Aromatherapy and Essential Oils During Pregnancy
While a woman is pregnant, her body undergoes profound changes; at the same time, her mind works to process the emotions and feelings surrounding the major transformation of becoming a mother. Many symptoms arise as a result of both physiological changes and emotional responses to pregnancy, including nausea, tension, muscle aches, tissue tenderness and others. Aromatherapy offers a relatively safe and non-invasive approach to these and many other pregnancy symptoms and processes.
Why Use Aromatherapy and Essential Oils During Pregnancy?
To promote stress reduction and relaxation in pregnancy, aromatherapy offers an appealing alternative to pharmaceuticals that are contraindicated in pregnancy. Unlike other complementary approaches to relaxation such as yoga or meditation, use of aromatherapy is not dependent on the development of any skills. The compounds present in many essential oils may have beneficial physiological effects, as described above. Furthermore, most pregnant women report satisfaction with the use of aromatherapy. A study at Oxford in the United Kingdom reported that more than 50 percent of mothers receiving aromatherapy during labor reported it to be helpful, as opposed to 14 percent who found it unhelpful.
How Can Aromatherapy and Essential Oils Support Women During Pregnancy?
The basis for the effectiveness of essential oils to relieve stress and affect mood is likely related to the anatomical relationship of the olfactory processing centers in the limbic system of the brain, which also is involved in emotional expression.
Aromatherapy’s ability to improve other physical symptoms is thought to be related to the absorption of active chemical components in the oils. Specific physiologic responses have been attributed to various chemicals. For example, neroli contains a high percentage of esters, chemical components thought to have calming properties. Tea tree oil contains a relatively large proportion of alcohol, which is considered to account for its antibacterial and antiviral properties.
With aromatherapy, the amount of active chemical components is generally less than with taking pharmaceutical drugs that contain chemicals with similar medical properties. For example, a dilution of ten drops of essential oil per 50 mL of carrier oil, or less than six drops in bath water, is typical for aromatherapy preparations used in pregnancy. Treatment that involves applying these diluted chemical preparations to the skin results in less chemical absorption than methods that involve ingestion.
Which Essential Oils are Recommended for Use During Pregnancy?
The following oils and preparations have been suggested to help alleviate various symptoms during and following pregnancy:
- Bergamot: Used to improve cystitis during pregnancy. May relieve pain, fight infection and refresh.
- Chamomile: Calming and also soothes muscle aches and digestive pain. May also fight infection and reduce inflammation.
- Cypress (use only in the third trimester of pregnancy): May relieve hemorrhoids, varicose veins and swollen ankles through antiseptic and diuretic action.
- Eucalyptus: Assists in relieving respiratory congestion. Thought to have antiseptic, antibiotic, analgesic, anti-inflammatory and antiviral activity.
- Frankincense: Sedating and thought to have antiseptic and astringent properties.
- Geranium (use only after first trimester of pregnancy): May improve circulation and ease leg pain. Considered to have antiseptic, antidepressant, astringent and mood uplifting qualities.
- Grapefruit: Assists with digestion and water retention.
- Lavender: Soothes pregnancy-related aches, assists with fluid retention, relaxes and has antidepressant and anti-infection properties.
- Lemon: Inhalation or ingestion of diluted preparation reduces nausea and stimulates mood. It also has antiseptic, antibacterial and antifungal properties. May improve varicose veins and heartburn symptoms.
- Mandarin: Mildly relaxing yet refreshing, antiseptic and assists with fluid retention.
- Neroli: Calming, antidepressant, antiseptic and anti-inflammatory. Especially beneficial for skin.
- Patchouli: Calms and relieves depression and apathy. Antiseptic and anti-inflammatory.
- Petitgrain: Eases depression during or after pregnancy. Calming yet refreshing, with antiseptic properties.
- Rosewood: Sedating and antiseptic.
- Sandalwood: Calming, eases depression, antiseptic and anti-inflammatory qualities. Eases pregnancy-related cystitis.
- Tangerine: Calming and sedating. Helps to prevent stretch marks.
- Tea Tree: Antibiotic, antiseptic, antifungal, antiviral and disinfectant.
- Ylang Ylang: Sedating and antidepressant qualities are restorative. Aphrodisiac, antiseptic and blood pressure lowering properties.
What Are Aromatherapy and Essential Oils?
Aromatherapy describes the therapeutic use of essential oils from plants to promote relaxation and a sense of well-being. “Essential oils” simply refers to the aromatic compounds present in plants, the volatile chemicals detectable by scent. These oils can be removed or extracted from the plants through many methods.
Because essential oils themselves are often very potent and can be damaging if directly applied to the skin, they are usually diluted with water or a so-called “carrier oil” such as olive oil, almond oil, wheat germ oil or others. They may be administered by inhalation of small amounts through the use of candles, diffusers or by skin absorption through the use of bath salts and oils, massage oils, lotions, shampoos and other preparations. Massage actually plays an important synergistic role in enhancing the benefits of the use of essential oils.
Is Aromatherapy Safe During Pregnancy?
The Food and Drug Administration considers perfumes to be cosmetics and has warned that marketing a scent with a preventative or therapeutic claim – as opposed to simply stating the aroma is good and beneficial – would subject it to FDA regulation. This position has not been enforced by the FDA. However, the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA) has taken a leadership role in collecting consumer data about potential harmful effects from the use of undiluted or internal uses of essential oils. This information and report forms are publicly available on their website.
NAHA has issued a conservative recommendation to avoid most aromatherapy uses in the first three months of pregnancy. While there are numerous reports of safe use in pregnancy, controlled studies examining safety are lacking. The Organization of Teratology Information Specialists (OTIS) provides information to healthcare providers and the general public on the safety of various exposures in pregnancy. Members of the general public may call OTIS at 1-866-626-6847 for information in the medical literature about the relative safety of specific essential oil exposures in pregnancy.
Certain essential oils are to be avoided during pregnancy and include:
- Basil oil
- Birch oil
- Cedar oil
- Cinnamon oil
- Clove bud oil
- Cypress oil (avoid in the first two trimesters)
- Fennel oil
- Hyssop oil
- Jasmine oil
- Juniper oil
- Lemongrass oil
- Myrrh oil
- Parsley oil
- Pennyroyal oil
- Peppermint oil
- Rosemary oil
- Sage oil
If a pregnancy is complicated by another health condition (e.g. high blood pressure), other essential oils may be contraindicated. It is always a good idea to do a small patch test of a particular essential oil prior to using it, especially if you tend to have sensitive skin or allergies. Always consult your doctor prior to using aromatherapy in pregnancy. Aromatherapy is never intended as a substitute to traditional prenatal medical care.
Finding an Aromatherapist
Aromatherapists are most often certified or licensed massage therapists, nurses or cosmetologists/estheticians with special training in the use of essential oils. National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy works to define and encourage quality core curriculum of aromatherapy training programs.
National Association for Aromatherapy in Complementary Alternative Medicine is a public group with a subject-specific blog.
Micozzi, Marc S, Ed. Fundamentals of Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2nd Ed. Churchill Livingstone, 2001.