essential oils might include placing a few drops in the bath, or on a pillowcase. It can also be added to a candle allowing the heat of the candle to release the scent into the room or mixed with water in a spray bottle and spritzed into the air. Aromatherapy can be used in massage therapy, during meditation or prayer, while bathing, or during any relaxing activity.
The Science of Smell
Most people have experienced how a scent or odor can immediately elicit a memory. Our sense of smell has a powerful effect on our mood by activating the limbic system or the mood center of the brain. The aromatherapy affects the mood center of the brain by helping to regulate emotions, stress, heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing. This can help promote relaxation in the face of a stressful situation or event.
The pleasant effects enjoyed with aromatherapy can help the brain develop new scent-mind connections, creating a positive stimulus-response when the oils are introduced. Essentially, the aromatherapy induces feelings of pleasure and calm. This is because the reward path of the brain is part of the limbic system. Aromatherapy can be used to activate the reward path using a natural substance such as essential oils.
Basically, in addiction recovery, the brain is in recovery. Addiction takes a steep toll on brain structures, brain chemistry, cognitive functioning, and overall brain health. Aromatherapy can be an additional salve as brain health is restored to optimum functioning by creating a healing environment through the olfactory system.
How Essential Oils Assist the Detox Process
The detox process is the dreaded, but necessary, first step on the recovery journey. Detox and withdrawal involve the cessation of the substance of abuse, allowing the body to begin purging any chemicals or toxins associated with the substance. During alcohol or drug detox the body is destabilized. As the brain struggles to achieve equilibrium the person going through detox experiences assorted unpleasant withdrawal symptoms.
While each specific substance of abuse has its own list of withdrawal symptoms, there are some that are common across the board. These symptoms include both physical and psychological symptoms such as headache, nausea, insomnia, depression, fatigue, and agitation. The severity of the withdrawal symptoms rests on a variety of factors that influence whether symptoms will be mild, moderate, or severe, and how long the detox process will take to complete.
During detox, trained professionals will utilize medications to minimize withdrawal discomforts. As a complementary holistic measure, aromatherapy can augment traditional medical interventions and ease the unpleasant effects of withdrawal. Adding essential oil therapy helps the individual processing through detox and withdrawal in several ways, including relief of some of the physical discomforts, boosting mood, reducing cravings, and aiding sleep. These benefits can assist the individual to safely and successfully complete the detox process before transitioning to addiction treatment.
Some essential oils for addiction can alleviate the general discomforts of withdrawal symptoms during the detox process, while others are uniquely suited to a particular drug or alcohol detox. For general withdrawal symptoms, clary sage, lemon, and bergamot essential oils can be helpful during detox and withdrawal. In addition:
For alcohol detox adding black pepper oil and Roman chamomile oil can help reduce withdrawal discomforts and help restore liver health.
For opiate detox adding lavender oil, ylang ylang oil, eucalyptus oil, peppermint oil, and cinnamon oil can help with lethargy, reduce anxiety, and improve mental clarity.
For stimulant detox adding orange oil, jasmine oil, and peppermint can help boost mood, energy, and help soothe anxiety.
Detox and withdrawal are an uncomfortable but necessary first step in addiction recovery. Using the healing power of essential oils along with conventional medical interventions can provide relief from withdrawal symptoms and help the individual to persevere through the possible post-acute withdrawal symptoms (PAWS) as well. PAWS may linger for weeks, even months, so individuals experiencing these lasting withdrawal symptoms will benefit from the effects of aromatherapy.
Aromatherapy as a Complementary Treatment Element
As a complementary treatment element, aromatherapy can offer safe, natural effects that help boost mood, improve sleep quality, enhance mental clarity, and promote relaxation. All of these are essential in reinforcing recovery. Low mood can reduce motivation to stay the course and remain sober. Sleep deprivation has a significant negative effect on overall wellbeing and can leave someone feeling fatigued and depressed. Stress is one of the most common triggers that can result in relapse. Why not use aromatherapy as a routine component of healthy living in recovery?
