Allie Shah
Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

The memory of the woozy woman slumped in her wheelchair still gets to Sandy McGurran, coordinator of integrative therapies for Fairview Homecare and Hospice in Minneapolis.

McGurran was doing a home visit with the patient, who was recovering from a stroke and gagging from nausea.

“I asked her if she’d be interested in trying some aromatherapy,” McGurran recalled.

The patient agreed, so McGurran dabbed a cotton ball with peppermint oil and told her to inhale like she was smelling a flower and exhale like she was blowing out a candle.

A few minutes later, the woman sat up, looked at her husband and said: “You have to get some of this tonight.”

Essential oils are a hot item in today’s holistic healing world — touted as a natural way to improve your mood, ward off sickness and treat ailments such as arthritis, dry skin and allergies.

Now, a growing number of hospitals are jumping onto the bandwagon, offering them to patients to help manage pain, nausea and anxiety.

“It really is in every health care system,” McGurran said. “We have clinicians who are very engaged in using aromatherapies because we see the outcomes.”

Although research on the therapeutic benefits of essential oils is not conclusive, enthusiasts swear by their power. And they are increasingly moving into the mainstream. Although using oils derived from plants as medicine dates back thousands of years, they’ve now become big business.

“You can find them everywhere — on the shelf at the grocery store, on Facebook,” said Megan Voss, a nurse at the University of Minnesota’s Masonic Children’s Hospital who also teaches at the university’s Center for Spirituality and Healing.

Masonic Children’s Hospital started using them sparingly eight years ago to help patients relax, sleep and to relieve nausea symptoms. Since then, it has expanded its oil therapy program and has developed its own special blends, using them in combination with massage and acupuncture.

The hospital also uses essential oils to treat children’s wounds. One notable example is in cases of children who have a rare skin disorder called epidermolysis bullosa (EB), a genetic condition that creates skin as delicate as a butterfly’s wings, making scratching dangerous.

“In these cases, the parents are desperate for anything that will help their children,” Voss said. A special formula of various essential oils applied to the skin of the children with EB helps relieve itching. Plus, it’s anti-inflammatory.

Like other health care providers, Fairview Homecare and Hospice took a cautious approach at first, but the oils were such a hit with patients that Fairview chose to grow its program.

The results were enough to convince McGurran.

“We’ve had patients who were actively vomiting do some inhalation and their vomiting stopped,” she said.

Fairview worked with a certified clinical aromatherapist to create four custom blends with labels such as “calming,” “soothing,” “uplifting” and “energizing.” Fairview Pharmacies sells the blends — whose ingredients include lavender, bergamot, frankincense, lemon, ginger and peppermint — alongside traditional medicines.

Hospice patients have reported that the calming essential oil significantly blunted their pain, McGurran said.

“We had patients saying they weren’t taking their as-needed pain medicines because they were receiving relief from aromatherapy. And they were not having the side effects from pain medications,” she said.

But McGurran stressed that essential oils are meant to be used to complement traditional medicine.

“We are not telling patients not to take their medications. This is in addition to what their doctors are prescribing,” she said.

A recent analysis of 10 studies on aromatherapy’s impact on depression, anxiety, pain relief, dementia and hypertension found that “the evidence is not sufficiently convincing that aromatherapy is an effective therapy for any condition.”

Still, there’s plenty of enthusiasm for oils. For pain, the oils may help by distracting the brain to focus on the aroma.

To understand how they can affect wellness, think of what happens when you peel an orange, McGurran said.

“You get happy. You are inhaling the oil from the skin, and it goes up to the limbic part of your brain, which manages stress,” she explained. “We’re inhaling tiny molecules into our system.”