In many cases, the individual with a substance use disorder also suffers from a co-occurring mental health disorder. This goes beyond just feeling down or a little tense or irritable. Clinical depression or an anxiety disorder complicates the treatment picture, as they must be treated alongside the addiction. While essential oils will not replace antidepressants or other psychotropic medications, aromatherapy is excellent complementary therapy.
To improve mood, sleep quality, and reduce stress some of the most effective essential oils that benefit recovery include:
Basil sweet oil
Reduces stress, promotes deeper sleep, aids mental clarity, and improves memory
Helps relieve tension, regulate appetite, and has antidepressant properties
Black pepper oil
Reduces cravings, increases serotonin levels, calms anxiety
Lifts mood, has relaxation properties
Improves state of mind, reduces cravings
Cinnamon bark oil
Supports brain and liver health
Coriander oil (cilantro)
This oil may reduce cravings and has a stimulant effect that helps reduce fatigue
Helps promote relaxation and calm anxiety
Reduces symptoms of anxiety and depression
Relieves negative emotions and tension, lifts mood
Enhances mental clarity and decision-making abilities, reduces brain fog
Combats fatigue and renews energy, reduces cravings, boosts mood
Has antidepressant properties, boosts mood
It’s calming effects can also help with insomnia and anxiety, reduces mood swings, and promotes liver energy flow (qi)
Increases energy, boosts mood
Helps lift mood while calming anxiety
Aids in mental clarity, revitalizes the spirit, energizes, reduces cravings, and lifts mood
Improves energy and boosts mood
Pink grapefruit oil
This oil can help depression symptoms, reduce cravings, promote relaxation, and induce a positive state of mind.
This oil stimulates mental clarity, improves mood
Helps achieve mental clarity and focus
Integrating aromatherapy into a traditional evidence-based treatment program can help ease some of the stress of being in a treatment environment, as well as help induce better sleep while in rehab. The core treatment elements in addiction treatment include:
Detox and withdrawal
Narcotics Anonymous 12-step program or similar programming
Holistic Addiction Recovery Practices
The holistic benefits of aromatherapy positively impact the psychological, physical, and spiritual aspects of wellness. When using aromatherapy in conjunction with other holistic activities and regular exercise, the individual in recovery can significantly improve their state of mind without the need for drugs or alcohol. So often those substances are used to self-medicate, to quiet an anxious mind or cover up feelings of depression. In recovery, holistic practices can offer a healthy alternative to substances of abuse while achieving the desired sense of calm.
Some holistic recovery practices include:
Early recovery is a challenging phase as individuals adjust to a completely new lifestyle. By combining aromatherapy with other holistic activities, it can significantly improve the mind-body connection and enhance recovery efforts, especially because of the stress-reducing properties of these activities.
Holistic activities help the individual gain a clearer sense of self and a fresh perspective through practicing them. These new insights, combined with the relaxation-promoting aspects of these activities, can help calm the mind and reduce the risk of relapse. Recovery is further reinforced by using these holistic methods in conjunction with ongoing outpatient therapy and participation in a recovery community.
Some Considerations About Aromatherapy
While aromatherapy is generally considered to be safe, some caution should be exercised when beginning aromatherapy. First, it should be emphasized that aromatherapy alone is not the answer to defeating an addiction. Engaging in active treatment while in rehab and continuing with ongoing outpatient rehab following rehab is the bedrock of addiction recovery. Aromatherapy compliments traditional therapy.
Also, the essential oils should not be ingested unless the individual is under the guidance of a naturopath who can provide the specific type of oils that are designed for this purpose. Essential oils can cause skin irritation, so in most cases should not be applied directly to the skin.
Other considerations include:
Essential oils can cause serious eye injury
Pregnant women should not use aromatherapy
Essential oils may be harmful to individuals with asthma or other respiratory conditions
Hyssop oil can trigger seizures in people with a history of convulsions
Rosemary oil can cause an increase in blood pressure so should be avoided by individuals with hypertension.
Patty Bell has been working in the alcohol and drug addiction industry for over 20 years. She is currently the Family Relations Manager/Interventionist at Solutions 4 Recovery a residential rehabilitation facility providing substance abuse treatment services to men and women suffering from alcoholism, drug addiction, and dual diagnosis. Patty has been sober since May 1996 and looks to help those struggling rise from their past to a new and brighter future.